When Professors Oppose Unions

Rick Perlstein has a great piece on how faculty respond to grad student unions.

He quotes at length from a letter that a professor of political science at the University of Chicago sent to graduate students in his department who are trying to organize a union there.

What always amuses me about these sorts of statements from faculty is how carefully crafted and personal they are—you can tell a lot of time and thought went into this one—and yet somehow they still manage to attain all the individuality of a Walmart circular. No union contract was ever as standardized or as cookie-cutter as one of these missives. The very homogenization and uniformity that faculty fear a union will foist upon their campus is already present in their own aversion.

Anyway, here’s what the good professor has to say:

First off, let me preface these remarks by saying that when I was in graduate school at Berkeley in the 1990s, I was very active in the graduate student unionization movement. I was shop steward for the political science department for several years and was very active in a three week campus wide teaching strike we held in the fall of 1992. It may also be worth mentioning that I come from a working class family (I was the first and only person in my family to go to college) and I grew up around a lot of issues of collective bargaining. So I’m highly sympathetic to issues of collective action.

The I-come-from-a-working-class-background-my-dad-was-in-a-union-my-aunt-fucked-Walter-Reuther-I-organized-the-workers-at-Flint-this-may-come-as-a-surprise-but-I-actually-am-Cesar-Chavez opening. Check.

That said, I found your co-signed letter to be naive, unconvincing, and, quite frankly, kind of offensive. It is naive in that you seem to really think a union would not change relationships between graduate students and the faculty. I don’t know if either of you have ever been members of a union or worked in a unionized environment, but unions inevitably alter the relationships between union members and the people the interact with, be they management, clients, customers, or what not. The formalization of such relationships is, in fact, the central goal of a union. Your letter says “Our goal is simply to gain a voice in the decisions that affect our working conditions.” Well, these decisions are largely made by the faculty. Thus, if you want a collectivized voice in these decisions, you will be unavoidably shaping your relationships to faculty members.

We make all the decisions around here. Check. (Ask that professor if he even knows how much you make as a TA; they almost never do, though this one seems to. One point for research.)

The union will screw up your very close and personal relationship with your adviser. Check.

Oddly, when you point out that relationships between students and professors at Berkeley, Michigan, and Wisconsin, all of which have unions, are not that different from relationships between students and professors at Chicago, Yale, and Harvard, these peer institutions that these professors would be thrilled to get their students a job at suddenly become tarred with that dreaded word “public” or even worse “state school.”

And when you ask these professors to explain, concretely, why it makes a difference that Berkeley is public and Chicago is private, a thoughtful look will inevitably descend upon them, as they slowly emit the following carefully chosen words: “Well, it’s different at Berkeley. They’re a public university.”

What’s more egregious is the fact that most of the faculty I know do not think of interns [the University of Chicago’s term for teaching assistants] as employees but think of the internship as another educational experience.

You’re students, not workers. Check.

Though this one has a novel twist: we, the faculty, think of you as students, not workers.

And just like that, our hard-bitten empiricist turns into the most starry-eyed constructivist.

And now comes the climax.

Every year there are hundreds of applicants for a very small number of slots to study here. You are very lucky to be here, just as I am very lucky to teach here. When you were admitted to the university, you were not hired. You were offered a spot as a student. The university owes you nothing beyond what it initially proposed and what you accepted. To call yourself an employee and complain about an absence of cost-of-living adjustments, health insurance, or the burdens of being a graduate student…sounds both presumptuous and petulant.

You’re privileged, presumptuous, and petulant. Check.

I, on the other hand, am…just another tenured professor at a fancy school. Saying what every other tenured professor at a fancy school has said to any one of his students who managed to tell him that she wanted to form a union too.

Check check check.

Academia: the herd of independent minds.


  1. MF December 4, 2013 at 8:49 pm | #

    Probably a silly question, but what do these professors get out of this? I mean, I can see why the ownership of a business and the managers who carry out orders from them would oppose unionization of course. But aren’t these professors fairly independent and secure, how do they lose from grad student unions? I don’t know what conclusion to draw other than that they’re pure tools.

    • bystander December 4, 2013 at 8:59 pm | #

      If my experience as a GTA is relevant, the answer to your question might be the union’s negotiation of working conditions. Working conditions are something the faculty does have some control over. How many sections you TA, how many papers to grade in X amount of time, what kind of office hours you are required to have….

    • Erstwhile Anthropologist December 5, 2013 at 9:13 am | #

      Power. They get power. A deep sense of superiority, which should not be underestimated as a powerful motivator and *deeply embodied* emotional investment.

