Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Student Teaching-Assistants Hunger-Strike at Yale: Facing an Implacable Wall

During the Spring term of 2017, some graduate students at Yale began a hunger strike to pressure the administration to negotiate with their union. At the time, about 70 percent of the instructors at American colleges and universities were part-time—including adjunct instructors and graduate students working as teaching assistants. They were poorly paid and lacked “access to affordable health care, job security or a voice in their working conditions.”[1] I contend that we should not gloss over the real differences between adjunct instructors and teaching assistants, the latter contains an employment element that warrants representation by a union.

Graduate students who work as teaching assistants hunger-strike in front of Yale's administration building (to the right). Directly behind the protesters is the Commons dining hall (which I remember for the Belgium waffles...the gym being fortunately close by).  (Source: NYT)

To be sure, the position of a graduate student leading discussion sections of a professor’s course is quite different than that of an adjunct instructor teaching a class or two per term at a university. A graduate student only works as a teaching assistant for a few years, and upon graduation one can look forward to beginning a career; even if as a professor, that vocation is not merely an extension of being a teaching assistant. The unique academic properties of the teaching-assistant role are borne out by the fact that only students qualify. The compensation is a stipend, typically viewed as a form of student financial aid, and the teaching role is designed to teach the student how to teach—and even provide the student with additional knowledge.

As a teaching assistant at Yale, I jumped at the opportunity to teach the History of Modern China and the History of European Integration (e.g., the EC and the E.U.) precisely because I could learn more than what was offered in the courses I was taking. I was by no means a student—not to mention an expert!—of China or the European Union. The Yale administration held that its graduate students could aptly lead discussion sections on material outside of our main area of study because we learn so well. So it is strange that the administration during the Spring term of 2017 hired union-busting lawyers to argue “that for many of the courses [the TAs] teach, these graduate students ‘have no subject matter expertise’ and therefore don’t qualify as professors.”[2] No TA would claim to be a professor! More to the point, Yale’s position, through its lawyers, concerning the lack of subject-matter expertise is misleading, giving the learning aspect of being a teaching assistant—learning not merely how to teach but also about the content of the course. Yale’s administration can be astonishingly stubborn—and I wouldn’t be surprised if the hunger strike weren’t at least in part a reaction to the passive aggressiveness itself. I suspect that its root lies in power and felt superiority; union representation could hardly make a dent economically in such a rich university.

In August, 2016, the National Labor Relations Board had ruled that graduate students engaged in teaching at private colleges and universities are indeed employees and therefore have the right to collective bargaining. The decision reversed a ruling in 2004, which had held that TAs “are primarily students and have a primarily educational, not economic, relationship to their university.”[3] The ruling in 2016 found that the broader relationship does not mean that the teaching role—performed on a paid basis—is not work. In short, the students are also employees. A student who works in a dorm cafeteria—such as me at my first university—is an employee in that job even though being a student is the broader status at the university. To be sure, working as a teaching assistant involves learning—both how to teach and subject-content—but the tight relationship between the work-tasks and pay render the position a job, and thus entitled to be represented by a union.

[1] Jennifer Klein, “Why Yale Graduate Students Are on a Hunger Strike,” The New York Times, May 9, 2017.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Noam Scheiber, “Grad Students Win Right to Unionize in an Ivy League Case,” The New York Times, August 23, 2016.