By DANIEL DUANE
New York Times
May 5, 2003
Michael Janson, a tall, well-mannered University of Pennsylvania doctoral student, seethes about the modern university: beholden to corporate donors, enthralled by corporate-management strategies, all too willing to exploit the workers -- including its own graduate students -- who make the place run. With a gracious, raised-right humility in his brown eyes, permanent-press khakis and a fashion-free haircut, Janson makes an unlikely radical: he looks like someone whose life will work out fine if he just keeps showing up. But for more than two years, Janson, a budding political scientist, has played David to the University of Pennsylvania's Goliath.
In 2001, after watching N.Y.U. teaching assistants form a trade union, Janson and a handful of others decided to try it at Penn. Motivating them is their perception that the corporate university exploits teaching assistants as cheap labor in a way that -- most galling of all -- eliminates the professorships those T.A.'s are ostensibly training to get.
University fund-raising depends primarily on high-profile faculty publishing, so the smart money cuts the total number of professors in order to spend big on a few stars and give them enough free time to stay famous. Graduate students, serving as T.A.'s and even as lecturers, pick up the teaching slack. This makes for a great fiscal model -- tenure produces high fixed costs, while disposable T.A.'s work for peanuts. But it also creates an ever-greater oversupply of Ph.D.'s competing for ever-fewer tenured jobs. Back when graduate students could reasonably see themselves as apprentices bound for glorious lecture halls, the low pay was tolerable, but when T.A.-ships look like the university's way of balancing the budget at the expense of their graduate students' futures, it feels like an outrage. Administrators have made the mood only worse by sending their own salaries through the roof; Penn's president, Judith Rodin, the highest-paid of them all, makes more than a million dollars a year if you include other corporate-board fees. No surprise, then, that fed-up T.A.'s like Janson are at last taking matters into their own hands.
Private universities fall under federal labor law administered by the National Labor Relations Board, and anyone seeking to start a union and guarantee that it will be recognized by his employer must follow the board's guidelines. The initial step is defining the group of employees you are trying to unionize and getting a majority of them to sign the board's authorization cards, which would allow the union to negotiate a contract on their behalf. At N.Y.U., the graduate-student organizers accomplished this in 2000. But the university disputed the claim by the T.A.'s that they were employees, and the National Labor Relations Board held hearings before going ahead with a union election. At those hearings, the administration argued that T.A.'s are just students learning how to teach -- and are therefore not entitled to collective bargaining. Virtually every elite university, facing an expensive future, rallied to support N.Y.U., with friend-of-the-court briefs filed by Columbia, Johns Hopkins, M.I.T., Princeton, Stanford, Yale and many others.
Despite the heavy firepower, the National Labor Relations Board agreed with the contention that T.A.'s are employees, doing real work for real pay. At the subsequent union election, T.A.'s voted in a new United Auto Workers local, which quickly scored a raise and much improved benefits. Almost overnight, T.A.'s began organizing at Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Tufts and, most recently, Penn. Unwilling to share N.Y.U.'s fate, administrators at these schools are fighting back with ferocity, producing an unseemly family feud in which Ivy League doctoral candidates -- arguably the blessed of the earth -- claim exploitation while their appointed guardians pay millions to sic anti-union law firms on their own best and brightest.
