Important Labor Fights Are Going Down at Ivy League Schools

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Lambert here: Nice to see the Democrat nomenklatura putting on their comfortable shoes and walking the picket line, especially the college administrators and the big non-profit CEOs. No? Maybe it’s because the Harvard cafeteria workers aren’t women or people of color. Oh, wait…

By Michael Arria, an associate editor at AlterNet and AlterNet’s labor editor. Originally published at Alternet.

The United States’ Ivy League schools are commonly associated with old money, the offspring of the country’s ruling class and a certain symbolic power that inevitably drifts into the rest of the culture. Yet the last few months have been full of worker agitation at the most elite private institutions. Here’s a list of recent Ivy League labor fights.

1. Union bid at Columbia gives graduate students at private universities the right to unionize: In August, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that graduate research and teaching assistants are entitled to collective bargaining under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). The ruling came in regards to a unionization attempt by grad students at Columbia University and it reverses a 2004 ruling (handed down in regards to Brown University) that determined teaching assistants and research assistants were not employees. 

Writing about this huge ruling at In These TimesDavid Moberg explains how the decision could reverberate far beyond New York City:

[The ruling] could increase the rights and rewards of an important group of often underpaid workers in a growing sector with significant economic importance. Higher education depends increasingly on a vast infrastructure of contingent employees. In many cases, the declining standards for those lower ranks erode standards for tenured faculty. Together with student unions, these potentially newly-organized forces could pressure schools toward a more democratic American education.

2. Cafeteria workers at Harvard strike for better wages: The New York Times reports that there’s “no end in sight” in a dispute between Harvard University and the employees who work in its cafeterias. The 750 workers are represented by Local 26 and are seeking to be paid at least $35,000 a year, which would be a $5,000 increase from their current $30,000-a-year rate.

It’s hard for Harvard to claim poverty as the Cambridge school had a $36 billion endowment and a $63 million operating surplus last year. Harvard is currently putting out calls for unpaid volunteers to scab for the striking workers. In fact, Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean of Administration and Finance Leslie A. Kirwan sent an email requesting staff help out in the dining hall:

“The dining halls are being staffed by HUDS [Harvard University Dining Services] managers, supplemented by Harvard colleagues from around the University who are pitching in to help with a shift or two. If you, or exempt staff [staff that aren’t paid hourly or eligible for overtime pay] in your department, are able to suspend some of your regular duties and instead lend a hand to HUDS, I know they would be most grateful.”

Tiffany Ten Eyck, a spokesperson for Local 26, told the Daily Beast: “Dining hall workers feel like they have really modest demands. Especially because Harvard has the resources that it does.”

3. Yale’s unions fight for a new contract: Yale’s clerical, technical and maintenance worker unions have spent the last six months fighting for a new contract before the January 20 deadline. Workers say that the campus is expanding but the rate of union jobs hasn’t been congruent with the development.

An article in Yale Daily News quotes Pamela O’Donnell, vice president of Local 34 and registrar of the economics department: “Job security for us means growing while the University grows in every area. And we would like to make sure that we get back some of those jobs that we had lost in 2008 because a lot of us are really overworked through attrition.”

Watch footage of a union protest on campus below:

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


    1. Uahsenaa

      I’ve seen this so many times. Departments inculcate a sense of (false) solidarity by constantly insisting “we’re all in this together” so that the peons never stop to think about the fact that their immediate bosses get paid six times what they do.

      1. Steve Sewall

        Me too. My dad taught English at Yale for 42 years. Prof. Richard B Sewall. Taught a great course on tragedy. Was the first Master at Ezra Stiles college in the late ’60’s. Wrote a biography of Emily Dickinson that won the National Book award. He died in 2004. He would be appalled to see what Yale is charging for tuition these days. And sickened at how the university is shortchanging its support staff.

        Shame on Yale, including the profs who see their salaries soaring but don’t give a damn about the people who actually keep the university going.

