Duke University Press
Daniel E. Bender and Dave Kinkela - Thirty Years of Academic Labor: The Language of Anti-Unionism - Radical History Review 79 Radical History Review 79 (2001) 7-13


Thirty Years of Academic Labor:
The Language of Antiunionism

Daniel E. Bender and Dave Kinkela

The last three decades have seen a massive assault on working conditions throughout the American academy. Nationwide, university administrators have dramatically increased their use of part-time teachers, while reducing the number of tenure and tenure-track positions. They have expanded teaching loads for faculty and graduate students alike, while cutting back benefits for all the their employees, including faculty, graduate students, and clerical workers. Issues affecting labor practices at universities today are in many ways a trend that can be traced to financial crises that faced many universities during the 1970s. Universities--confronted with severe budget cuts--refashioned higher education by cutting or eliminating academic programs, reducing employee benefits, all the while consolidating decision-making processes. For example, when New York University--one of the largest private universities in the nation--faced bankruptcy, it sold half of its campus and dramatically cut programs. Likewise, administrators took greater control over academic decisions, which, until that point, were the historic province of schools and departments. The effects of these structural changes remain intact today, as universities across the country explore ways to continue to cut costs, increase profits, and centralize academic and fiscal decisions.

Yet this transformation has not gone unchallenged. The past three decades have seen waves of union organizing among faculty, clerical workers, graduate students, and teaching assistants. In the early 1970s, faculty drives responding to [End Page 7] budget cuts were at the forefront of the academic labor movement. By the 1980s and 1990s, graduate students faced with increasing education costs have emerged as the public face of the academic labor movement. Graduate student unions at the University of Wisconsin and the University of California system, for instance, won impressive contracts that gave graduate assistants significant roles in university governance. These successes aside, academic unionization is moving at a slow pace. Partly, this is the result of employment conditions that favor administrators, namely the glutted labor pool at the faculty level and high turnover at the graduate level. Partly, the slow pace of unionization is the result of how many academic workers see their work in relation to the rest of the economy, for many academics still see their labor as distinct from other kinds of work and thus believe unionization has no place in the academic environment. Such beliefs have strengthened administrators' hands immeasurably during antiunion campaigns. At the University of Minnesota, for example, administrators, with the help of friendly graduate students and faculty, successfully defeated the unionization drives of graduate assistants and faculty by questioning the place of collective bargaining in the university setting.

As graduate student workers and Graduate Student Organizing Committee/UAW members and organizers at New York University, we have experienced firsthand the pressures of an antiunion campaign. In daily conversations with fellow teaching and graduate assistants, we have struggled to counter administrators' arguments about the incompatibility of collective bargaining and academic study. We draw on those experiences in this essay. We explore the language of academic antiunion campaigns and identify its roots in a class-based discourse on professionalism and professionalization. The history of academic labor activism and antiunion campaigns at New York University over the past thirty years serves as an excellent case study of the kinds of arguments faced by graduate students and faculty as they have fought to confirm their status as workers with full bargaining rights. First, we examine how university administrators successfully defeated a faculty organizing drive in the 1970s, and, second, we explore the campaign in opposition to graduate unionizing during the 2000 National Labor Relations Board election, the first of its kind at a private university. In both campaigns university administrators' antiunion campaigns depended on strikingly similar language that stressed the exceptionalism of academic work.

In the 1970s and again in 2000 NYU administrators argued that academic study is above and beyond the world of work, suggesting that academics are not workers with a common cause with blue-collar workers or their unions. Such language has proved potent. It is tied directly into the self-identification of many academics workers--what social theorists Barbara and John Ehrenreich call the "Professional Managerial Class" (PMC). The Ehrenreichs argued that PMC workers are a third class, defined less by economic status or relationship to capital, but more by a discursive position and identity. What is most useful in this essay is its evocation [End Page 8] of professionals as workers, not merely the Ehrenreichs' claim that these workers form a third class. By the nature of their day to day work, PMC workers see themselves explicitly not as laborers, but self-identify with management, that is, with administrators. The Ehrenreichs rightfully identified the relationship between the university and PMC in their article published in 1977 in Radical America, and republished in 1979 in the book Between Labor and Capital, edited by Pat Walker, when they wrote, "The university is the historical reproductive apparatus of the PMC and a historic center for the production of new knowledge, disciplines, techniques, heresies, etc." 1 They argue that knowledge production within universities bolsters the notion of academic exceptionalism since it produces a class of people without an explicitly Marxist class identity--they are neither proletariat nor capital. Thus, many academics have refused to see the place in the university for a form of labor relations that they associate with blue-collar laborers. As organizers we often heard the refrains, "Why should we unionize? I have a wonderful relationship with my faculty advisor"; or "I'm not some line worker"; or "I'm just a graduate student, what do I have in common with an autoworker?" This self-identity was the principal difficulty we faced as organizers, since many in our profession feel that they are part of an "exceptional" academic environment, whose work cannot be defined as labor per se and whose workplace is not set within the corporate model.

