How Can Departments Support Grad Students in Labor Disputes?


Earlier this month, Harvard University’s Graduate Student Union voted to authorize a strike.

According to the Harvard Crimson,

This month’s strike authorization vote comes after nearly six months of contract negotiations between the union and the University. HGSU-UAW is calling on Harvard to allow independent arbitration for discrimination and sexual harassment complaints, as well as raise compensation and benefits in their second contract.

Reportedly, the graduate students are planning to strike if, by October 27th, they consider the negotiations unsuccessful.

In anticipation of the strikes, the Department of Philosophy at the university announced that it’s moving its annual Whitehead Lecture series, scheduled to begin October 29th, off-campus, at least for the 1st of the two lectures to be given, noting that “many members of the philosophical community will not want to attend events on the Harvard campus during the potential strike by the Harvard Graduate Student Union.” (By the way this year’s Whitehead lecturer is Seanna Schiffrin of UCLA, speaking that day on, appropriately enough, “Democratic Politics: Duty Delegation without Abdication”.)

The move was praised by the Harvard Graduate Student Union.

The events raise the question of what types of action departments might take when their graduate students are engaged in a labor dispute with administration, or on strike. What steps are available? Which are advisable? Discussion welcome.

guest
22 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
David Wallace
1 month ago

I think this can be delicate, and potentially dangerous.

In the first place, while Justin’s main post asks only ‘what types of action departments might take when their graduate students are engaged in a labor dispute with administration, or on strike’, the title of the post is ‘How Can Departments *Support* Grad Students in Labor Disputes’ (emphasis mine), and that seems to be the overall thrust of the post. But presumably it’s not true a priori that the employer is always in the wrong in any labor dispute. So does the department need to form a collective assessment of each case? Does it need to reach a collective view on general ethical questions about whether strikes by teaching staff cause unjustified harm to students? Are these reasonable things for a faculty meeting to have to decide on? And since it’s an unavoidably political question, does it end up with the faculty having to come to a shared view on the politics of unionization, strike action, and so forth, even though that almost certainly means some faculty members end up politically strongly opposed to the politics of the majority?

In the second, while I don’t know anything in detail about the law here, it sounds legally problematic. Let’s suppose we do have this faculty meeting to decide what to do. We’re meeting, on our employer’s time and in our capacity as employees, to decide what action we should take to support a different group of employees in their action against our employer. In other employment contexts, that would be close to wildcat industrial action, and we could be disciplined or fired for it. It’s one thing for a hypothetical union of faculty members to decide how to advise their members on how to show solidarity to strikers; it’s another for an organizational sub-unit of the University itself to do so. 

In the third, it puts anyone in the department with teaching administrative responsibility – the Chair, most obviously – in a very difficult position. The point of a strike by teaching staff is to put pressure on the employer by making it difficult or impossible to provide the teaching they’re obliged to provide to students. But it’s the specific job of the Chair to make sure that teaching happens. In other words, the chair, by virtue of the job they hold, has to work against the the strike. (As I recall, Chairs aren’t permitted to be part of unions, at least in Pennsylvania; this is why.) Again, that works okay if unionized faculty members take certain actions on the advice of their union: that’s then just one more problem for the Chair to deal with. But it’s very different if it’s the faculty qua faculty that’s deciding to take those actions.

I don’t, incidentally, think any of this applies to the Harvard Philosophy department’s statement, which is very carefully worded and can at least defensibly be read as a neutral response to the objective fact of the strike (given the strike, we’ll get a larger audience if we meet off-campus) rather than as active support. Report

Mich C
Mich C
Reply to  David Wallace
1 month ago

An unjust law is no law at all.Report

David Wallace
Reply to  Mich C
1 month ago

Tell that to the judge.Report

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  Mich C
1 month ago

It is actually, but this is not saying you are morally required to obey it.Report

Law
Law
Reply to  Mich C
1 month ago

See. Philosophy of Law: Classic and Contemporary Readings with Commentary by Frederick Schauer and Walter Sinnott-ArmstrongReport

Jon Light
Reply to  David Wallace
1 month ago

Very good comments. Note also that the department chairs often aren’t part of the faculty–they’re temporarily administrators (i.e., during their terms as chair). And so the chair would be in a really precarious position if s/he sided with the graduate students against the administration of which that chair is part.