      We need to have more conversations about symbolic capital and the psychic -affective-emotional benefits of hierarchy. And yes, in the case symbolic capital is also linked to financial remuneration: this UofC prof is making A LOT more than his TAs. But it’s not just the money itself, it’s how good it feels to know you’re making more money because you are deemed more valuable.

      Sadly, in the kind of hierarchical and unjust society we live in, crapping on people feels good, as does knowing there’s someone ‘below’/’beneath’ you.

      Corey, are you familiar with Rebecca Schuman’s writing, her conversations online with the likes of Sarah Kendzior and Warner Herzog’s Bear on ‘lifeboaters’? I kept thinking of the term as I read your post.

    • bitman August 29, 2016 at 12:54 pm | #

      Since this got revisited thx to Heer: the faculty get precisely what they most want: to offload the teaching responsibilities that fund the university. Some graduate students need teaching experience, but they don’t need to be teaching 4-5-6 courses a term while they’re supposed to be researching their dissertations. They do so, for years often, bc the tenured faculty prefer that state of affairs to actually having to teach large loads themselves. That simple.

      Tenure is viewed as a means to keep teaching from interfering with your research and travel. The grad and part time faculty are responsible for the industrial-scale teaching that keeps the wheels greased at the large universities. Everyone understands this, and nothing is done about it.

  2. Stephen Zielinski December 4, 2013 at 9:15 pm | #

    I twice attended a public university. I ended my time as a student at a private university. During my time at a public university, the president of the university decided — rather, was told by state administrators and legislators — to cut operational costs, which meant, of course, the elimination of tenured faculty positions. The faculty union fought back. Some faculty members sought to protect their interests, some followed a path of collective self-defense while others were dumbfounded that they needed to support a union and faced future unemployment if the administration was successful. The faculty union managed to negotiate a settlement that amounted to a large give back to the state. Departments cut hours, some of which came at the expense of a job or two. Scores were also settled, but some departments conserved jobs by adjusting workloads. The whole business was ugly, speaking from the perspective of a student. But it was Reagan’s time. Local industry was left to rust and the PATCO fiasco gave us a new normal for state-labor union relations.

    But my time at a private university taught me that higher education was a racket when evaluated in economic terms. A fellow student who briefly taught at a trade school once pointed out that the business model at our private university differed little from that he knew when teaching at the for-profit trade school. I suppose one difference between the two appeared in the different number of prima donnas one could find at the private school and the trade school.

  3. Phil Perspective December 4, 2013 at 9:23 pm | #

    He quotes at length from a letter that a professor of political science at the University of Chicago …

    You could have just stopped there. I knew it wasn’t going to end well.

  4. Joanna Bujes December 4, 2013 at 10:44 pm | #

    What an unbelievably awful letter. It makes me wonder why the fellow felt the need to trumpet his working class credentials. I mean, obviously, they made no difference.

    • Glenn December 4, 2013 at 11:28 pm | #

      He just needed to explain that resistance is futile, as exemplified by his own experience.

      That as he has surrendered, so shall you.

      That slavery is freedom.

  5. Thomas Nephew December 5, 2013 at 12:13 am | #

    This reminds me of a thing I’ve observed: “I’m a card-carrying member of the ACLU, but [insert betrayal of civil liberties principle here].” It’s like they acquired their past specifically to be able to theatrically shed it when push comes to shove.

  6. Richard Beck December 5, 2013 at 3:32 am | #

    Linguistic Analysis: “naïve”: this word is code for…I’ve kissed enough ass in my life to get where I’m at; you, too, must kiss ass to earn your bones. “unconvincing”: this is code for…don’t make me think too hard about how I’ve sold my soul for the comforts of life that I probably don’t deserve and am scared to death to lose. “and, quite frankly, kind of offensive.”…is a feminine construction: a construction that is used to avoid conflict or offending, that is, the more modifiers one places before a verb or an adjective the greater the distance the speaker is from what he/she is saying, asking, or intending on doing…this is a difference between the speech of men and women and also between subordinate and authority. For example, “Do it.” as opposed to “Do you think you might be able to do it?” Hence, the writer is revealing that he/she wants to be an authority on the issue based upon experience but is excusing him/herself from the moral position. Although he/she has switched codes in an attempt to appear sensitive (quite frankly rather than just frankly) and tolerant (kind of offensive rather than just offensive), he/she is acting (writing) to justify his/her abdication of the moral imperative in favor of self-interest. The U of Chi. professor’s letter would have better served us if written as an informational piece rather than as a confessional one…”Mea culpa, mea culpa, Look what I have become.”

