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Thanks again, Ralph!  and all your friends!

From last week’s Chronicle of Higher Education:

Labor Board Rules Against TA Unions
Decision is major blow to organizing efforts at private colleges

By Scott Smallwood

Graduate students at private universities do not have the right to form labor unions, the National Labor Relations Board ruled on Thursday, striking down its own landmark 2000 ruling that had led to a wave of organizing.

The long-awaited decision was split along party lines, with members of the board ruling, 3 to 2, that teaching assistants at Brown University are primarily students and are not covered by federal labor law. The United Automobile Workers had organized graduate students at Brown in 2001 and had successfully petitioned for a union election. Those ballots were impounded when the university appealed to the NLRB, and have remained uncounted ever since.

In 2000 the board, then controlled by Democratic appointees, ruled that graduate students at New York University could unionize, prompting organizing drives across the nation that signed up thousands of graduate students over the last four years. That work is now undone by the board’s ruling.

In the Brown case, the three Republican members appointed by President Bush ruled that the precedent before the NYU ruling was “sound and well reasoned.”

“Graduate-student assistants, including those at Brown, are primarily students and have a primarily educational, not economic, relationship with their university,” the majority wrote. They further found that since the money received by teaching assistants is the same as that received by students on fellowships, it is not “consideration for work” but financial aid.

The two Democratic members dissented, arguing that the majority was “woefully out of touch with contemporary academic reality” and that their decision was based on an outdated view of academe.

Brown’s provost, Robert J. Zimmer, said in a written statement that the board “correctly recognizes that a graduate student’s experience is a mentoring relationship between faculty and students and is not an appropriate matter for collective bargaining.”

Phil Wheeler, a regional director of the United Automobile Workers, called the decision a blatantly political ruling and said it was disappointing that supposedly progressive universities
had appealed the case to an “anti-union Bush board.”

. . .

As word of the decision spread, the American Federation of Teachers was holding its annual convention in Washington. Minutes after learning of the decision, Nat LaCour, the executive vice president, told members: “The ruling is outrageous. This must change.”

A spokeswoman at Columbia University said the institution would not comment on the ruling since it did not directly involve Columbia.

Lori Doyle, a spokeswoman for Penn, said administrators there are “delighted” by the ruling.  “We are pleased that the NLRB has recognized what we’ve been saying all along: that graduate students are students, not employees,” she said. After quickly reviewing the decision, lawyers there said they expect to see a ruling soon on their case that would be consistent with the Brown decision.

Union leaders were holding out a sliver of hope, though. While acknowledging that the decision was a “major blow,” Lauren Nauta, the Penn union’s organizing chairwoman, said leaders of her group believe their case is different enough from the one at Brown that the NLRB’s ruling could be different.

Ms. Nauta, a Ph.D. candidate in history, said students at Penn were outraged by the decision and what they see as its political aspect. “Basically this comes down to Bush’s Republican appointees overturning the NYU precedent,” she said. “It’s very unclear what the distinction between graduate students at a public university and a private university would be. We feel that we’re employees, we pay taxes, and we should have the right to bargain collectively.”

All right, now, people familiar with this blog and/or with my work in academe know that I’ve been a passionate supporter of graduate student unions, and that I’ve been a bitter critic of Ralph Nader’s run for President in 2000 (his current run is simply evidence of dementia, and though I’ve promised not to say any more about the man himself on this blog, I will have a few questions for his remaining supporters, the Five Percenters, a bit later on).  But is it fair of me to blame Ralph for this mortal wound the NLRB has inflicted on graduate student union drives?  Or am I reading history backwards, retroactively applying criteria to the 2000 election that no progressive-left voter could possibly have taken into consideration at the time?

The correct answer is (a), it is fair of me to blame Ralph for this mortal wound inflicted by the NLRB.  But that’s not because I went around arguing about the composition of the NLRB four years ago-- it’s because Eric Alterman did.  Check out this Nation column from November 2000, and you make the call:

Providence put me on a panel debating the Gore/Nader choice with Cornel West at New York University in late October. Most of the audience was for Nader, and the lineup on stage did nothing to improve those odds.