Following the example set by N.Y.U.'s grad students, Janson reached out to the national trade unions for help in organizing at Penn. Organized labor has been steadily losing membership since the 1970's -- making academia a welcome market -- and both the United Auto Workers and the American Federation of Teachers vied to negotiate on behalf of Penn's graduate students. After choosing the American Federation of Teachers, Janson and his colleagues immediately received financing and legal support. They also received the help of a professional organizer named Rich Klimmer. A silver-haired ex-Teamster, Klimmer has a penchant for real-world pith that acts like a natural tonic on young scholars. (''I'll tell you,'' Klimmer grumbles, ''I had more control over my job wrestling drums at Big Ben Chemical than any T.A. on this campus.'') Together, Klimmer, Janson and their newly christened Get-Up (Graduate Employees Together-University of Pennsylvania) again followed N.Y.U. in defining their group of union-eligible employees as all T.A.'s, except M.B.A. candidates, and all social science and humanities research assistants. Once they collected a majority of pro-union signatures from the group, Get-Up asked the National Labor Relations Board for a Penn union election. Because the university objected to the union, a hearing was held in January 2002, and the university's lawyers staged 28 days of testimony arguing that T.A.'s are not employees. (The union testified for four days.) But the labor relations board followed its own N.Y.U. precedent and scheduled a union election for February of this year.
The A.F.L.-C.I.O. recently announced a campaign to reposition the dying labor movement as a ''counterweight to unchecked corporate power,'' and in the days before the Penn vote, Get-Up followed the new A.F.L.-C.I.O. script to the letter -- demanding not just more money but also the more noble sounding ''voice in employment'' and pitching the freedom to organize as a fundamental human right, akin to the freedoms of speech and religion.
In the Get-Up office, bright-eyed 20-somethings surrounded by cookie boxes, coffee cups and the beat of radical rap music, frantically prepared for a pre-election get-out-the-vote rally, to be held outside President Rodin's office. Janson himself was nowhere to be seen -- he was off browbeating individual T.A.'s into promising to vote pro-union. But his presence was everywhere. ''Hey, Janson,'' someone yelled into a telephone, ''wait, you organized this girl where? At the ballet?'' A rosy-cheeked sociologist laughingly admitted that Janson ''organized'' an education student at a recent funeral: ''He said it was O.K. She didn't know the deceased very well.'' So dogged is Get-Up's determination that during an afternoon of in-person cold calls, I overheard one female grad student tell the union crew, ''You know, you're like the third group that's visited in five days, and I don't even know any of you, so I'm getting kind of freaked out.'' Chuckling and bashful, that rosy-cheeked sociologist admitted, ''Yeah, it is kind of like a cult.''
A few days before the election, walking around the Penn campus feels like moving back through the growth rings of an ancient tree, passing first Sansom Common, a new corporate-partner development that includes a Barnes & Noble Penn bookstore and a DoubleTree Penn hotel. The next ring records a simpler age of industry-education alliance, the midcentury Modernist box of the Annenberg School for Communication. After that comes the first ring old enough to merit the Colonial Williamsburg treatment, with date-of-construction signs on classic old fraternities. Penn's symbolic center, where Get-Up will hold its get-out-the-vote rally, is College Hall, the 19th-century Victorian masterpiece housing Rodin's wood-paneled office. Brought in by the trustees in 1994 in part to trim the staff, Rodin infuriated Philadelphia's working class by appointing the management consultants Coopers & Lybrand and eliminating more than 3,500 positions -- breaking a decades-old union in one instance, simply by moving the Penn Faculty Club across the street to the new DoubleTree hotel. In addition, she appointed a Coopers & Lybrand employee as her executive vice president and publicly referred to herself as Penn's C.E.O., making her the perfect windmill for the tiltings of anxious graduate students.
With contemporary art on her walls and her hair expertly frosted, Rodin offers an absolute stonewall to every pro-union claim. The corporatization of the university is ''completely spurious,'' she says. ''It's obviously a great rallying point. 'They're so corporate!' Or, 'She's so corporate!' And we are the largest private employer in Philadelphia, but we don't sell soda. We provide a terrific education.'' Rodin also offers the unusual opinion that ''there is no crisis in doctoral education,'' suggesting instead that the recession is simply squeezing the national employment picture. Doesn't Penn rely economically on the T.A.'s who teach, by union measures, about 70 percent of Penn's undergraduate instruction time? ''Absolutely not.'' Rodin's objections to the union, she insists, are not economic at all, but academic -- what if professors have to negotiate educational matters with labor representatives? And even emotional -- what if unions damage campus collegiality? ''We don't think our students are our employees,'' she says. ''We think they're our protegees. We think we're nurturing and nourishing them, and the first time a student files a union grievance against a faculty member, it will transform that relationship forever.'' She glosses over, of course, the fact that at public universities that have long had T.A. unions there is little evidence of this happening.