More generally, it doesn’t strike me that department faculty are well-positioned to have substantive views on labor disputes, which generally fall outside our areas of expertise. At a minimum, the details have to matter and there can’t be a bald mission to “support” graduate students during any and all labor disputes.Report

Louis Cooper
Reply to  Jon Light
1 month ago

Unless one makes the pretty reasonable assumption that in most (though not necessarily all) labor disputes, the employees’ position is likely to be the one worthy of support.Report

Louis F. Cooper
Louis F. Cooper
Reply to  Louis Cooper
1 month ago

Sorry, I usu. post here w/ my middle initial. (Anyway, same person.)Report

Wildcat
Wildcat
Reply to  David Wallace
1 month ago

All of your points are fair and accurate. The structural and institutional (not individual, since, again, you’re basically right) cowardice they exemplify is the exact problem workers are organizing against. Administrations know they can count on faculty to offer well-reasoned qualifications that really are perfectly applicable to the individuals in question. But the material result is that concerted collective actions that could get us out of some of our quite bad local maxima and improve our institutions are instead undermined and end up less effective than they could be. That’s not the *fault* of any faculty member asking themselves how to respond to a strike, but sometimes the right thing to do is to help put right something that wasn’t your fault.Report

David Wallace
Reply to  Wildcat
1 month ago

This is fair (it makes some political assumptions I’m not sure I share, but I try not to talk first-order politics here). One thing I’d pick up on is that you phrase the issue in terms of what an individual faculty *member* could do. I’m more comfortable with that question: asking how individual faculty members (or how several faculty members meeting informally, or how a faculty Union) can support a strike, rather than how a department can support a strike, bypasses at least some of my concerns. (I think some of the things they might decide to do could put them in legal jeopardy, but that’s their risk to take.)Report

Lisa Shapiro
Lisa Shapiro
Reply to  David Wallace
1 month ago

I’m sceptical about the claim that Chairs are not permitted to be part of faculty unions. At least at my university, the cut off for Management is at at the Associate Dean level.
That, however, is part of way unit governance works: our Chairs are only one vote among many in the department. Other universities do structure departmental votes as advisory to the Chair qua Head of Department. So perhaps whether or not the Chair is part of a union is dependent on the local governance model.Report

Aaron V Garrett
Reply to  Lisa Shapiro
1 month ago

The designation of chairs and professors as “management” is an anti-union strategy by universities. It’s of course complete nonsense, insofar as they are trying to expand middle-level non-academic management and make professors powerless at the same time. It is part of the larger strategy to turn universities into hedge funds.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Lisa Shapiro
1 month ago

I’m pretty sure it’s correct for Pitt specifically, because it came up in the recent unionization vote. But I can well believe it varies both by University structure and by state law.Report

John
1 month ago

I’ll offer a really simple thought: no graduate students, then no research position with a cushy 2/2 load.

So we should offer our support: graduate students make research positions at R1s possible. Full stop.Report

Jamie
Jamie
Reply to  John
1 month ago

The simple thought isn’t true (Dartmouth, e.g.). And the conclusion doesn’t follow.
But I don’t think Justin was implying that every department ought always to support graduate student union efforts, in any case. The question is just *how* we can do so. That seems like a good question, and I’m hoping the answers will be useful.Report

John
Reply to  Jamie
1 month ago

Thanks for your reply. I admit I was overlooking that there are research institutions that have different arrangements, like Dartmouth. Though, unless I’m mistaken, Dartmouth has an MA program and I am virtually certain its students’ funding is linked to TA-related duties.