    • dn3s August 24, 2016 at 5:23 pm | #


  7. JTFaraday December 5, 2013 at 8:59 am | #

    “He also said the grad-student-union organizers’ arguments were “unconvincing because you do not specify any significant hardships regarding your ‘working’ conditions”—that word, working, was in quotes”

    Well, here’s the cognitive dissonance I always have with this issue and I’ve worked as a TA, as instructor of record in writing classes starting my first semester as a grad student, one of the more demanding assignments.

    After a while, I left and decided to pay for my education if I had to. I know this is not a typical course of action, especially because I’m not rich. I wouldn’t say the TA assignment, and my questions about whether I was qualified to do it, was the primary reason I left. I would call the primary reason “political.” I must insist people not dictate my politics to me.

    I’ve also worked in an academic department in “real jobs” where I got all the behind the music fodder a human being could possibly handle and had real jobs in “the real world,” with very little flexibility, and no paid apprenticeship allowance. I’ve also worked out of my house and car, where I had a lot of flexibility, although I imagine people in similar roles today have a lot less due to various electronic shackles. When all is said and done, that was probably my “best paid” gig. My classroom experience was somewhere in the middle of all this.

    The problem I have with the way this whole discussion usually goes is that while grad students can become very skilled over the course of their education, there is nothing that qualifies most people to step into the classroom right off the street corner.

    I know that how this happens is institutionally complicated—and no small part of that story is the fact that “faculty make decisions about work assignments” and that they’ve effectively written themselves out of introductory courses at a lot of schools that train graduate students, leaving a managerial problem for the very same administration they like to blame for everything—but there is a case to be made that there is a difference between entering students and graduating students that is being completely distorted by the business practices of the university.

    These practices also effectively deprofessionalize teaching, when teaching is done by kids pulled off street corners and tossed in classrooms. This doesn’t help teachers anywhere, and they are currently under attack everywhere. So, in the end you’re left with a case of having inexperienced people doing “real jobs” badly, at least initially, or inexperienced people doing what we might call “parts of jobs” as faculty helpers, which faculty probably think this help is worth about 10 dollars an hour.

    None of this (and more) is the fault of graduate students, but it’s never really been clear to me how you’re supposed to compensate them fairly with reference to other stakeholders at the institution, including tuition paying undergraduate students. It’s a lot easier if you say, “Well, they gave me free tuition, and now, what do I need to live on?” but nobody looks at it that way except the grad students—and the unions.

    These Chicago faculty persons are almost certainly hypocritical entitled @sses who contribute to institutional problems without bestirring themselves to consider resolutions, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t real questions to ask about current institutional arrangements with reference to graduate students. Unions, of course, don’t ask these questions because they’ve already assumed the answers they bring from other contexts.

    I’ve also never understood why the UAW, with its cut and dried view of work, didn’t go unionize service workers, with their cut and dried working conditions. I would think you have a clearer path to success there. And, having participated in the devolution of the industrial workforce, shouldn’t they have gotten busy putting a new floor under all of American labor?

    Walmart, maybe?

  8. Roquentin December 5, 2013 at 9:48 am | #

    Remember your Aristotle. There are 3 ways to use rhetoric to convince someone: ethos, pathos, and logos. When you hear someone start off the argument establishing an identity (in this case, that of a working class person) it is often because they other parts of the argument, emotion and logic, are quite weak. This is why “I’m a really sincere ______, but……” is such a commonplace to argue precisely against what is in the ________.

    After saying the above, I’m going to quite ironically state my identity as a washout from a humanities department. I was rejected from grad school on several occasions, but in the end I suppose it was for the best. To work so hard for 5 years to be paid $20k a year as an adjunct (if you’re even lucky enough to find that) with no benefits or holidays is highway robbery. To hell with the university system. I get so contemptuous when people act as if academia is an alternative to working in the private sector, to business. The university is run by money the same way that any corporation is. That argument may have held water 50 years ago, but it certainly doesn’t now. I actually feel a little embarrassed that I ever wanted to in the first place now. This is pure anecdotal, but the only people who suggest I try to go back or that grad school is good are those who have never been. Anyone I know who has can’t speak about it negatively enough.

