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Why I Am Glad I Am an Economist I:

An Appalling Article on Graduate Student Unionization by Yale Historian Paul Kennedy

J. Bradford DeLong
delong@econ.berkeley.edu
http://www.j-bradford-delong.net/

There is something about other social-scientific disciplines that provokes illiberal and destructive patterns of thought: a belief that quantitative measurements are not the base on which one's interpretation should be built but rhetorical weapons to be used for advantage, a belief that anecdotes are persuasive without inquiring into whether they are representative, an assumption that all elements of the current situation one likes are part of the natural order of things, and a belief that anyone else's use of economic or social power is profoundly illegitimate.

Consider the piece below, for example, from the March 25, 1999 Wall Street Journal.

I don't know what I find more appalling:

  • The open snobbery with which Paul Kennedy ridicules the idea that lower-class union leaders and members might have something to teach about or some concern over conditions of employment of graduate students--culminating in the sneer that "[f]urther research might reveal that the National Candlestick Makers' Union is active among the Ph.D. [candidates] at Duke or Texas."
  • The casual mendacity in his implication that the typical humanities graduate student at a private university gets his or her tuition paid and $12,000 a year with no strings attached to live on.
  • The sneer at humanities graduate student section leaders at his own university--paid I believe about $10 an hour when the average wage for people in their late 20s with advanced degrees is $20, and with little prospects for ever getting a tenured professorship like Paul Kennedy's--for "imagin[ing themselves] as an aggrieved member of an exploited academic proletariat."
  • The claim that the UAW's paying its lead organizer at Yale (a more than full-time job) some $10 an hour is an extraordinarily generous subsidy that will lead to a "new career track for Ph.D.s who find all this campaigning much more exciting than their work on Milton or Freud."
  • The claim that union leaders are somehow exploiting their blue-collar members and transferring wealth from poor to rich--"I have tried to imagine how my father and my uncles (all shipyard boilermakers) would have reacted a quarter-century ago had they been told that part of their union dues was going to pay the salaries of graduate organizers at, say, Oxford; but my mind boggles in the effort"--when the average UAW member has close to twice the hourly wage of a Yale graduate student section leader and much greater job security.
  • The aside that "one can debate elsewhere the pros and cons of using graduate students as teaching assistants at some stage during their Ph.D. years--is it chiefly to give them vital experience as future college professors, or to exploit them as graduate proles?" The job market for Ph.D.'s in the humanities collapsed in the early 1970s. Professor Kennedy and his peers have had 25 years to debate elsewhere just what they think they are doing in continuing to run their Ph.D. programs on a large scale. Yet they have somehow never managed to do so...

Commentary: The International Brotherhood of Eggheads

by Paul Kennedy, a professor of history at Yale University.

Given the excitement of NATO's military strikes in the Balkans, even the most avid newspaper readers may have missed reports that graduate students at the University of California, Los Angeles, voted on Monday in overwhelming numbers to form a union affiliated with the United Auto Workers, and that their brethren at seven other University of California campuses may soon follow suit.

Before rushing to conclude that we have here just another example of the unreal world of the West Coast, readers should note that this is a national trend. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, the UAW already represents graduate students at the University of Massachusetts and has a bid for similar representation at New York University. The Communication Workers of America represents graduate assistants at most of the larger campuses of the State University of New York, and have bids in at Indiana University. The United Electrical Workers (I kid ye not) are similarly active in union negotiations for graduate teachers at the University of Iowa.

Not to be outdone, a "graduate employees" association (acronym GESO) at Yale University is asking the National Labor Relations Board for recognition as a chapter of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union. Further research might reveal that the National Candlestick Makers Union is active among the Ph.D.s at Duke or Texas, but the pattern we can draw from the above examples is already clear.

The reasons for certain groups of graduate students to seek outside help are not difficult to fathom. While well-heeled private universities like Princeton, Stanford and (latterly) Yale nowadays waive tuition costs and offer five-year stipends to incoming Ph.D.s, their less fortunate peers at the under-funded state universities receive far less assistance and can only survive by teaching large number of undergraduates. With dreams of becoming future Ivy-League professors cramped by the glut of candidates for any teaching job, especially in the humanities and social sciences, it is easy to imagine oneself as an aggrieved member of an exploited academic proletariat, requiring the same protection as the mineworkers and railwaymen of a century ago.

