Academic Work Is Labor, Not Romance

August 26, 2016

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In its decision allowing graduate-student unions at private colleges, the National Labor Relations Board is, at long last, recognizing academic labor for what it really is: a job. “Labor disputes,” the board says, “are a fact of economic life.”

The National Labor Relations Board delivered a win for labor this month, ruling that graduate students at private colleges are also employees. The action overturned a 2004 decision involving Brown University that until now allowed administrations to insist that collective bargaining would imperil students’ academic pursuits. A number of media outlets have helped circulate a particularly damning quote that describes the Brown decision as having "deprived an entire category of workers of the protections of the Act, without a convincing justification." If you haven’t read the decision in full, you should. The quote is just one of many statements that will resonate with any academic who sees herself as a worker.

But one sentence in particular is especially relevant to the coming inevitable struggles between precarious academic laborers and administrators. "Labor disputes," the board notes simply, "are a fact of economic life." Such an unequivocal statement about the academy as a place of labor is a surprising and rare admission; far more common are descriptors of academic work as a "labor of love," "an intellectual pursuit," and "a life of the mind." Unlike many academics, the NLRB decision refuses to romanticize academe. This romanticization of academic labor is one of the most effective ways to obscure its actual costs. In contrast, the NLRB posits the equivalent of: "Hello! Would you please treat the academy as just another realm of economic life?!" This is exactly what we should do.

Let’s start with the subject of the NLRB decision: graduate student workers at private colleges. What would it mean to treat graduate students’ working conditions as "facts of economic life"? For starters, it would mean calling graduate students’ "stipends" what they actually are — paychecks. It would mean attaching actual terms to these paychecks, so that if graduate students work more hours in the lab or teach beyond their class load, they are compensated for their additional labor. It would mean approaching things like health insurance, dental care, and family leave as benefits that should be available to all employees rather than as benevolent gifts that the administration can give or take away depending on the political climate.

When it comes to graduate students’ experiences with discrimination, exploitative advisers, or harassment, it would mean acknowledging that such incidents create hostile working conditions, and addressing them with grievance mechanisms external to — rather than inseparable from — college structures. We cannot expect the college to adequately resolve what amount to workplace grievances if it refuses to acknowledge that it has employees, not simply slightly older undergraduates. Thanks to the NLRB ruling, it is far more likely that these and other protections will be realized through contracts that exist precisely to decrease the incidence of dreaded "labor disputes."

But it would be a mistake to see the NLRB ruling as significant only for graduate students at private colleges. If, as Columbia University’s provost, John H. Coatsworth, told staff members in an email following the ruling, "the advisor-advisee relationships involved in the scholarly training of graduate students define an experience that is different from that of the typical workplace," what should we make of his assessment of the people providing this scholarly training? Of the academic enterprise writ large?

Another reason to make "a fact of economic life" the academy’s mantra is because it insists on the value — rather than the romance — of academic labor. What would it look like to really value this profession? We could start by rejecting the superficial narrative that "too many Ph.D.s" explains how a market that is supposedly all supply and no demand has coincided with ever-increasing college enrollments. This would allow us to more clearly see the market for what it is: 50 percent temporary positions with no benefits, a string of postdocs that are so coveted we rarely remember that they are far cheaper than hiring anybody full time and long term, and a dwindling number of tenured positions.

Being honest about the actual demand for and distribution of academic labor allows us to see the devaluation of our profession as a chain reaction rather than an unfortunate reality that only adjuncts have to face. Instead of debating the ethics of advising people to pursue graduate work or lamenting the death of the humanities, energies would be better spent fighting for tenure-track lines and trying to improve working conditions across the board so that we stop the race to the bottom — which has so thoroughly benefited those holding the purse strings.

Seeing academic work as labor also provides a much needed moment of reflection regarding the frenzied embrace of alternative academic careers, or "alt ac," as the solution to our mischaracterized scarcity problem. Academics can do their part to cultivate a culture that refuses to shame graduate students who decide academe is not for them without abandoning wholesale "traditional" academic programs. The push to infuse graduate programs with "marketable skills" contributes to the devaluation of skills traditionally honed during one’s graduate career: teaching, research, and mentorship.

While efforts to institutionalize alt-ac are no doubt well-intentioned, they cede too much ground to administrations and politicians who are more than happy to fuel the myth that there "just aren’t enough jobs." We should be skeptical of how enthusiastically colleges are supporting alt-ac efforts and redirect our concern about graduate students’ futures into organizing that creates more job security within the academy.

Taking seriously that "labor disputes are an economic fact of life" even in the academy would also mean paying attention to the labor battles being waged by those who work just as hard as "intellectual workers" to keep colleges running — employees in facilities, dining, mail services, library services, and administrative support. Administrations are equally if not more likely to try to cut costs with these workers’ livelihoods, and it would be wise, not to mention just, to make clear that our respective labors together make colleges work.

In short, valuing academic labor would mean defending it — from union-busting administrators, from a political climate hostile to public good, and from our own romantic, depoliticizing ideas about what it is we actually do. In a single sentence, the NLRB gave all academics a road map. Those not already in the fight would do well to get on course.

Sara Matthiesen is a postdoctoral fellow in American studies at Brown University.