Saturday, July 17, 2004
Do you remember your TA in college? The exhausted looking one who explained everything that the teacher left obscure? The one that joked about his poverty? The one that you or one of your friends may have had a crush on? They were only a few years older than you, after all.
Well in case you didn't know, I'm here to tell you that their lives are a misery. They do nearly all the work that full time faculty does, in addition to trying to write their dissertation, and are paid almost nothing. They are virtually slave labor. A lot of students can't really tell the difference between regular professors and senior level graduate students, except perhaps the lack of burnout or grey hair (although sometimes they have that too).
Universities today are utterly reliant on these low-wage indentured servants. Graduate students can't get any other source of employment, so schools can pay them nothing and give them no benefits. They are paid so little that many have to take out student loans not just to pay their tuition but their rent. Think of the modern college as an academic sweatshop.
Why don't we ever hear about this situation? Because there are not a large number of graduate students in america in absolute terms, and many don't want to get into a fight for fear of losing their chance at a PhD. Which is why it is so brave that there is a movement to unionize graduate students at universities. Predictably, the colleges have fought it tooth and nail, using every underhanded weapon that big companies like Wal-Mart do. But with patience and courage, a lot of schools have been unionized.
Until, that is, the National Labor Relations Board cut the ground out from under them yesterday by classifying graduate students who teach not as employees, but as students. "Teaching students is part of the educational process" they say, except many elite graduate students don't have to teach because they are on fellowships or have research assistantships, and the colleges fail to mention that they profit enormously from this cheap labor. Pretty disgusting, isn't it?
Now the NLRB decision only applies to private universities. Public university graduate students are governed by state law, which is of course usually pretty restrictive. Some states have aborted any graduate student movement by creating one union for both faculty and graduate students. I'm sure you can imagine the difference in interests the two groups have, and which one usually wins out in any confrontation. So a lot of public university graduate students looked with hope to the organizing efforts at places like NYU. And now those hopes have been dashed.
As you might expect, the NLRB reversed a previous ruling supporting the unionization efforts. The change came because of a Republican takeover of the commission. Big surprise.
So the next time you remember how mean your TA was, try to recall that her life was not an easy one. After all, no one expects a slave to be cheerful.