UAW Inc.


After a long battle, the United Auto Workers finally won the right to unionize graduate assistants at NYU. Last month, the National Labor Relations Board in Washington upheld its New York affiliate’s earlier decision to allow graduate assistants to hold a union election. This election was held last spring, but the votes were impounded until the NLRB could decide on NYU’s appeal. Now that it has, the votes have been counted. Here are the results: 619 GAs voted to unionize; 551 voted not to unionize; 290 GAs did not vote.

It’s official, then. Collective bargaining has come to NYU, and if you thought the fight to establish the union was byzantine, rest assured, the wrangling has only just begun. One thing’s certain, though. Academic freedom and collegiality are roadkill. Fiduciary and political self-interest will be the guiding force behind everything the union does at NYU (that is what unions are for). Meanwhile, the best interests of the undergraduates whom these GAs are teaching, and the campus community of which they are a part, won’t count for a farthing.

And that, more than anything, is why the UAW at NYU is a bad idea. Though it’s true that a university is a business much like any other—complete with profit, production, management, and workers—its product is education, not automobiles. When most unions haggle or strike, the company’s profits are the only real casualty. Production stops. Cars don’t get built, trains don’t run. The consumer is inconvenienced, but not harmed. When teachers strike, however, the result is quite different, because in education, unlike in other businesses, the consumer (the student) is also the product. As the consumer, he’s not simply inconvenienced, but harmed. Unlike, say, a car, the student is a third party, whose needs must be taken into account.

Here we have the great injustice of teachers’ unions. Students, for whom education is purported to exist, are overlooked. According to Myron Lieberman, senior research scholar at the Social Philosophy and Policy Center at Bowling Green State University, the fight over vouchers in elementary and secondary schools is a prime example of how teachers’ self-interest overrides students’ welfare. “The teachers’ unions are absolutely opposed to vouchers because they introduce competition,” he says, “and once you do that, you can’t put up with the inefficiencies that unions mandate.”

The same is true with curriculum debates in lower education. Lieberman says the unions are pushing one-sided course material not just on the history of unions, but on a whole series of lefty pet causes. This is bad enough for high school students’ intellectual growth, but the stakes are higher in college. “That’s when kids make up their minds about a lot of things,” says Lieberman. That’s also when kids are supposed to be learning to think for themselves. You think the decimation of academic freedom by political correctness is bad on campus now? “Well,” says Lieberman, “it’s gonna be worse with unions. I don’t have any doubt about that.”

Though NYU’s GAs may have bought the UAW’s line, they, like the rest of the academic community, may learn the hard way that the union doesn’t really have their best interests at heart. Unions—surprise, surprise—are part of the capitalist establishment, and are likewise motivated by financial gain, not social justice. “Most people really do not understand the dynamics of a union,” says Lieberman. “They’re an outfit selling services and they’ll go out and organize anything that moves. In this case, the graduate students are the customers.” As it turns out, the UAW has an extra incentive to lasso new clients. Leo Troy, a professor of economics at Rutgers in Newark, makes a compelling case for why the UAW has taken on the rather strange task of unionizing graduate students, of all people.

“The UAW, which once had about 1.4 million members, now has less than half that. The motivation is very obvious. They’ve lost over half their membership, and they’re looking for ways to pick up members here and there—just like a company looking for new sales. They reach out to get members wherever they can find them without regard to the jurisdiction they might be in. The graduate students really belong in the jurisdiction of the American Federation of Teachers or the National Education Association.”

I wonder, would progressives be less inclined to idealize union reps if they saw them for the salesmen they really are? As for the GAs, I hope they get their money’s worth.