Rodin's anti-union major domo and deputy provost, Peter Conn, who looks as if he loves to eat, loves to argue and gets most of his exercise gesticulating, is considerably more worried about graduate-student malaise. As for why those students continue to be so outraged upon finding that the bad job data apply to them too, well: ''The way they hear 'chances are one in five' is: 'I'm one. I'm terrific!' And they are terrific! You could probably open every Coke can in the building with the Phi Beta Kappa keys some of these people carry.'' Conn also, however, offers a compelling counterargument to the T.A.'s. At a cherry-wood table beneath dusty old oil portraits, Conn points out that like all private universities, Penn gives Ph.D. students free health care and tuition and even a monthly stipend. Penn assumes this burden to fulfill its core mission, producing the next generation of professors. Conn says: ''I've told Janson that what keeps me up at night is not the union. It's Princeton. Princeton provides students with better financial support than anybody. Princeton has a lot more money, and it worries me. Harvard has a lot more money. Yale has a bit more money. It's a little deceptive. They don't have as much more money as you think.'' A result of trying to keep up, Conn explains, is that Penn now offers Ph.D. candidates five-year financing packages that require only two years of teaching, an investment that will cost $125,000 per student, if the waived tuition is counted as income. ''Add all this up,'' Conn says, ''and we're paying $145 an hour for the teaching required. Now that's> a good job.''
Janson will point out that these five-year plans were enacted well after he started organizing, that they are a neat new way of decoupling pay from teaching -- making it easier to argue that these are just apprenticeships -- and that nobody pays to get an academic Ph.D. because the return on investment stinks even when they're paying you. Janson also calls tuition waivers ''imaginary funds,'' and this sends Conn into near-hysteria. ''There's no Monopoly money here!'' Conn sputters. ''Every tuition-waiver dollar is an actual American dollar in my budget! This drives me nuts! Go ask medical or law students who's picking up their $27,000. They are. What you've got here is a group of students being paid to get doctorates! It's so preposterous that, I'm sorry'' -- he glances at his press secretary -- ''she's going to be very angry at me, but it's like looking in a fun-house mirror!
''And you'll hear this, too.'' With a revolutionary's tone, perhaps mimicking Janson, Conn says: '''I want a voice. I want a voice!' And I say, 'O.K., let's take a typical graduate program. They're going to make a new hire. That person comes to give a job talk. Who's invited? Faculty and graduate students. That's a voice. The new graduate-student center cost over a million bucks. Why did we do it? Because the -- not unionized! -- graduate students said they needed it. I've been a graduate student myself. I lived in a garage! What more do you want? No, I think unionization is a marker for legitimate concerns about the larger health of Ph.D. education, and there is also this conception that unions are somehow ennobling, but to take that to the conclusion that an Ivy League graduate student researching Edmund Spenser is to be identified with a sanitation worker makes no sense.''
In fighting Get-Up, Penn has employed an anti-union strategy appearing across the Ivy League. It surfaced in a memo to Cornell by the law firm that later represented N.Y.U. and Columbia, and then in a series of talks given by a University of Iowa dean discussing his anti-union experience. At the initial National Labor Relations Board hearings, which are typically held before a regional board officer, this mostly means beating the old dog about T.A.'s not being employees. Once the local board officer follows the N.Y.U. precedent and rejects your plea, the next move is the one N.Y.U. failed to make, appealing the decision to the full five-member National Labor Relations Board in Washington. Brown, Columbia, Tufts and now Penn have all embraced this tactic, finding it especially attractive because, though it allows the elections to proceed, it requires the board to impound the votes, uncounted, until all the appeals can be heard -- thus delaying the results indefinitely. This can be particularly devastating to the momentum of graduate-student movements, their members constantly graduating and moving on with their lives.
