(From the Archives) “Whose University? Our University!”: The Case for GA Unions

Today’s “From the Archives” post excerpts Carl Levine’s 2006 “‘Whose University? Our University!’: The Case for GA Unions.” Levine argues eloquently in favor of unionization, an argument that is concretely based in the acrimonious relations that developed between New York University and its graduate assistants after the university elected not to renew the GA union in 2005. Unionization continues to be debated, not only at NYU but also at other universities across the country (most recently at the University of Minnesota). Clearly, Levine’s argument remains a timely one.

From “‘Whose University? Our University!’: The Case for GA Unions”

Carl Levine

The idealized version of the university—as a community of scholars enjoying a free space for intellectual discourse, insulated from the pressures of the outside world—if it ever existed, exists no more. Higher education in this country is a colossal industry, increasingly ruled by the imperatives of the marketplace. Academic freedom is threatened, not by graduate student assistants (GAs) demanding input into decisions that affect their working lives, but by administrators seeking unilateral control of decision-making.

The continued corporatization of higher education has led to a greater centralization of control in the hands of university administrators and boards of directors whose members are generally drawn from the top ranks of corporate executives. With this centralization has come a corresponding decrease in faculty governance and academic freedom. This has been facilitated by a growing reliance on contingent academic labor, including GAs, adjuncts, lecturers and other non-tenure track faculty. The decrease in tenured positions has not only allowed universities to generate revenues with smaller outlays for salaries and benefits; it has eliminated a key prerequisite for genuine academic freedom – job security. Without the job security provided by tenure, faculty members who dare to question the views of academic administrators put their jobs at risk.

To understand what is in stake in the bitter labor dispute at New York University (NYU), it is necessary to understand the changing economic context within the academy. The present strike by GAs at NYU is not so much about the need of GAs to receive a living wage for the critical services they provide to the university, though this is certainly a central reason why the majority of NYU GAs voted for union representation. It is about the GAs’ demand that they be treated as valued members of the university community whose views, as articulated by their chosen representatives, are taken into account in setting the university’s priorities. In an academy increasingly characterized by the dehumanization of the marketplace, the GAs are demanding collegiality and respect.

Historically, GAs have labored for the universities which they attend as students under conditions approaching peonage. In return for the extensive services they provide, services which are critical to the day-to- day functioning of their universities, they have been given meager cash stipends, inadequate to support themselves or their families. Despite the central role GAs play in the functioning of the academy, they often must rely on loans or other sources of outside funding in order to survive while they complete their graduate education. This servitude to their schools has been justified as an apprenticeship that prepares them for their eventual entry into the academy as the next generation of the professorial elite.

While they have always been exploited by their universities, generating more money in tuition (or research) revenue than they were paid in salary, there was a time when most GAs could expect, upon graduation, to find tenure track positions. This is no longer the case. Faced with the fact that most of them will never attain such positions, GAs have come to understand that they cannot afford to wait for adequate wages, respect, and some degree of control over their working lives. The resulting surge in GA-organizing, coming at a time when labor is under heightened attack, has been met with aggressive resistance by the universities at which they work.


“‘Whose University? Our University!’: The Case for GA Unions,” which appeared in Issue 65-66, is available in its entirety at  http://minnesotareview.dukejournals.org/content/2006/65-66.toc. You do not need a subscription to access the article.


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