  9. Brendan Walsh December 5, 2013 at 11:22 am | #

    We should dig up a letter from 20 years ago, and 10 years ago for comparison, and figure out how to push this story out forward. I still cannot stomach this bullshit

    From: Corey Robin <comment-reply@wordpress.com> Reply-To: Corey Robin <comment+r38qziuko8tj1tbv3ya3mp8@comment.wordpress.com> Date: Wednesday, December 4, 2013 5:00 PM To: Brendan Walsh <bwalsh@unitehere.org> Subject: [New post] 5246

    Corey Robin posted: “Rick Perlstein has a great piece on how faculty respond to grad student unions. He quotes at length from a letter that a professor of political science at the University of Chicago sent to graduate students in his department who are trying to organize a u”

  10. Sheldon December 6, 2013 at 11:49 am | #

    “The union will screw up your very close and personal relationship with your adviser. Check.”

    Ahh…. This line touched my heart. As a Ph.D. student drop-out that had nothing to do with unionization, but still having my adviser ignore my numerous requests to give recommended revisions to my MA thesis, which I never got by the way, stunting my professional career, this just warms my fucking heart to the point of explosion. How I cherished our close and personal relationship….

  11. Peter Hovde December 6, 2013 at 3:24 pm | #

    Ah, the old “my-aunt-fucked-Walter-Reuther” line. Awesome.

  12. Madrona Bark December 9, 2013 at 12:33 pm | #

    The faculty ignorance of the power relationships that graduate students navigate is just plain sad. The Chicago professor claims that decisions about wages and working conditions of graduate students “are largely made by the faculty.” But that is plainly false. Faculty don’t set salaries, and they don’t establish health benefits– these are university-wide policies handled by HR, and the income received by graduate students is taxed as income by government, giving the lie to the notion that they graduate students aren’t workers. Faculty don’t bargain with HR to set the wages and benefits of grad students. Allowing students to do so changes nothing about the faculty-student relationship.

    Other feared changes in the faculty-student relationship are minimal and largely for the better. For instance teaching assistants can have their hours capped at 20/week, and complaints about bad faculty behavior like sexual harassment are handled by arbitration rather than in-house by a department run by faculty. It doesn’t bureaucratize the faculty-student relationship as much as it professionalizes it. Most faculty have nothing to fear from that. But there are a few who abuse their students with impunity. Perhaps this professor is one, and that is why he seems so rattled by the notion that he might not be the absolute arbiter of professional standards for employing graduate students to teach and do research for him.

  13. Barbara Winslow August 24, 2016 at 8:13 am | #

    One other very good reason for unionization is protection from and ability to fight back against sexual harassment. Female graduate students (and some males as well) are a group most likely to experience sexual harassment from their professors.

  14. Mike Budd August 25, 2016 at 1:46 am | #

    Most university professors support grad assistant organizing, since most university professors don’t teach at elite institutions. They understand that unions actually make the institution work better and attract better grad students. Administrators, on the other hand, mostly oppose any kind of union — not only because it reduces their arbitrary and capricious power, but because any union is an obvious sign of their many failures.

  15. Mike Cushman August 25, 2016 at 8:48 am | #

    Part of my responsibilities as a trade union branch officer officer at a research intensive UK university is representing GTAs and other PhD students working for the university. Part of my work is negotiating collective agreements on work loads and pay but me of it is casework.

    The attitude of this unnamed professor is what underlies the experience of bullying that is the too frequent experience of GTAs. Without a union to represent them employees are voiceless when they experience bullying and unfair demands, the union gives them a voice and agency in a situation where they are forced to be passive.

    This is of course why faculty join the union themselves to protect themselves from the same behaviour from those further up the hierarchy. They have permanent contracts and feel vulnerable why do they not see that those clinging to the edge need the same, and more, protection.

  16. b. August 25, 2016 at 12:13 pm | #


  17. Felicity Palmer August 25, 2016 at 2:09 pm | #

    Another example of the “The I-come-from-a-working-class-background-my-dad-was-in-a-union-my-aunt-fucked-Walter-Reuther-I-organized-the-workers-at-Flint-this-may-come-as-a-surprise-but-I-actually-am-Cesar-Chavez” cliche can be found in the final paragraph of a six-page anti-union, “Vote No” letter sent by then-Provost Jonathan R. Cole to all 1,500-odd Columbia University graduate student TAs and RAs in the lead-up to the NLRB election of March 2002:

    “As a child, I witnessed my father, who was a professional actor, work for the creation of a strong actors’ union, Actors Equity, for which he was blacklisted during the McCarthy period. He worked for an important and worthy cause. I admired him for that, and I certainly appreciate my colleagues in the faculty and among our graduate students who believe that unionization would be appropriate for students. Clearly, I do not believe that either our graduate students or larger academic community will benefit from unionization.”

    Reading this as a graduate student at the time I was embarrassed for him and thought, gosh his Dad must be rolling in his grave.

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