What happens when a history professor at Yale opposes a grad union but doesn’t know her history?

It’s not much of a mystery to me why tenured faculty oppose graduate employee unions. What is a mystery is why otherwise intelligent, accomplished, and careful scholars suddenly feel liberated from the normal constraints of argument—reason, evidence, that kind of thing—when they oppose those unions.

Take this recent oped by Valerie Hansen, a professor of history at Yale. In the course of setting out her reasons against the recognition of Local 33 at Yale, Hansen says:

One of the main tools available to unions is to strike. When employees strike at a company, their consumers lose services until management negotiates a new contract with the union. For example, a strike at Metro-North brings the suspension of train service and a decline in revenue until management and employees reach agreement and employees return to work.

So Yale shouldn’t recognize a union of its grad employees because those employees will go out on strike.

Since 1991, by my count, there have been five strikes by Yale’s grad employees: in December 1991, March 1992, April 1995, December 1995-January 1996, and 2003. Five strikes—and probably more—without Yale ever having recognized a union of its grad employees. I know, history.

Oddly, Hansen does go on to mention that Yale’s grad employees have struck in the past (and she should know since she’s been there since 1988), but she doesn’t seem to realize how the evidence she cites undermines her claim: if the fact that grad employees, with a union, would strike is a reason to oppose their unionization, then the fact that grad employees, without a union, have struck, should at least be considered as a reason not to oppose their unionization.

That’s not fancy forensics; it’s actually, um, history.

When Congress and the Supreme Court finally came to terms, in 1935 and 1937, with the idea of a legally recognized right to form unions in the United States, one of the reasons they gave was that workers were already striking and had been striking for some time. While unionized employees might strike, Congress and the Court reasoned that having a legally recognized union would be a way for workers to advance their interests without having to strike. Unions, in other words, would reduce strikes.

It’s right there, in Section 1, of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), the very first sentence, in fact:

The denial by some employers of the right of employees to organize and the refusal by some employers to accept the procedure of collective bargaining lead to strikes….

And then, Congress adds this, in the first sentence of the third paragraph of the NLRA:

Experience has proved that protection by law of the right of employees to organize and bargain collectively safeguards commerce from injury, impairment, or interruption, and promotes the flow of commerce by removing certain recognized sources of industrial strife and unrest…

I know, history.

Another reason Hansen cites for her opposition to a grad employee union is that grad employees “are not full-time” and “being a graduate student is not a lifetime job.” Grad employment is neither full-time nor lifetime: ergo, no union.

Here’s Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act:

Employees shall have the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection…

Notice that that passage doesn’t say “only full-time and lifetime employees shall have the right to self-organization.” Nowhere in all of the National Labor Relations Act in fact does it say that you have to be a full-time worker at a lifetime job in order to have a union.

And how could it? Many workers only work part-time, and many jobs in the new American economy are part-time. The average time at a job in the United States, moreover, is 4.6 years (that’s 1.4 years less, incidentally, than the 6 years that Yale and other universities consider to be the normal time to degree for their graduate students). Does that mean those workers are not entitled to a union? Of course not.

Like I said, I can understand a tenured historian at Yale opposing a union of grad employees. But at the cost of embarrassing herself? That takes real commitment.



  1. yastreblyansky September 10, 2016 at 1:58 pm | #

    Touché. I think she must mean it’s much worse if they strike WITH a union because then she’ll have to think of some more complex rationalization for dismissing them. The status quo is more convenient for her that way.

    • Dan Knauss September 11, 2016 at 6:56 pm | #

      If you’re being mostly sarcastic, I think it’s actually quite literally true. Many people become as spellbound with “rules” and “the law” as young children are, and they cite them as if they are written in the sky as metaphysical verities backed by the gods who will *stop* rulebreakers. It may be a kind of semiconscious rationalization for repressive reactions. The role of popular custom and precedent in common law traditions is one of their defining and most liberating features, yet it’s a foreign and counter-intuitive idea to all who assume “the rules” as imposed by elites are for restraining the masses, no matter what.

  2. Peter September 10, 2016 at 2:30 pm | #

    Corey, this seems to be a willful misreading of the professor’s argument, which nowhere takes the form, “Students cannot unionize because, according the law, they are not X, Y, Z.” The closest she approaches this style of argument would be in the ending, where she states that is it a counterproductive category error to think of graduate students as essentially “employees.”

