The New School was founded as a bastion of progressive thought a century ago, but it’s taking a decidedly old school approach to its students’ labor rights.
Late last month, graduate students seeking to organize a union at the famously liberal institution were thwarted by a decade-old precedent that bars the right to unionize for graduate student instructors and researchers. The regional director for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) deemed graduate students with Student Employees at the New School (SENS-UAW) as non-employees, based on a 2004 decision involving graduate-student workers at Brown University, in which the Board ruled that the relationship between the students and institution wasn’t that of a worker and employer, but rather, that “the graduate student assistants have a predominantly academic, rather than economic relationship with their school.” So although they taught, researched and performed administrative tasks in exchange for the school’s financial support for their studies—even when working on a regular schedule with a designated hourly wage, under a supervisor—that labor wasn’t work, but rather, simply a privilege of their academic experience. This realm, supposedly, is one of scholarly discourse, not labor and capital.
Incidentally, this logic is perfectly convenient for a wealthy private institution that absorbs millions of dollars annually in grants and hyperinflated tuitions. Inconvenient for the doctoral student struggling to juggle teaching and research on fast-food wages.
Though the higher-education sector is mostly “not for profit,” the American university system operates as an absurdly lucrative corporate hierarchy, with the teaching workforce at the bottom. But the low teaching salaries are subsidized by a patina of meritocracy, credentials and brand prestige. Still, in a city like New York, scholarly credentials don’t offset poverty payscales, with minimal control over schedules and working conditions.
Though more than thirty graduate student unions have formed around the country, official unionization on private campuses remains rare, typically dependent on voluntary recognition by administrators. Graduate assistants at New York University pioneered private-college unionization by establishing the Graduate Student Organizing Committee. But organizers at the New School, Yale, Columbia and other institutions are seeking to formally overturn the Brown precedent in order to establish statutory collective bargaining rights, which can be certified through the standard election procedure under the National Labor Relations Act—so that unionization is a matter of workplace democracy, not administrative discretion.