Before the debate began, its organizers took a few moments to speak on behalf of the university’s graduate students’ struggle for unionization. So did West, who had been handed a flier about it from the floor. And as a man about to lose a debate (and a longtime grad student as well as an occasional NYU adjunct faculty member), I was happy for the interruption. Days later, the National Labor Relations Board set an important precedent by ruling in favor of the students. But here’s what I don’t understand. How can the student union supporters also be Nader supporters? Nonsensical “Tweedledee/Tweedledum” assertions to the contrary, only one party appoints people to the NLRB who approve of graduate student unions, and only one appoints people to the Supreme Court who approve of such NLRB decisions. No Democrat in the White House, no graduate student union; it’s that simple. An honest Nader campaign slogan might have read, “Vote your conscience and lose your union...or your reproductive freedom...your wildlife refuge, etc., etc.”

No Democrat in the White House, no graduate student union; it’s that simple. He really did say it-- the very same week that Bob McChesney, who has since come to his senses, called for Gore to drop out of the race, writing that “Only Nader can defeat Bush. All that progressives stand for-- the Supreme Court, a woman’s right to choose, the environment-- is on the line. The sad truth is that on November 7 a vote for Gore is a vote for Bush.”

Like McChesney, many Naderites have begun to smell the rancid GOP coffee, even though it’s been on the burner for over a decade.  Barbara Ehrenreich recently repudiated Nader as well, in her new (and welcome) incarnation as a New York Times op-ed pinch hitter, but, as Digby pointedly argued the other day, picking up on an item from Brad DeLong,

It was clear to many of us in 2000 that the Republican Party had completely run amuck and that George W. Bush was simply a brand name in a suit that the Party was putting forth to hide their essential ugliness from the American people. It was obvious to some of us that this was an unprecedented partisan battle and that this insular, myopic view on the left was going to hurt us very badly. I have little patience for the idea that it took this massive demonstration of GOP power under the Bush administration to convince people that the first, most important order of political business was to check the Republican power grab. It was obvious in 2000 to anyone who was paying attention.

Thanks, Digby, for reminding everyone of the “paying attention” criterion.  And thanks also, Brad, for reminding me that Ehrenreich called voting for the Democrat in 2000 a “playful new postmodernist form of politics.” Ha ha!  That was a good one, Ms. Ehrenreich.  You really got us postmodernists there!

So yes, I know, among the travesties and outrages the Bush administration has visited upon us-- and note that this blog, like most American media, is doing its patriotic duty in not saying anything about the torture and rape of children at Abu Ghraib-- this NLRB ruling is very small beer.  But just for future reference:  no Democrat in the White House, no graduate student union.  It’s that simple.

UPDATE:  Oh, all right, I can be more constructive than this.  Stop over at The Nader Factor and show ‘em some love.  They’re doing the Right Thing, and you should too.

Posted by on 07/21 at 03:23 AM
  1. I find it really bizarre that the blame is assigned to Nader for running, rather than for voters who voted for him, didn’t vote, or the rather huge number who voted for Bush. 

    It’s actually not particularly fair for you to blame Nader for running, unless you think voters are sheep whom he mesmerizes to the point that they cannot be held accountable for their own actions.  It’s bizarrely authoritarian, actually—the solution being not for your preferred candidate to attract votes, but for voters to have fewer options since they can’t be trusted to make the choice you (and I, fwiw) prefer.

    Posted by no dice  on  07/21  at  06:20 AM
  2. And for some larger beer, no republican in the White House, no invasion of Iraq, and 900 gi’s and lots of Iraqis still alive.  Thanks Ralph AND all your myopic, self-indulgent supporters. 