    The reminder of the article focuses on the effects of unionizing on the relationships held between professors and grad students (“good will” and “mentorship” vs “adversarial relations”), as well as the very nature of teaching and running classes (open-ended hours and needs, who really does the teaching, etc.), as well as the other questions about the nature and compensation for graduate-level employment.

    Quoting the NLRA speaks to none of this, even if every one of those arguments is awful.

    • Corey Robin September 10, 2016 at 2:41 pm | #

      And my blog post nowhere takes the form of “because the law says x, Professor of History must abide by x.” Instead, I take up two out of the many reasons she cites, and use the language of the law to demonstrate why the logic of her claims makes so little sense. And the reason I use the law is b/c it is, in this instance, an artifact of history (passed in 1935), and thus might be something a professor of history would be interested in. I could have used more straightforward evidence to rebut her claims (which I did in the instance of citing the many strikes that have already happened on Yale’s campus), but I thought the historical artifact was more noteworthy, given her profession.

  3. Bart September 10, 2016 at 4:15 pm | #

    Don’t know much about history
    Don’t know much biology
    Don’t know much about science book
    Don’t know much about the French I took…

  4. Tom September 10, 2016 at 5:03 pm | #

    I dont understand why a tenured professor would employ grad student unions. But then, i was denied tenure, so there are a lot of things i dont get.

    But holy f***, being a grad student isnt lifetime employment, therefore you dont need unionz? How about, you waste five yearz of your life getting a professional degree, spend six yearz workin in yer profession, then dont get tenure nad are effectively blackballed from future employment in the profession? Yeah, no one needs unionz here.

  5. Roqeuntin September 10, 2016 at 5:54 pm | #

    I know I probably sound like a broken record going on and on about ideology, but the analysis works for a reason. Ideology exists primarily to justify the current set of economic and productive relationships within a given organization in society. This is the primary concern. Factual accuracy and logical coherence are way, way behind in that race. It’s kind of like religion. The people who spend their days pointing out how absurd its superstitious aspects are, the logical and scientific impossibility of them, are deeply misguided in their approach. All the pieces don’t have to fit, it doesn’t all have to add up, and in many cases it’s better that it doesn’t. At best they’re just pointing to the elephant in the room, that which everyone knows is there but refuses to acknowledge. It’s like they never stopped to think that wallpapering over contradictions was the entire point from the outset.

    I know little about academia, less about Yale, and even less than that about Valerie Hansen. However – and this is probably stating the obvious – her argument points very strongly to her being invested psychologically in the current hierarchy within Yale and probably academia on the whole. Perhaps she fought really hard to claw her way to tenured status (I don’t know if she even has it), and the idea that her struggle would be made meaningless by giving the people who haven’t is just too awful for her to handle. Once again, the main goal is preserving the status and authority she feels the composition of the current hierarchy within Yale grants her.

    • Scott Draper September 11, 2016 at 2:51 pm | #

      “people who spend their days pointing out how absurd its superstitious aspects are, the logical and scientific impossibility of them, are deeply misguided in their approach.”

      That approach won’t reach most people, but it does reach some. It worked with me, eventually.

      • Roqeuntin September 11, 2016 at 10:17 pm | #

        If were talking about religion specifically, which in my particular situation meant protestant Christianity, I’d like to say that it was the logical inconsistency which did it and maybe up to a point it was a factor. The more honest version is that I hated getting woken up and drug somewhere every Sunday morning where you had to be quiet and pay attention for an hour. That’s very hard for a kid, and it doesn’t get any better when you’re a teenager and you’re told pretty much everything fun in life is forbidden. This is a long way of saying there were a whole lot of other factors which were probably more important than portions of the Bible not being accurate of even making a lot of sense.

        To be even more honest about it, I generally think of my parents when I say stuff like that. My Dad was an engineer. He never did give any credence to the ludicrous creation myth presented in the Bible, but none of that really mattered. Church was basically a social club, and for people who grew up in small towns in the Midwest of their generation, church was the definitive institution of the community. Long story short there was zero reward for posing questions and all sorts of bad things which could potentially happen if you did. Sooner or later you just quit caring.

        • Scott Draper September 11, 2016 at 10:43 pm | #

          “hated getting woken up and drug somewhere every Sunday”

          You know, you’re right, I always hated that part. And Church was miserably boring. I found the rational arguments against it when I went looking for them.