Indeed, many academics would go so far as to define their study as unlike the work performed by the PMC in the corporate world, insisting research and teaching are truly "exceptional." In particular, many faculty have argued that they have common cause with administrators because of privileges of tenure and forms of university governance. Some graduate students and faculty have likewise suggested that graduate assistants are laboring not as workers but for their education. Education, by this argument, denies work.

Throughout the past three decades, university administrators have maintained their hold on university governance by stressing and reinforcing in legal precedent the "exceptional" class identities of academics. University administrators continue to point to shared governance and academic intellectual discourse as proof that the academy remains a space above and beyond the hurly-burly of class relations without the hierarchy of the industrial shop floor. For the past three decades, administrators have argued that unions, while potentially beneficial elsewhere, offer nothing but an intrusion of hierarchy and working-class industrial models of collective bargaining, which threaten the foundation of academic exchange.

In 1973, the NYU administration effectively fought a faculty union drive by reminding professors of their voice in university decisions. As then-university President James Hester insisted in a letter addressed to the "members [not 'workers' or 'employees'] of the Faculties," his opposition to unions was not "its economic aims or mode of operation." 2 His opposition was, he argued, based on his faith in the university's policy of "shared governance." The academic institution was exceptional, he [End Page 9] suggested. It depended on the amicable consultation of faculty and administration to shape the twin policies of hiring and study.

Administrators highlighted what they deemed a mutual relationship with faculty. Not only was this the strategy used at other colleges facing efforts at faculty unionization like Seattle University, Manhattan College, and Yeshiva University, but it also was a tactic that exploited a major split within the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), one of the two national groups attempting to unionize NYU faculty. The AAUP was and remains an independent association that hesitates to claim the title "union." Indeed, like many professors at NYU, some national AAUP members felt that strategies appropriate to the disagreeable factory floor were not acceptable to professors; their quiet, individual study as an academic employee set them apart. Thus, Hester played up the conviction that many professors already had that they were exceptional employees with exceptional relationships with administration--a relationship not of antagonism but of shared power within a professional community. As he put it in another letter to the "Members of the Faculties": "Thus, faculty members exercise direct responsibility for the principal activity of the University in a manner that is quite different from the exercise of responsibility by employees in commercial operations. . . . The elected representatives of the faculty, the Faculty Council, are the faculty personnel committee of the University and work directly with the administration in determining policies." 3 A union, according to Hester, would be, not hindering, but "inappropriate," as it disrupted the sense of community.

While shared governance was the key to the 1973 antiunion campaign, academic freedom was the key element to the antiunion discourse in 2000. The two languages are remarkably similar. Soon after an NLRB ruling that allowed graduate students at NYU to hold elections, administrators launched an aggressive, public assault on graduate unionization, claiming that a union would interfere with the "historic province" of the professor-student relationship. As in 1973, they also claimed that unions were fine, even useful, in other circumstances. In a memorandum to the university "community," which laid the groundwork for the administration's antiunion stance, NYU Provost, Harvey Stedman, stressed that "the history of graduate education in general and more specifically doctoral education has been marked by the one-on-one relationship between candidate and faculty mentor." "A union," Stedman continued (and, like Hester, he immediately focused not on economic effects of unionization, but on the academic concerns) "will not improve graduate education here, and . . . will impede our ability to attract excellent graduate students." 4

Throughout the graduate student union drive at NYU, university administrators have activity engaged in an antiunion campaign framed by the simple claim that unions and academics do not mix. University administrators have emphasized the special status of the academy as a bastion of higher learning. They have stressed the [End Page 10] importance of "academic freedom," "communication," and "shared-governance." Stedman issued numerous "updates" to the "University Community," proclaiming "we are an academic community, committed to freedom of speech and the free exchange of ideas." 5

Given the slow pace of academic unionizing, university administrators have been largely successful in claiming that academic unions pose a real threat to academic freedom. They have effectively tied issues, such as employee rights, wage increases, and health benefits, with academic issues, namely those about student mentoring and shared governance. Thus, they have constructed a vision--with the support of some faculty and graduate students--of the university where students, faculty, and administrators are part of an academic "community" with shared academic values. It is in the name of academic freedom that university administrators claim academic work is not fundamentally "work" but part of a shared mission in the pursuit of knowledge.

