The NLRB Columbia Decision and the Future of Academic Labor Struggles

The question of graduate employee labor is now (once again) settled.  Today the National Labor Relations Board announced its three-to-one ruling in favor of graduate student teaching and research assistants at Columbia University, overturning the twelve-year-old precedent established in its 2004 ruling against grad employees at Brown.  (Brown itself overturned a four-year-old decision in favor of grad students at NYU.  The NYU administration’s subsequent withdrawal of union recognition and refusal to negotiate a new contract with its TA and RA union prompted, in 2005-2006 the longest strike in the history of the US academic labor movement.)  Now, once again, the US state considers graduate student teaching and research assistants at private institutions to be workers, it understands the work they perform as labor.


The twelve years between Brown and Columbia have seen, in addition to the NYU strike, first a thaw in the explosion of organizing drives at private universities which began in the 1990s, and then, in the last three or four years, a renaissance of such organizing, prompted in part by the momentous victory at NYU, where GSOC-UAW won voluntary recognition from the administration in 2013 after many years of organizing, and where, after a strike threat, graduate student workers finally won a second contract in 2015, nearly ten years after the first expired.  (At Yale, at NYU, and at the University of Chicago, there were ongoing organizing drives throughout the twelve years after Brown, but organizing campaigns have only (relatively) recently restarted at Cornell and Columbia, whose petition the NLRB ruled on this week.  New organizing campaigns have begun at Harvard and at The New School, neither of which was part of the older burst of private university grad employee organizing in the 1990s and 2000s.)


Rather than understand and celebrate Columbia as simply a victory of liberal jurisprudence and bread-and-butter unionism, we suggest that it might be more useful to read it as a product of a history of struggle that has often exceeded the boundaries of both of those problematic forms through militant organizing and direct action.  The complex and contradictory history underlying today’s decision doesn’t just invite an explosion of new organizing drives similar to what occurred following the NYU Decision in 2000; it’s also an opening from which a larger struggle against institutions which have been laboratories of neoliberalism and engines of gentrification, displacement, exploitation and empire might emerge.


As with the ongoing 25-year-long struggle of GESO/Local 33 at Yale, graduate employee labor organizing has challenged the operating logics of the private university – its legacies of slavery and genocide, its links to finance capital, predatory investments, and the prison-industrial complex.  In addition, organizing has enabled and produced new and radical solidarities between disparate groups of university workers and the people whose lives are otherwise determined by their proximity to the simultaneously baroque and hypercapitalist logics and practices of the US’s wealthiest and most powerful institutions of knowledge production and class formation. These solidarities are perhaps the most urgent and important aspect of these kinds of labor struggles for us, since they work to defetishize and demystify the stories that universities tell us about what they are and about who we are who work within them.


The decision itself is in many ways a conservative one. It excludes research assistants whose work is funded by outside foundations. It offers the union as a means to sidestep labor conflict, a protection against strikes. It lauds one union’s contractual concession not to intercede in academic matters at all. We are uninterested in labor peace, and we believe that assurances that the university will be protected from the movements organized by the labor that makes it possible are promises to restrain a potential that we would instead unleash. Yet if the language of the state is conciliatory and insufficient, we know as participants and organizers in some of the struggles that have led to this moment that what has animated the organization of graduate employee labor has been anything but, that in every organizing conversation there is always the kernel of a broad rejection of neoliberalism, of capital, of the university itself. We know that we want to destroy, at a fundamental level, the university-as-such and bring to birth a new world from its ashes. The task now is not to buy into the redemptive language within which the NLRB decision frames our struggles, but instead to push those struggles forward past the limits of what the state will allow – for, after all, it is that refusal to accede to the state’s rule which made today possible.

Leave a Reply