The Lean, Mean University

Against the Current, No. 70, September/October 1997

The Editors

A NATIONAL LABOR Relations Board ruling last year confirmed a reality of which university students and faculty are increasingly, and painfully, aware.  The NLRB ruling declared that graduate student teaching assistants at Yale University are, in fact, employees of the Yale Corporation not just professional “apprentices” as Yale had claimed.

Yale had waged an assault on its own students, coinciding with a campaign to outsource and eliminate the jobs of unionized food service workers on campus.  In both fights the University displayed unwavering commitment to its corporate mission: No less than the rest of corporate America Yale wants an institution that is a lean, mean profitable machine.

In this issue of Against the Current and the following one, we explore some of the facets of the university of the 1990s and the movements that are confronting it—from the assaults on affirmative action which opened the doors to long-excluded sectors of the population, to the ever—expanding replacement of full-time stable faculty positions by a super-exploited casual labor force of part- time teachers.

Ever since the 1960s, student activism—taking different shapes at different moments—has incorporated an analysis of the university’s relationship to the imperatives of global capital.  In the Berkeley Free Speech Movement (FSM) of 1964, the most elementary right to collect money in support of the civil rights movement collided head on with the “mission” conceived by University of California President Clark Kerr.

That mission (a far-sighted one, in its own reactionary way) was to directly serve the needs of corporate capital through a well-structured hierarchy of educational institutions.  The “multiversity” (Kerr’s term) would produce elite “thinkers” at the top and trained technicians at subordinate levels-with the end products at all levels knowing their place in the machine.  In a classic text inspired by the FSM, “The Mind of Clark Kerr,” the socialist writer Hal Draper explained the thinking behind Kerr’s “multiversity” and helped a newly radicalizing generation understand the justice of rebelling against it.

Subsequent struggles around the country targeted universities’ complicity with draft boards and with military research during the Vietnam War; the bulldozing of low- income and African-American neighborhoods for university expansion; the universities’ paternalist and exploitative relations with their own cafeteria and maintenance workers; and university endowments’ investments in apartheid South Africa.

The same period also saw demands to expand the culture of the university beyond the highly restrictive adulation of select, elite, Eurocentric patriarchal culture.  These struggles have performed a valuable service by broadening the intellectual context-internationally and in insisting that women’s voices receive a hearing and place in the “canon”—and by demanding inclusion of plebeian culture.  It is no surprise that these gains—along with affirmative action—are among the first to come under assault in a period of reaction.

Today, the combined trends toward educational downsizing, the bleak choice that students confront—total surrender of body and soul to the demands of the corporate world, or a jobless future—and the declining activism of the social movements of the 1970s and `80s, are pushing many toward the labor movement.  This represents both the natural channel for students’ idealistic aspirations, and a means of self-defense.

The Academy As Battlefield

The Yale TAs’ bitter struggle for recognition of their association marked somewhat of a turning point.  (For background on the strike and the conditions confronting the Yale TAs, see for example our interview with activist Cynthia Young in “ATC” 63, July-August 1996.) While Yale is distinct as a private institution (which happens to receive millions of dollars in tax giveaways from the city of New Haven), Yale’s policies reflect the situation on campuses across the country, from the elite universities to state systems.

Similar battles are currently underway, notably at the University of Illinois, where the University arrogantly refuses to recognize the Graduate Employees’ Organization as bargaining agent despite GEO’s 2-1 landslide victory in an election monitored and certified by the Religious Workers’ Association of Urbana-Champaign.  (For a fact sheet and information on how to join a solidarity campaign, write the GEO, IFT/AFT/AFL-CIO, 1001 S. Wright Street, Champaign IL 61820.)

It’s still true, of course, that these institutions occupy different niches in the educational hierarchy: The graduate students at the Yales and other elite institutions, while exploited as Teaching Assistants, retain a preferred status as apprentices and future tenured faculty.  Those from lesser-prestige universities are more likely to become the wandering adjunct professors, paid hourly or by the semester with no benefits, or cab drivers with advanced degrees.