    Posted by  on  07/21  at  07:11 AM
  3. Actually I think it’s OK for everyone to run-- Nader, David McReynolds, John Hagelin, Pat Buchanan, Ross Perot, Howard Stassen, Gus Hall, the whole crew, living and dead.  Even Zombie Reagan, who really should replace Cheney on the GOP ticket.  But in 2000, only one of these guys had any serious institutional and popular support from the left (including many, many people I respect), and only one of them went around saying things that were clearly arrant nonsense about Tweedledee and Tweedledum, designed to peel progressive votes away from the Democratic nominee (who was, yes, a weak candidate with a very, very bad running mate).  Only one of them violated a pledge not to campaign in swing states where his supporters might throw the election to the Republican.  And in 2000, only one of them told In These Times‘s David Moberg, “After November, we’re going to go after the Congress in a very detailed way, district by district. If [Democratic candidates] are winning 51 to 49 percent, we’re going to go in and beat them with Green votes. They’ve got to lose people, whether they’re good or bad.” As Alterman wrote in response, later in that same November column, “It’s hard to imagine what kind of deal can be done with a man whose angriest rhetorical assaults appear reserved for his natural allies.” Note that Alterman also said, immediately thereafter, “The vituperative attacks on Nader, leveled by many of my friends and cronies on the prolabor democratic left, were almost as counterproductive, however morally justified.” Four years later, though, with all this damage around us (some of it very likely irreparable) and with Nader running with the funding of right-wing troublemakers and Bizarro-world Reform Party apparatchiks, vituperative attacks seem OK by me.

    My point, though, is simply this.  My friends (and Eric’s) on the prolabor democratic left were right about Bush.  I feel the same way about this that I feel about the war in Iraq:  the arguments we made a few years ago have turned out to be the right ones.  The burden of proof is no longer on us.  We said that X would be a disaster, and X was a disaster, and sometimes we even had the tiny details right (though we sure as hell didn’t foresee anything as atrocious as Abu Ghraib).  So we’re kind of hoping that more of our friends on the left give us the time of day this time.

    Posted by  on  07/21  at  08:48 AM
  4. I think it makes a lot more sense to blame the NLRB, the Bush Administration, the agressive lobbying of Richard Levin, Lee Bollinger, Ruth Simmons, and Jusith Rodin, the electoral college, Jeb Bush, Katherine Harris, ballot-machine subcintracting, fraudulent disenfranchisement of felons, and the supreme court than it does to blame Nader.  While i don’t particularly support him, i also don’t accept the blanket statement that nader is somehow responsible for Bush’s victory.  I don’t mean to defend Nader, whose recent cozying to the far right i find disgusting and repulsive, but the blame for last week’s disgusting abuse of judicial power shoudl be placed squarely where it belongs.

    Posted by Zach Schwartz-Weinstein  on  07/21  at  09:00 AM
  5. Right you are, Zach.  But blaming the people who bear the most proximate responsibility for this decision seems so . . . I don’t know, Republican.

    Seriously, Kerry is still in a dead heat as we speak, and Nader continues to draw four or five percent in the polls (most, but not all, of it from Kerry).  It seems an opportune time to remember that savvy progressive voters for Gore in 2000 didn’t go around saying, “put away your silly dreams for a better world, you left-wingers-of-the-impossible.  Knuckle under to the corporate duopoly-- it’s all we have.” No, we said that however uninspiring or compromised Gore might be, his administration would have the power to appoint hundreds and thousands of people to federal departments and regulatory agencies.  Take for example the difference between having Clarence Thomas at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or a Clinton appointee like Paul Steven Miller.  These things really do matter, and progressives know it-- unlike the “swing” voters who were “turned off” by Gore’s sighs and his claims to have invented the Internet and the Love Story Canal.  Those folks didn’t meet the “paying attention” criterion, and I’m less concerned about them than I am about progressives and lefties who do understand how the government works but who nevertheless talk derisively about “lesser evilism” as if the lesser evil were not, in fact, a significantly lesser evil.

