Honey, I’ve been slowly boring hard boards longer than you’ve been alive.

As I reported yesterday, the National Labor Relations Board has ruled that graduate student workers are employees with full rights to organize a union. And today, the New York Times came out in favor of the decision in the strongest of terms.

It’s hard for me to express what this means to me and scholars of my generation. (I apologize in advance for this trip down memory lane. As I said on Facebook the other day: the earth belongs to the living, this moment belongs to today’s grad student, not yesterday’s).

As long-time readers of this blog know, I was actively involved in the TA organizing drive at Yale for about a decade. Reading the Times editorial, in fact, I recalled that the first time my name appeared in the Times, almost a quarter-century ago, was as a union activist at Yale.

When we were organizing in the early 1990s—and some of my friends were doing this back in the 1980s, if not earlier—a labor union for grad students seemed to so many people like the most outrageous proposition in the world. Graduate students weren’t workers; they were privileged (apparently, only the wretched of the earth deserve a union). Anyone supporting the union had to be some kind of poseur, trying to pretend they were part of the working class. I know it seemed that way to me when I got to graduate school. Everyone—from the smug sophomore writing his articles for the Yale Daily News to the pompous professor, who was sure he knew what his graduate students really wanted and needed, to the president, alumni, and trustees—everyone was sure that the idea was nonsense. Everyone except the dedicated men and women in GESO—now Local 33!—and their allies in Locals 34 and 35.

And here we are today. Suddenly that opinion—held only by a militant minority, an opinion deemed by the respectable to be extreme, radical, outrageous, nonsensical, absurd—is common sense. Even the New York Times, which recruits many of its reporters and editors from the Yale Daily News, believes it.

Some people look upon this turnabout and think, yay, Obama! Others, remember the years and decades of struggle that went into it, and think, this is what collective action is all about. This is how whatever modicum of civilization we’ve managed to achieve in this country was created. This is how patient and pressing you have to be if you want to see anything good come into this world.

Which is why, incidentally, I get so irritated when that Realist—be he 25 or 55—decides to lecture me about the long slog, the Weberian increments, that progress requires. Honey, I’ve been slowly boring hard boards longer than you’ve been alive.


  1. Rosalind Petchesky August 25, 2016 at 11:38 am | #

    This is great, Corey – and wonderful to know you were part of that Yale struggle for so long. Just a reminder, however, that our efforts to organize faculty – full-time as well as part-time – in union struggles for years in the NJ state college system and at CUNY were met with similar contempt – the attitude, even among some of our colleagues, that college professors couldn’t possibly be “workers” and that identifying with the labor movement was somehow demeaning. So, hurray for you (and many of us) for being there way back when and hurray for the NYT for finally catching up.
    Ros Petchesky

  2. escott August 25, 2016 at 2:17 pm | #

    “I get so irritated when that Realist—be he 25 or 55—decides to lecture me about the long slog, the Weberian increments, that progress requires.”

    Change has a contradicting dual nature.
    Yes it’s incrementally slow. But it needs to be worked every day, like the world will change that day. Otherwise there’s no change. It requires impatience and patience together.

  3. Roquentin August 25, 2016 at 2:31 pm | #

    Keep fighting the good fight. The abysmal pay was decisive in my decision not to pursue academia further. It’s not like there was much opportunity to start with, but the older I got, going to school for an additional 4 years to get a salary which wouldn’t keep you above the poverty line was just too bad to pursue.

    Hopefully, at long last the neoliberal take over of the university can be reversed.

  4. The Polemicist August 25, 2016 at 3:10 pm | #

    I was involved in trying to organize a Graduate Student Union at UC San Diego in the 70s. We met with the UC Board of Regents and then and future Governor Jerry Brown, on the day Patty Hearst, whose mother was on the Board, was captured. The effort fizzled out as the Administration gave in on a lot of the economic demands, but held fast on refusing to recognize us as a union, and waited for the leaders to go away (as students inevitably do). The conditions on the campus were favorable for that strategy. So, wow, does this mean something to me.

  5. Marie Monaco August 25, 2016 at 3:36 pm | #

    Now it is time for faculties at private universities, like NYU, to follow the lead of their graduate students and unionize. And the tenured faculty should lead the fight while it still has a modicum of protection.