In many ways, despite nearly three decades of campus protest and academic research on the historical, sociological, literary, and psychological significance of power and class, the stated definition of collegiality and academic community by NYU administrators has varied little. In essence, they have argued, while academics can think and write about power and class, they cannot be conscious of power in their own workplace, or have a class identity within the university. In 1973, NYU administrators stressed their mutual relationships with faculty; in 2000, they professed the sanctity of mentoring. In claiming both as essential to the academic community, they argued that neither could continue in the face of industrial models of bargaining that presumed hierarchies of class and power. In trying to keep these models outside of university gates, administrators sought to define distance between faculty and employees in commercial operations and between graduate students and real employees. Academic work, NYU administrators insisted in 1973 and in 2000, could only be done in a community free from collective bargaining. Thus, Hester claimed to base his antiunion sentiments, not on whether unions could improve the economic situation of faculty, but on what he perceived as an intrusion of the union model into the academic community. "I cannot suppress my doubts," he told faculty, "as to whether an adversarial relationship based on a management labor dichotomy is more appropriate for New York University than a collegial relationship based on shared powers and responsibilities." 6 Similarly, the current Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Dean, Catherine Stimpson, worried that unions "could also cause harm, by imposing industrial models on academic institutions; . . . by sometimes promoting the belief that the union mattered more, and deserved greater allegiance, than the university." 7 In Stimpson's quote there is a continuity of language from 1973. For Stimpson (and, before her, Hester) what was at stake in academic union drives was not the economic fate of the university but the structure of study. The issue of [End Page 11] the GSOC/UAW election was the fate of academic values. In her strident antiunion stance, she claimed to be protecting the "collegial method of governance."

Likewise, NYU administrators, like those at other institutions of higher learning, continue to construct a vision of academics within the framework, the ideology, and the core convictions of the Professional Managerial Class. This self-identification of many academics remains the principal obstacle to organizing. Since the 1970s, universities have been quick to realize the significance of the PMC identity and have fully seized upon it in various antiunion campaigns. In order for academic labor movements to grow and mature, we must contend with this major stumbling block by constructing an alternative identity of academic workers that does not completely discount the nature of academic work, but promotes solidarity with nonacademic industrial and nonindustrial workers.

The usefulness of dissecting the classed language of antiunionism is not to suggest that all academic workers face the same types of pressures, or that academic workers have the identical concerns of blue-collar workers or even of other "professional" employees. To suggest that would lend credence to administrators' claims that international union leadership does not understand the academy. Rather, we argue that the language of professionalism and exceptionalism have not served to consolidate the workplace power of academic employees (as it has done for doctors and lawyers). Instead, it has shielded the consolidation of power by deans, and nonacademic administrators, and most significantly has provided university management with a potent, and all to often successful, issue for antiunion campaigns. As academic labor unionists from graduate students to a new generation of faculty activists look to expand the academic labor movement, they must confront the language and ideology of academic exceptionalism in order to challenge the claim that unions do not belong in the university context. Here at NYU we have begun to make alliances with nonacademic university employees, the New York City Central Labor Council, and with industrial workers. These are first steps in offering solidarity as an alternative to the "collegial method of governance," which has largely protected hierarchies of power and control. In confronting the construction of the professional academic identities we will then begin to challenge the deteriorating conditions of academic work.

Daniel E. Bender is a founding member of GSOC/UAW and is currently completing his Ph.D. at New York University.

Dave Kinkela is a Ph.D. candidate in history at New York University and is a member of GSOC/UAW.


We would like to thank Danny Walkowitz, Ian Fletcher, and the members of the RHR steering Committee. Danny Walkowitz, in particular, read many versions of this article. Finally, we would like to thank the members of the GSOC/UAW for making this history.

1. Barbara and John Ehrenreich, "The Professional-Managerial Class," in Between Labor and Capital, ed. Pat Walker (Boston: South End Press, 1979), 33.

2. James Hester to the members of the faculties, December 1972, New York University Archives.

3. James Hester to the members of the faculties, November 4, 1971, New York University Archives.

4. As quoted in "Statement by NYU Vice President Robert Berne on Decision by the NLRB Regional Director on GA Unionization," http://www.nyu.edu/publicaffairs/newsreleases/b_STATE1.shtml.

5. Harvey Stedman, "An Update on the GA Unionization Issue," March 23, 2000, http://www.nyu.edu/publicaffairs/gradissues/memo6.html.

6. James Hester to the members of the faculties, December 1972, New York University Archives.

7. "Editorial letter from Dean of Science Peter Lennie to the "Washington Square News," http://www.nyu.edu/publicaffairs/gradissues/memo10/html.