          But I have read testimonials by former evangelicals that said cracks in their faith occurred via intellectual conundrums. Often it’s something silly that just didn’t make sense to them and when they started doing research, the whole edifice came tumbling down. Dan Barker of the Freedom From Religion Foundation is one example. Dan loved the church, was a missionary and had a career writing religious music. I had noticed in the past that it’s more often the very religious that are undone by intellect than those of us who were on an irreligious trajectory from an early age.

          • Dan Knauss September 12, 2016 at 4:24 am | #

            You’ve both equated ideology with religion, which is fair if you mean (as you seem to) religion in its formal-institutional expression and its defenses of dogma within a modern rationalist-materialist frame. That’s the frame modern fundamentalisms assume and lay their arguments upon even as they react against it. So yes this is a tenuous type of religion that can indeed be penetrated by arguments about its intellectual coherence. But those counter arguments — and many critiques of ideology in general — can and always have been made from alternative religious standpoints as well.

            The standard account of how religious belief came to be logically incoherent in the modern west is actually broadly accepted by conservative catholic and protestant scholars who take a keen interest in this type of thing. As intellectual history it starts with Amos Funkenstein noting in medieval theology a shift away from an analogical and aesthetic view of theological statements in favor of a nominalist discourse prone to literalism, reductionaism, and reification. In this view, modern empirical science emerges from the latter approach to theology and then kills the host.

          • Scott Draper September 12, 2016 at 1:05 pm | #

            Dan Knauss wrote: “can and always have been made from alternative religious standpoints as well.”

            No doubt, but those viewpoints are often designed to be irrefutable, which has the side effect of making them uninteresting. Rational people give up their beliefs when they’re shown to be ridiculous, but theologians keep reformulating them so they don’t have to. It’s like a man redefining Santa Claus so that he can still believe. An utter waste of intellectual capacity, IMO. When I’m king, I will dissolve the theology departments of all universities.

          • Dan Knauss September 13, 2016 at 8:22 pm | #

            @Scott — Don’t let your experience with Christian, especially Protestant Fundamentalism, lead you to assume everything else in the religion and theology category is about creating “irrefutable” non-falsifiable defenses for Santa Claus. Or are you simply trolling on a blog where what you call “wasted intellectual capacity” is often shown greater respect?

      • rskurat September 16, 2016 at 2:09 am | #

        Pointing out absurdities is very, very satisfying – and work for a few, as you say. But I’m a clinician who occasionally runs into moonbats & batshit crazies with vaccine and diet issues, and my experience has borne out what experiments & surveys have shown; namely, the way to change someones mind is to talk up a better alternative, with pointing out potential problems in second place and direct contradiction a distant third.

        So pointing out that a happy grad student is productive & healthy is best. A structured negotiation is better than a wildcat strike is another tack to take, and of course being able to blame the administration for anything & everything is a big plus.

  6. Larry H September 10, 2016 at 6:39 pm | #

    Well said! It makes zero sense for any academics except right-wing cranks to oppose graduate student unions. “A contented grad student is a productive grad student.” — old saying

  7. Bob Newton September 12, 2016 at 1:03 am | #

    Uh … isn’t this straightforwardly about money … like so many other anti-union campaigns???

  8. decollins1969 September 12, 2016 at 12:42 pm | #

    One of the stranger ironies is that the labor historians I knew at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University also opposed grad student unionization in the 1990s. To a person. Not one saw the hypocrisy in teaching E P. Thompson or Sean Wilentz one minute while treating TAs and RAs like they were preteens the next. Privilege is privilege, even in the ability to separate one’s scholarship from one’s humanity.

    • Dan Knauss September 12, 2016 at 3:36 pm | #

      Yep. I got plenty of paternalistic scolding from progressives and feminists in my last grad program for such offenses as writing articles in the student newspaper about TA+adjunct labor and health insurance, and for mentioning a leaked external review where it was recommended they cut back the 4/4 load for TAs which was compensated at $12-14k at the time on a contract basis. We were not employees technically, so they’d hand out COBRA pamphlets for gap-filling insurance that cost more than anyone was paid, and the tax position stank. We actually ended up with an audit later for a year we were on welfare and WIC because an accountant friend had treated the TA “stipend” as employment income.

  9. Steve White September 23, 2016 at 8:50 pm | #

    Unions provide a service to management, overall, by paying a decent wage, management is able to attract “good” or “better” workers who become union members. Management has an ‘excuse’ to top management for paying decent wages, the big bad union forced them to. Result : secure workers, with a more professional attitude, and pride in their work.

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