  6. nihil obstet August 25, 2016 at 4:53 pm | #

    The change in attitude mirrors the change in situation. Up through the 60’s, graduate students were virtually guaranteed a decent job in academics upon completing significant graduate course work. Through the 80’s there was still a good chance of an academic job upon completion of the advanced degree. The two to four years as a teaching assistant could be considered an apprenticeship. Not as good as a fellowship, but you could finish the degree without incurring significant debt and then get a what was a quite pleasant above average middle class job. That’s what made graduate students privileged.

    By the mid-eighties, graduate students were no longer guaranteed the good job after a few years, and that does change everything. If the university can’t place its apprentices in the guild, they’re no longer apprentices — they’re members of the working class.

  7. louisproyect August 26, 2016 at 8:10 am | #
  8. rhonda lieberman August 26, 2016 at 9:30 am | #

    I’ve enjoyed this site and never thought I’d comment, but I can’t resist sharing a little pre-history of this long overdue moment of vindication for academic workers. I was one of the instigators of ‘T. A. Solidarity’ at Yale in 1984. Yes, I even wrote a manifesto ‘A spectre is haunting Yale, the spectre of T.A. Solidarity’ and rabble roused at our first meetings of grad students, all in the humanities/social sciences, all working hard as T.A.s for a pittance while going through the hurdles of the Ph.D. We saw the dire job market and realized there was no job security or decent pay on the horizon after years and years of sunk effort. And debt. In 1985 we picketed commencement. Our placards: ‘You can’t eat prestige’, ‘A penny for my thoughts’. We discussed whether to sport student debt numbers like Hester Prynne’s badge of shame, but that was too avant-garde at the time. I was bemused it became a familiar sight at recent commencements. A mere 30 years later!

    (The New Journal, vol. 19, no. 6, April 17, 1987. cover image: academic wretch slumped over ‘Being and Time’, dirty ashtray and coffee in machine city at the cross campus library. caption: ‘A spectre is haunting Yale: the spectre of T.A. solidarity’).

    I got a crash course in organizing: it amazed me that so many of my peers refused to accept the material conditions of their work situation. They were invested in identifying with the institution that was clearly exploiting their good will and hard work. Even though they were living like proles, going through hoop after hoop and seeing highly accomplished peers struggle for crumbs in an increasingly bleak job market, T.A.s who had always been docile achievers within the system were hard-pressed to realize the institution whose prestige they hoped would protect them had thrown them into the weenie version of the ‘hunger games’. And collective action was the only remedy.

    I remember pitching this story to a New Yorker editor in the ’90s and it simply did not compute for him, incomprehensible that grad students at Yale are ‘oppressed’ and in need of collective action. (Didn’t we all have trust funds?) Needless to say, many of my peers internalized the horrid job market as personal failure. I’ve seen the best minds of my generation (ha!) waste prime years of productivity struggling in this exploitative system.

    The T.A. situation was only an appetizer for the disgraceful replacement of tenure lines by adjunct gigs. Adjuncts need to unionize yesterday. It is an ongoing scandal that 70% of university teaching is now precarious labor. Nobody goes into the humanities to get rich. We just wanted to learn, teach and write for a living wage. All of that good will is exploited by the institution that sees adjuncts as an excellent cheap labor supply. It has been harrowing to live through the dismantling of higher education by neo-liberalism. And poignant, thirty years later, to have this bit of vindication.
    Academic workers unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains!

    Rhonda Lieberman

    • Corey Robin August 27, 2016 at 1:59 pm | #

      Thanks for this, Rhonda! Really enjoyed reading it. And thanks for your leadership all those years ago!

  9. thump August 26, 2016 at 1:48 pm | #

    Thanks for this trip down memory lane (and for the news) from someone involved with AGSE at Univ of CA in about the same time frame as you, who is coincidentally wearing his old Yale People’s Commencement t-shirt (I was not at Yale; shirt was a gift).

  10. decollins1969 August 29, 2016 at 7:26 am | #

    Corey, yes, I do remember the 1990s and your work then. While this victory isn’t yours, so to speak, your work and the work of so many others paved the way for this victory. But, as Winston Churchill would say, this is only the end of the beginning, as others in and around academia still need to organize.

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