Besides, association with the UAW gives the protesting Ph.D.s hitherto unheard-of resources, such as free legal expertise and a strike fund. It is also easy for the student organizers to abandon their own dissertations and imagine that they have become professional, full-time union leaders, latter-day equivalents of historical figures who manned the barricades for worker's rights.

The former GESO lead organizer at Yale is now revealed to have received $22,500 from the Hotel Employees Union in 1997 for her services as a union "officer," which is more than twice the going rate for graduate stipends in the humanities. Were the National Labor Relations Board to compel Yale to recognize GESO as a negotiating body, there would doubtless develop a new career track for Ph.D.s who find all this campaigning much more exciting than their work on Milton or Freud.

One can debate elsewhere the pros and cons of using graduate students as teaching assistants at some stage during their Ph.D. years--is it chiefly to give them vital experience as future college professors, or to exploit them as graduate proles?

The important question raised here is why the leadership of national trade unions, especially those founded to protect the interests of blue-collar workers, are investing such resources in "bidding" to represent graduate students at universities across the U.S. It is well known that union membership has declined substantially over the past 20 or more years, so it could be argued that lateral recruitment is part of a strategy of survival. But does the term "lateral" mean anyone and everybody, regardless of incongruity?

Has it never occurred to the NLRB that orders to universities to permit graduates to be represented by an autoworkers union, or a restaurant employees union, look, well, silly? Will it not simply alienate the more moderate graduate students, who do not want their concerns represented by an ambitious and professionally distant electricians' union?

Moreover, has anyone in the union bureaucracies asked their own rank-and-file what they think of subsidizing graduate students at Yale and elsewhere, and explained how this boosts the national position of hotel employees? I have tried to imagine how my father and my uncles (all shipyard boilermakers) would have reacted a quarter-century ago had they been told that part of their union dues was going to pay the salaries of graduate organizers at, say, Oxford; but my mind boggles in the effort.

University life has its own idiosyncracies that often make the world outside shake its head, whether in admiration or disgust; but the insertion of Trojan Horses from the very different sphere of organized labor into the delicate negotiation processes with our own Ph.D. students looks both clumsy and absurd. It ought to stop, before both the unions and their graduate sympathizers lose even further respect.

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Dr. Delong,

You have an absolutely wonderful web site. I enjoy reading your frank take on everything. You really make me think, and I enjoy learning about economics from your web site. But, enough flattery...

I would like to ask for some information: You took a rather critical look at one Paul Kennedy for his comments on graduate student unionization at UCLA. I greatly enjoyed your epistemological approach to disecting his argument. Nonetheless, I happen to be a space physics (see sci/tech in this week's Economist) graduate student at UCLA, and I had some of the same concerns inflated in his article: namely, why is UAW pushing the TA union? The idea of TA unionization is not, per se, an issue I have much of an opinion on, as I have only spent one quarter as a TA (usually I get paid on an RA, which disqualifies me for union benefits but not membership). I have been reluctant to support the UAW push, because I suspect that it is not all it's cracked up to be. My primary concern is that the transient population of graduate TAs will be overwhelmed by the more permanent population of career auto workers. I have also noticed a rather angry rhetorical bent in the emails distributed to me by the union organizers--moral indignation is not my idea of a good union platform. These are perhaps some things you can comment on to my benefit. But that is not why I wrote this email.

I have what I think is a rather straightforward economic question for you: What are the historical consequences of unionization across sectors (horizontal unionization?) as opposed to sector specific unionization? What are the economic impacts? How effective is each approach? i.e. What is the optimal configuration of unions: ought they be isolated to specific sectors or joined across sectors? The application of this to the UC situation is obvious, so any connections you might draw would be appreciated.

Well, I hope you have some time to answer this email, either directly or by referal. It would be like an autograph from a celebrity, but much, much better. I'm off to a government funded week in Snowmass,CO for a workshop.

Contributed by Paul O'Brien (tpoiii@mediaone.net) on June 19, 2000.


I share your fear that the interests of the (transient) population of TAs will be overwhelmed by the interests of the (more permanent) labor bureaucracy...

But my view is that a population as transient as TAs is really *hard* to organize: if anyone can successfully organize them, it's a sign that they're really angry and that things are going really wrong...

Contributed by Brad DeLong (delong@econ.berkeley.edu) on June 19, 200


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