by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Working an auto assembly line? Acting as if you’re working on a college dissertation about some obscure topic? It’s all the same to labor unions chasing dues. Josh Eidelson reports for Bloomberg Businessweek.
Last semester, Paul Katz, a third-year Columbia doctoral student who’s working toward a Ph.D. in 20th century Latin American history, was assigned to help teach and grade an undergraduate course on ancient Greece. He hadn’t studied Greek history since high school, and he took time away from his own dissertation work to prepare for the class. “It’s reasonable to view that as a work assignment that I’d been given, not to pretend that this is about my development as a scholar and teacher,” Katz says. He’s joined other Columbia graduate students in petitioning the federal government for the right to unionize as they seek higher pay and other concessions, including better health benefits, for the teaching and research they do while pursuing their degrees.
The National Labor Relations Board is expected to rule sometime this summer. Katz and his co-workers have petitioned to join the United Auto Workers. The AFL-CIO has also weighed in on their behalf. “They’re providing a service and receiving compensation,” says AFL-CIO general counsel Craig Becker, who served on the NLRB during President Obama’s first term. “It’s up to them to decide whether, even though they’re also students, they think they would benefit from collective bargaining.”
Columbia, which opposes grad student unionization, has won support from all seven of its fellow Ivy League schools, along with Stanford and MIT. The schools joined together in February to file an amicus brief warning that collective bargaining would threaten faculty authority over educational decisions involving undergraduates as well as teaching assistants. “This is viewed as a fundamental issue of academic freedom,” says attorney Joseph Ambash, who wrote the Ivies’ brief.
In its own filing, Columbia compared its graduate assistants to student interns at Fox Searchlight Pictures: A federal court last year ruled the interns don’t have to be paid minimum wage if it can be determined that they benefit more than the company does from their time on the job. “The benefits they receive far outweigh any advantage the University receives from student-performed teaching or research,” Columbia’s attorneys wrote. “[T]he university exercises control for entirely pedagogical purposes.” Columbia declined to comment further.
Perhaps this another sign of the higher education bubble.