Yet the importance of graduate students at Yale as elsewhere for union recognition should not be underestimated.  Their experiences highlight the insidious nature of the re-engineered, lean university: As funding disappears and tuition skyrockets, most students find themselves working harder and acquiring more debt toward a future which becomes less certain every day. It is a far cry from the free tuition City College of New York of the 1930s, or the California state system as recently as the 1950s and ‘60s.

At the University of Arizona, graduate students or part-time faculty teach 87% of undergraduate classes for a fraction of what it would cost the school to hire full-time professors.  At the University of Florida a full professor makes $60,000 teaching two classes for two semesters, while teaching assistants are paid $16,000 for double the course load.

“Flexibilization” on campus reflects the trend in the rest of the economy, where some people are working too much—multiple part-time jobs and overtime—while others are underemployed or unemployed.  Thus while deans, university administrators and boards of trustees lament that state of the academic “job market,” as if this had nothing to do with their own downsizing strategies.

Students and the “New AFL-CIO”

More and more graduate students are becoming active in defense of themselves as campus workers.  At the same time, undergraduate students are being introduced to unions and recruited to become the “next generation” of union organizers through initiatives like Union Summer, the Organizing Institute and various “teach-ins with the labor movement” occurring around the country, featuring the new Sweeney-Trumka leadership of the AFL-CIO.

The importance of this student interest in revived labor activism must not be minimized.  It will have a great deal to do with shaping the future of institutions of education and labor.  Yet this new generation of activists must also rely upon another traditional component of student activism: healthy distrust of authority.

When the “actually existing AFL-CIO” recruits students to become members, or union organizers, it offers an important opening, which must nonetheless be approached with eyes wide open. A dialogue of organized labor with students and intellectuals is undoubtedly positive, but doesn’t the labor leadership need a dialogue with its own membership?  Why, students may ask, are they—rather than millions of unionized workers—being invited to a “teach-in with the labor movement”?

Can’t the union movement recruit organizers from among its membership?  Doesn’t it trust them?  Indeed, why do some older candidates going through the AFL-CIO’s Organizing Institute find themselves rejected due to “previous organizing experience”?  Students may also wonder how it has come about that only 14% of the work force is organized; why some workers and not others are the focus of the “new” organizing drive.

Certainly, graduate student organizing, service sector organizing and several unions’ fledgling campaigns to organize “workfare” workers are important initiatives.  At the same time, why is the United Auto Workers leadership (for example) so backward in trying to get the non-union parts sector, to which so much work is subcontracted, organized into the UAW?  And why does the UAW endorse the concept of a two-tier wage system, where parts workers and new hires receive substandard pay, in the name of enhancing auto companies’ “competitiveness”?

A careful analysis of these problems will help arm student activists who enter the union movement, whether as hired organizers or at the grassroots level.  Inevitably, union bureaucracies (including the more energetic and progressive among them) exercise discipline and control over organizers, especially staff, and much sophistication is needed for an organizer to expand her/his room for action.

Student/labor activists will also do well to consider the poor track record of the union movement on internal democracy, or why Teamsters for a Democratic Union has never been accepted (let alone praised) by John Sweeney as a model for union reformers.

Quite the opposite: In the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Sweeney’s own union, janitors in Los Angeles hotels (mostly Central American immigrants) waged a heroic and successful organizing drive, then had their local thrown into receivership when they organized a slate that displaced the old-guard white-dominated leadership.

Nonetheless, a new generation of student activists are being drawn toward the labor movement for all the right reasons, both off and on their campuses.  Many of the same principles that apply in organizing (for example) around graduate students’ rights as workers apply to a broad range of struggles.  A new pamphlet by Amy Carroll, Savvy Troublemaking: Politics for New Labor Activists, published by the socialist group Solidarity, puts it well:

“No matter what shape our work as labor activists takes—rank-and-file jobs, organizer jobs, community or student support work—commitment to change through building from the ground up puts us on the soundest footing.

“Socialist politics are an indispensable tool for labor activists: they direct us in the short run, but more importantly sustain us over the long haul. The desire to build a society based on democratic control and grassroots participation directs our attention to where the action is in the working class itself.”

That has always been a sound method for activism, whether on or off campus.  It’s even more so today, when the on/off campus distinction is itself in the process of disappearing.

ATC 70, September-October 1997