        Good luck strikers! Richard B Sewall would be out there with you on the lines in his tweed jacket as he was for civil rights in the 1960’s. I’m sure there are others like him at Yale today.

  1. Ulysses

    This NLRB ruling in August is indeed important. Hopefully, it will make things easier for the graduate research and teaching students attempting to unionize at Cornell’s Ithaca campus:

    “In response to the decision Tuesday, Joel Malina, vice president for university relations, said the university will continue work with union organizers.
    “Following today’s ruling by the National Labor Relations Board, the university will continue to work with the CGSU/AFT/NYSUT union organizers, according to the terms of the agreement, to foster an open and respectful environment in which graduate assistants at Cornell can learn about and make informed decisions regarding union representation should there be a union representation election,” Malina said in a statement.”

    Across town at Ithaca College, the labor activism is even more intense:

    “On Sept. 23, the union negotiating team walked away from the bargaining table. According to a statement from the union negotiating team, they felt that the administration was unprepared “had not come to the table with serious counterproposals on faculty compensation, job security or longer term appointments for over a month.”
    Ithaca College full-time faculty member and negotiating team member Sarah Grunberg who was there at the walkout said, “These are proposals that we had been waiting on for a long time, and that we had been discussing with the administration for even longer.  They had asked us to engage in lengthy discussions with them where it appeared they were really listening to us, so we were very disappointed when they continued to show up with nothing of substance.”

    Fortunately, many of the dining-hall, custodial, and clerical workers at Cornell have seen their interests ably defended by UAW local 2300 for many years now:

    It is unconscionable that an institution like Harvard, with literally more money sloshing around than it knows what to do with, would continue “nickel-and-diming” these workers, who contribute so much– to the life of the University and to the wider community of Cambridge. I encourage any NC readers with Crimson ties to exert whatever pressure they can bring on their alma mater to do the right thing!

    1. Uahsenaa

      I don’t mean to be a sourpuss, but the next place where this fight has to take place is with lecturers/adjuncts, because, as can be seen already at public universities where grad students have been organized for some time, adjuncts are being used to squeeze grad students. As more and more grad students become unionized, colleges will use non-unionized adjuncts to do an end run around them. It’s also generally harder to unionize adjuncts, though not impossible, since they are far more transitory, often working single term or single year contracts, which is not really much time to organize.

      1. jawbone

        Friend of mine had to work as an adjunct at three widely separated colleges/university in NYC. Plus, she had to commute in from western NJ.

        The travel was hell.

        No sick leave, of course. No travel reimbursement, of course.

        Eventually she had to quit and take a lower paid, but less stressful job in NJ as a community college. But it had taken her several years to even get a nibble for the academic jobs she’d applied for throughout.

    2. bob

      SUNY grads are unionized already. CWA, I think. Curious how that works/worked within SUNY Cornell.

      Cornell has a long history of wanting the state subsidies, but not any of the traditional benefits to the people of NYS.

      I just love saying SUNY Cornell too.

      I can hear the tweed twiddling its thumbs, terribly. Got an adverb in at the end too….Good day.

  2. Ulysses

    Of course, these situations are nothing new for one of our leading candidates for U.S. president, who back in 1971 showed her contempt for low-paid workers at Yale:

    “Rodham and Clinton were offering themselves as replacement labor, blunting, if only temporarily, the effects of the strike on the university. The two law students then bartered their litter pickup, which was, in essence, scab labor (or maybe just the promise thereof) into access to a struck building.”

    What a sorry excuse for a “leader!”

  3. oho

    “Yet the last few months have been full of worker agitation at the most elite private institutions”

    It’s natural. The undergrads are the group rife w/favoritism, preferred alumni access. and also if you’re a first-generation, merit-based elite college undergrad, you are not likely to rock the boat.

    The grad students are the ones who do the heaviest lifting in academia—-smartest indentured servants in the history of mankind.

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