Why are Universities so Disrespectful of their Organized Workers?Historians in the News
tags: unions, higher education, academic labor
At colleges and universities across the country, from Duke to the University of Maryland, from Johns Hopkins to Santa Clara University, a heated battle is playing out right now over workers’ right to unionize. The administrative class is often openly antagonistic to the very notion that students, graduate students, and faculty have the right to collectively bargain. In Maryland, that antagonism has been on full display in recent weeks as members of the Maryland State House and Senate held hearings on and deliberated a collective bargaining bill that would dramatically reshape labor relations at the University System of Maryland campuses, Morgan State University, and St. Mary’s College of Maryland. “This bill differs from similar legislation proposed in the past,” Natalie Weger notes in The Diamondback, an independent student newspaper, “because it extends unionization rights to faculty on the tenure-track, nontenure track and part-time, rather than only to graduate assistants.”
Too often, university administrators treat the right to organize as, at best, an annoying formality and, at worst, a problematic entitlement that they can choose not to honor — and, if they have the resources and disposition, must make it their mission to eliminate. This is the rationale behind the Duke University administration’s deplorable decision to not only refuse to recognize and bargain with its graduate-student union, but to pursue legal action that, if successful, would overturn the National Labor Relations Board’s 2016 ruling and strip all graduate students at private universities of their right to collectively bargain.
I spoke about higher-ed workers’ fight for collective-bargaining rights in Maryland, and the national implications of that fight, with Karin Rosemblatt, professor of history at the University of Maryland at College Park and vice president for the University of Maryland chapter of the American Association of University Professors, Nate Beard, a Ph.D. candidate and teaching assistant at the university’s College of Information Studies and alliances chair for UMD’s Fearless Student Employees, and Sam DiBella, a Ph.D. candidate and research assistant at the university’s College of Information Studies and co-chair of organizing and media for UMD’s Fearless Student Employees.
Maximillian Alvarez: So, why do faculty, part-time faculty, and certain graduate students at the University System of Maryland, Morgan State University, and St. Mary’s College not have the right to collectively bargain? How common is this around the country?
Karin Rosemblatt: This is a holdover from another era. In 1935, when the National Labor Relations Act was passed, it excluded all state workers. While workers in some states won collective-bargaining rights, and some states even made it a constitutionally protected right, other states, especially those in the South, have continued to deny this right to public workers. In 2001, Maryland state workers won collective bargaining, but faculty and students were explicitly excluded from that law. It’s puzzling that this restriction is still in place in a blue state like Maryland where equity is part of the stated mission of our public universities.
Nate Beard: It’s wild, right? Graduate students have collective-bargaining rights if we work at private universities, but not in Maryland public universities.
Sam DiBella: Lack of bargaining rights is a widespread problem in the Maryland public sector — public librarians, for example, proposed a similar bill this year. Maryland’s community-college employees only just won their bargaining rights at the end of 2021.
MA: How has the lack of collective-bargaining rights for so many higher-education workers in Maryland shaped the state’s higher-ed system itself?
NB: Lack of labor rights has severely harmed our ability to perform research and teaching duties. When I started at UMD I was making around $23K before taxes, and my colleague was making $19K/year, which forced her to drop out shortly after the pandemic hit. We live paycheck to paycheck. We can’t put our best effort into designing curricula, teaching undergrads, or conducting cutting-edge research, much less doing our own research to finish our degrees. This undermines the university’s commitment to diversity and inclusion too. International students pay extra fees and are not allowed to find employment outside the university. Non-white students from poor and historically oppressed communities are excluded when the university pays poverty wages.
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