To fight these delaying tactics, Get-Up has employed a strategy used with success by the United Auto Workers against DaimlerChrysler. Organizers have asked potential members, in advance of the election, to sign a petition declaring their support. The hope is to show that a strong majority of students want a union so that Penn will feel compelled to drop the appeal and allow the vote count to go forward. (At Yale, grad students are trying to achieve the same goal but are taking a different course. They are circumventing the National Labor Relations Board by holding a nonbinding union election under the auspices of the League of Women Voters, with the hope that they can pressure Yale into negotiating with them.)
Thus, in the weeks before the election, Get-Up's organizing has involved not just begging for votes but also for these petition signatures. Meanwhile, Rodin has counterattacked with tens of thousands of fliers making such arguments as the fact that recent health coverage increases -- enacted since Get-Up got up -- might not have been possible under a union, and that unionized graduate students make less money than nonunionized graduate students. (Even Conn acknowledges this last as a howler, given that until recently the only unionized graduate students were at underfinanced public schools.) Most insidious, of course, is the not-so-hidden message behind warnings of a loss of ''collegiality'': if you think your job prospects are miserable now, wait until you join that union and fall out of favor with your faculty adviser.
Conn called the pro-union impulse a ''marker'' for something else, and he is right, because T.A. unions can't get grad students the professorships they really want. But the anti-union arguments are markers, too, for an affection for the status quo and a lack of the moral leadership needed to drag higher education out of its mess. Concerned bodies like the Carnegie and Woodrow Wilson Foundations have suggested remedies like cutting graduate admissions, creating a new class of full-time university teachers and even changing the nature of the Ph.D., but there's no central authority to make it happen, and university self-interest runs the other way.
At the rally a few days before the election, Janson takes the bullhorn in front of College Hall, within sight of the stacked red letters of the classic 1960's ''LOVE'' sculpture. Looking dignified in a pressed shirt and yellow tie, in contrast to his shabby-chic friends, Janson focuses the small crowd's attention: in a moment, he says, he will reveal the results of Get-Up's petition drive, the attempt to get people to declare union support before their votes are impounded at the election two days later. But first Janson wants to say a few words: ''I am honored,'' he begins, in a sincere and booming voice, ''to be out here with all of you in the cold while the highest-paid administration in the country sits inside in the warmth, with nobody to comfort them but their anti-union lawyers.'' Janson goes on to give a rousing speech, saying, ''It has become clear that we stand for an idea established in these United States over 70 years ago, and in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, that every employee has the right to vote for a union of their choosing.'' Then, with a great sense of moment, Janson declares that through the petition drive, Get-Up can show a clear majority intending to vote pro-union. Turning to College Hall, he calls out: ''So, I say to you, C.E.O. Rodin and Peter Conn, if you really care so much about collegiality, open your door to us and drop this appeal. Because we're going to win this election.''
The crowd erupts into cheers, but the only person opening College Hall's door is a stout, gumshoed police officer chatting with the building's guard. And over the next week, as the election goes forward and the uncounted votes are indeed impounded, it becomes clear that the university has no interest in retracting its appeal. For its purposes, the longer things remain in limbo, the better -- and the National Labor Relations Board gives no indication when it may decide the issue. Further frustrating to the students is that President Bush took advantage of a Senate recess last year to shoehorn in three strong anti-labor appointees to the board. It is possible that the board will decide to overturn the N.Y.U. precedent and assert what administrators have contended all along: that T.A.'s are not employees after all but professors-in-training with no need for a union. If there were professorships to be had, all those T.A.'s would, doubtless, be delighted to see it the same way.
Daniel Duane is the author of ''A Mouth Like Yours,'' a novel to be published next year by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.