    Posted by  on  07/21  at  09:11 AM
  6. "It’s like saying take your choice of cancer or heart disease. Someone is saying, ‘I don’t want either.’”

    Nice, huh? This from Ralph just yesterday, speaking in Alaska.
    What worries me the most is that this Tweedledee/Tweedledum-heart disease/cancer formula seems to have seeped into the left’s collective unconscious to such an extent that even those who will vote for Kerry this time are so convinced of his essential corruptness going in that he is considered a failure before he even begins.

    No matter in the short run.  It is essential to block the GOP immediately, just to stop the bleeding. But the twin rhetorical assaults from Nader and his allies on the Right against the Democratic party have created a very serious impediment to actual progressive governance in the real world. Liberals have internalized this relentless subliminal drumbeat that Democrats are feckless and weak right along with the Republicans.

    As Thomas Oliphant put it today in his Kerry piece at the American Prospect, the modern Democratic Party is neurotic and the modern Republican Party is fanatic.  And Ralph is part of the reason for the liberals’ neurosis.

    If I believed in conspiracy theories I’d have my tin foil hat tuned to the frequency that says Nader actually is a Republican mole. Here on planet earth, however, he appears to be just another useful idiot in a long line of GOP dupes.  He can have dinner with Zell when this is all over.  They both serve the same master to the same end --- divide the Dems.  It won’t necessarily save Junior because he is just so terrible, but they are very useful to fuel animosity toward the party from opposite ends of the Democratic coalition, furthering the impression that Democrats are so weak and useless that even their own people can’t stand them.

    Posted by  on  07/21  at  11:59 AM
  7. Personally, i’m more concerned with where the academic labor movement goes from here and what I can do to expedite that movement’s success than blaming Nader’s ineptitude for the fact that Nush turned out to be an even biggr fascist than his dad.  A Kerry presidency won’t mean much for the folks organizing at private universities around the country if all of their campaigns get wiped out before he has the chance to appoint anyone to the NLRB. 

    Posted by Zach  on  07/21  at  12:25 PM
  8. As I understand it, this NLRB ruling contravenes a lot of precedent and so it wouldn’t be surprising for this ruling itself to be overturned a little down the road.  The GA/TA union at Penn, for instance, has made it clear that they have no intention of letting this ruling be the final word on the matter so this probably just portends more battles to come.

    Of course, the chances are much higher that the NLRB’s next engagement with this issue will turn out favorably to labor if Bush is not in the White House for a second term.

    Posted by Kelly I  on  07/21  at  02:45 PM
  9. Also, as much as I lament the outcome of the 2000 Presidential election (and especially what ensued from it), its fairly disheartening to hear a steady chorus of “There Is No Alternative” enjoining me to be excited about voting for John Kerry in the same way that I was, I’ll admit, excited about voting for Nader in 2000.

    Posted by Kelly I  on  07/21  at  02:54 PM
  10. Kelly-- I’ll say more about excitement when I get to my long-deferred post about why Dem critiques of Nader in 2000 just Didn’t Get It.  The last time I was excited about a vote I’d cast in a Presidential race, it was for Barry Commoner in 1980.  And Zach, yes, the future of the academic labor movement is the first thing on the table, and for now the movement is comatose at private universities, but it’s important that Ralph is still running around, four years later, saying the same damn things. . . .

    Posted by  on  07/21  at  03:25 PM
  11. Hmm. Don’t think that, just maybe, the NRLB decided the issue correctly, on the law and the facts and that is just the way it is? In other words, justice was just not on the side of teacher’s assistant labor recognition.  No, that couldn’t possibley be the case.

    It is good to see the utter contempt that lefties have for the very idea of judicial integrity. All that matters to you is how the judges “vote”.  When they “vote” for our decisions then they are good judges, when they “vote” otherwise, they are bad. Too bad Bush is too lame to make THIS the issue.

    Posted by  on  07/27  at  10:02 AM





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