If that’s right, graduate students are still subsidizing research faculty’s workload. If there are programs where faculty enjoy 2/2 loads without graduate student support, the economics must be so unique to the institution I’m not sure the point is generalizable; sounds to me like these are anomalies.

So I do think the ‘simple thought’ remains true, though I did overstate it. But as for whether the conclusion follows, I suppose my line of reasoning was something like: if A is necessary for B (in most cases, as per above), and holders of Bs value holding Bs, then these holders should value A.Report

Phil Yaure
1 month ago

Don’t cross picket lines. If you are unsure what that involves, consult the union.Report

David Wallace
Reply to  Phil Yaure
1 month ago

If, say, a graduate union at my university is striking, and they picket the classroom where I’m supposed to teach a scheduled class, and for that reason I choose not to go in and teach my class, wouldn’t that be a direct breach of my contract of employment, completely unprotected by labor law or by tenure?

“Don’t cross picket lines” makes perfect sense if you’re a member of a striking union, or if you’re a customer of a business and you’re choosing to withhold your custom in solidarity with strikers. It’s another matter if you’re an employee who’s not a member of the union.

To be sure, that’s not to say there might not be reasons to do it anyway. Though as regards this thread, that seems to be something for individuals to decide, not departments – a department, qua department, resolving to adopt a policy of not crossing picket lines strikes me as wildly problematic, for the reasons I give above.Report

Last edited 1 month ago by David Wallace
Andrew Richmond
1 month ago

The amount of lay-speculation about the law in this thread is a bit surprising, considering how silly that speculation almost always turns out to be. Anyways, if anyone reading this is actually looking for substantive advice about the question in the title, you’re best off asking the union or your students with connections to the union, and keeping an open line of communication with them.

The union or the department’s students will have specific asks that differ case-by-case — sometimes they’re hoping faculty will sign petitions or draft a letter, sometimes they would really appreciate faculty support on the picket line, sometimes it would help for faculty to support students at meetings with the administration, sometimes communicating the details of the strike to students will be more important, etc. (Though as Phil mentioned, a main ask will almost always be not to cross the picket line.) And talking to the grad students and the union will help clarify both what the asks are and how to interpret them, along with the other parts of the labor dispute. E.g., if, as part of a strike, grad students are not grading for a period of time, it’s sometimes not clear to faculty that this also means they won’t be doing the missed grading when the strike is over. So just keeping that line of communication open is your best bet (and will also help avoid some of the misunderstandings and bad feelings that can come up in these situations).Report

David Wallace
Reply to  Andrew Richmond
1 month ago

The amount of lay-speculation about the law in this thread is a bit surprising, considering how silly that speculation almost always turns out to be.

My general experience is that the broad contours of the law are fairly logical and you can understand them if you do a bit of research, although when something is genuinely ambiguous then details of jurisprudence matter.

But in any case if you have specific criticisms of any of the broad claims made here (mostly by me, I think) about the legal situation I’d be interested to hear them.Report

James M
1 month ago

The best thing faculty can do to support a striking union on campus is to make sure the faculty are also unionized. If the faculty are not organized, then they should organize. If the faculty are already organized, then they can ally with the striking students the way you would with any other bargaining unit on campus. Report

aeg
aeg
1 month ago

I think for those who share David Wallace’s qualms (which are fair and reasonable as far as they go) it is worth keeping in mind not only the relevant legal questions but also a realistic understanding of the power that resides with you. For example, whatever the law might say, I can promise you that a tenured professor at Harvard will not be fired for refusing to cross a graduate student picket line. Tenured professors wield much more power than graduate students and sometimes they downplay that power in order to justify their unwillingness to stand up for progressive causes within their institutions. Keep in mind tenured professors out there: if you feel precarious or weak, imagine what all of the people who could only dream of your level of job security must feel.Report