Back in 2004, Bush appointees to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) stripped private-university teaching and research assistants of the right to unionize, reversing a unanimous, bipartisan decision in 2000. The NLRB now has an opportunity to restore their rights. All that’s required is actually ruling on a petition for a union election brought by the Graduate Student Organizing Committee at New York University in April 2010.
Due to Republican shenanigans in the Senate, however, there is effectively a deadline of the end of the year. Considering that the new year is less than a month away, private-university administrations may be breathing a sigh of relief. Without a ruling, the law will enable them to legally refuse recognition of graduate employee unions, even if a majority of employees wish to form one.
However, grad employee unions are not known for giving up easily. Graduate Students United at the University of Chicago has launched a national campaign calling on the NLRB to issue a ruling in the time it has left.
The campaign, called Grad Labor Counts!, has already attracted 2200 signatures on an online petition, and has gained the support of the American Association of University Professors, has circulated an official statement of support, calling for participation among its approximately 47,000 members.
All law, particularly labor law, can be used either for repression or the defense of social movements. From the uprising of rank-and-file public sector workers in Wisconsin through Occupy, it has been a year of such movements challenging legal authority with non-violent civil disobedience.
These same authorities – whether they be governors, mayors, or university chancellors – have deployed police violence against non-violent protestors and redefined the law as they see fit. This year Michigan’s governor introduced a law to impose financial martial law on cities facing budget challenges. More recently that state’s Attorney General decided to file a statement opposing the unionization of research assistants at the University of Michigan, which is set for a December 13th hearing before the state labor board.
At the outset of the uprising against Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s union-busting legislation, Walker threatened to call out the National Guard, to which the state’s teachers responded with a three-day sick-out that could be accurately described as a wildcat strike (such strikes have been illegal in the U.S. since the National Labor Relations Act formalized the collective bargaining process in 1935).
The subsequent occupation of the Wisconsin Capitol and the Walker administration’s increased restrictions on access to the Capitol has found an echo more recently in city government responses to Occupy encampments. These range from petty harassment to middle-of-the-night blitzkrieg raids (complete with the trashing of a 5,554 volume library in the case of Zuccotti Park / Liberty Plaza).
While labor solidarity among teachers, cops, firefighters, and other public employees was much in evidence in the Wisconsin Capitol – with police openly refusing orders from the Governor and instead joining the occupation – militarized city and campus police forces across the country have rarely displayed such solidarity with Occupy.
Aside from the occasional exception, as in the Albany police force’s tolerance for protestors, and the retired Philadelphia cop who was arrested in full uniform by the NYPD on November 17th, police responses to Occupy have become infamous for their violent repression of nonviolent civil disobedience (Bloomberg recently referred to the NYPD with affection as “my own army“).
UC Berkeley English faculty Celeste Langan and Robert Hass wrote eloquently of their experience of such repression at a recent campus protest, as did one CUNY writing instructor, who mentioned the presence of people of color at a recent demonstration against tuition increases. Communities of color have of course for years often been subjected to such harsh policing. As the Bicycle Barricade blog wrote in response to the pepper-spraying of students at UC Davis, such “punitive violence, as terrible as it was, is not an example of bad policing. It is an example of policing” (emphasis in original). But rather than suppressing the movement, police violence has actually served to mobilize greater numbers in its support.
“Other Ways” of Change
As Staughton Lynd and Daniel Gross write in their 1978 pamphlet, Labor Law for the Rank & Filer (published in a second edition in 2011 by PM Press), “the best way to think of the law is as a shield, not a sword. The law is not an especially good way to change things. But it can give you some real protection as you try to change things in other ways.”
These “other ways” include organizing, direct action, and the full range of workplace actions from slow-downs to occupations to strikes. Over the years, such strategies have built the labor movement, including the academic labor movement, from the ground up.
The NLRB is clearly not the primary means by which workers gain organized power, but it can provide strong back-up when university administrators and other bosses try to avoid or bust unions in either the public or the private sector. The NLRB should just do its job and issue a ruling. Grad Labor Counts!
Andrew Yale is a PhD student in English and writing instructor at the University of Chicago, as well as an organizer with UChicago Graduate Students United and a member of the AAUP’s Committee on Graduate and Professional Students.
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