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The NYU Graduate Assistants and Unions in Higher Education

Clayton Sinyai

Rutgers University

March 22, 2001
On March 1, only hours before a threatened strike by New York University's graduate teaching and research assistants, word arrived that the administration had agreed to recognize and bargain with the graduate assistants' union. The historic agreement places NYU graduate assistants in the forefront of a national organizing movement by contingent faculty in defense of both decent working conditions and academic values on the university campus.

The agreement followed a three-year fight by graduate assistants there for union organization. Last spring the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that graduate assistants were university employees entitled to union representation if they wished, and held a representation election. 

The university appealed the NLRB decision. Not until November would it become known that the graduate assistants had chosen representation by the United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2110. (The UAW might seem a curious choice, but in fact represents graduate assistants on a number of other campuses, most prominently in the University of California system.) Even then the administration continued to balk, despite the issuance of an NLRB complaint against NYU for refusal to bargain. Only after a public campaign by the union, a strike threat and back-channel negotiations did the university agree to recognize and negotiate with the graduate assistants.

The organizing effort of the NYU graduate students is not an isolated case but part of a rising tide of union organizing among instructional employees on university campuses. Part of this can perhaps be attributed to the rapprochement between the AFL-CIO and its member unions on the one hand and the academy on the other. Organized labor, in a bid to renew its mission as a social movement rather than an interest group, has reached out to academics, religious groups and social activists. 

The university campus has reflected this outreach with a proliferation of student activist groups like United Students against Sweatshops (USAS), Student Labor Action Coalitions (SLACs), and Scholars, Artists and Writers for Social Justice (SAWSJ), as well as with increased campus labor organizing activity. The graduate students' campaign for recognition included a visit to NYU president L. Jay Oliva by AFL-CIO President John Sweeney to weigh in on the students' behalf.

The main reason for the leap in organizing activity, however, is to be found in the changing face of higher education itself. University administrations, under pressure to reduce costs, are transferring more and more of their undergraduate teaching responsibilities out of the hands of expensive tenured faculty to lower-cost graduate assistants and adjunct faculty.
The case of “part-time” adjunct faculty is especially striking. Traditionally, such adjunct faculty were successful professionals in their fields who would teach an occasional course for a small stipend and in the process enriched the university with "real-world" experience. Today, too many universities see adjuncts -- who are typically paid two or three thousand dollars per course and receive no benefits -- as inexpensive substitutes for full-time tenured faculty. Adjunct positions are often filled by Ph.D.s who though nominally part-time actually cobble together a full-time course load at half the salary (or less) of a full-time tenured professor. Adjuncts who made up less than a quarter of all faculty in 1970 are about half of all faculty today.

The effects of this 'casualization' of university education, as it has come to be known, cannot but be deleterious in its effects on the university's educational mission. When less than half the instructional faculty at the university are protected by tenure (even many full-time professors are in temporary positions) academic freedom is at least in principle endangered. On a more nuts and bolts level, practical concerns dictate that contingent faculty cannot provide undergraduates the kind of educational experience they would get from regular contact with full-time tenured professors. Are adjuncts who may teach courses on two or three university campuses, and graduate students who after all are students themselves, likely to offer undergraduates adequate academic counseling and advising? Will they have the time and energy for excellence in the classroom?

Research assembled by Rich Moser of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) suggests the answer is no. (The AAUP is a professional association of university faculty that engages in collective bargaining, but is not affiliated with the AFL-CIO). 30% of part-time faculty in the liberal arts reported no scheduled office hours; they were 50% less likely to require essay exams than full-time faculty. Adjuncts and graduate students who deliver quality instruction do so in spite of their conditions of employment, Moser argues.
Kimberly Johnson, an NYU teaching assistant, agrees, and hopes that unionization can help. Stipends averaging $13,000 per year are simply not enough to live on in New York City, and students are obliged to seek outside jobs to supplement their incomes. "When you have graduate students who aren't working three or four jobs they can focus on their teaching work," Johnson says.

The standard objections to campus unionization, offered by university administrations the nation over, have revolved around a simple fundamental point: higher education is not a business. Collective bargaining is appropriate to workers in private enterprise but does not belong in universities whose purpose is not to accumulate profits but foster learning.
But the increasing use of contingent instructional faculty suggests that the university has already gone a long way toward adopting business modes of behavior. Instrumental budgetary calculations that assess teaching as a service to be provided at the lowest possible cost loom so large as to imperil the university's mission of delivering quality education and furthering the pursuit of knowledge. And the intrusion of for-profit educational institutions like the University of Phoenix will only increase the competitive pressures that drive this transformation. 

Many activists in faculty unions think that the best response is a blunt acknowledgement of these developments. Barbara Bowen, the new activist president of the Professional Staff Congress -- a union representing CUNY faculty, full-time, part-time and graduate assistants -- has told supporters of university labor, "Academics are workers and we must learn to defend ourselves as workers. This is a difficult psychological leap for us to make."

This position captures important realities about trends in American higher education, but it fails to note how different academics are from the workers whom American unions have historically served. Where for most people a job is an unpleasant task they perform mainly to obtain a paycheck, the university teacher is moved by a love of teaching or learning or both. This is certainly true of the adjunct instructor or graduate student who pursues this vocation in spite of an unfriendly labor market which offers poor prospects for future prosperity.
But this motivation is precisely why the stated fears of administrators that collective bargaining in the academy will endanger the university's academic mission are almost certainly groundless.

NYU had tried to persuade the NLRB, and the public, that graduate assistants were not eligible for the right to organize in unions because they were students rather than workers. For instance, they had been recruited not on the basis of mundane employment concerns but rather, said NYU VP for Academic and Health Affairs Robert Berne, "were chosen for their academic credentials and promise." As the NLRB rejected this argument and public pressure mounted, however, the university continued to resist bargaining with the students. They held that academic issues might be introduced to collective bargaining to the detriment of the university's academic mission -- putting NYU in the difficult position of arguing that graduate students chosen for their "academic credentials and promise" were likely to make demands that would hurt the university's educational mission.

In the event, NYU and the UAW agreed to move forward with negotiations under a shared understanding that a number of academic decisions, such as the structure and content of curriculum, would be excluded from the bargaining table. University officials point to this agreement rather than the strike threat as the breakthrough that allowed negotiations to begin.
But the larger point remains. Graduate students and adjunct instructors don't seek goals against the university's mission but in fulfillment of it. Only a thoroughgoing organization of contingent faculty can begin to remove the economic incentive universities confront to pursue short-term economic efficiencies at the expense of more enduring educational ends. Tenured faculty, adjunct faculty, and graduate assistants are all deeply committed to the mission of the university and the university is more likely to be enhanced than eroded when they gain the power of union organization.

Collective bargaining for adjunct faculty and graduate students will be a bitter pill for university administrators to swallow but it is in the best interests of higher education. Though critics fear it will turn the college into a business, union organization actually offers the best prospect for conserving academic values.

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