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“Democracy in the workplace is still basic to a democratic society, and collective bargaining is still basic to a fair economy,” says Wilma Liebman.

Last week’s appointment of Wilma Liebman to chair the NLRB is extremely welcome news to graduate employees and other academic workers.

The author of a scathing dissent to the Bush mob’s truculent Brown decision, Liebman adds serious credibility to hopeful interpretations of the Cabinet-level nomination of Hilda Solis.

Obama will not fix academic labor’s problems from above, but he will ensure that labor has the chance to exercise workplace rights. (Though the choice to practice workplace democracy, as those with experience will attest, is just the beginning of a long and arduous road!)

Liebman’s acceptance of the position is particularly heartening:

Democracy in the workplace is still basic to a democratic society, and collective bargaining is still basic to a fair economy. The statute we administer is the foundation of America’s commitment to human rights recognized around the world.

You can view my interviews with NYU and Chicago grad employees on this YouTuibe playlist. Graduate employee unionization in the U.S. is more advanced at public institutions, and organizing at private schools stalled for a while in the aftermath of the reversal of the NYU decision in the Brown case, but there has been a resurgence of militancy among grad employees at private institutions.

GSU and GSOC-UAW are at very different stages of the organizing process. The interview with members of Graduate Students United at the University of Chicago is a snapshot of an emerging union drive at a private institution. They reflect on the benefits of organizing, whether unionism is an end in itself, and on the nature, purpose, and extent of democracy in higher education.

The activists from GSOC-UAW at NYU are at an entirely different point in their experience. They reflect on a successful organizing drive and first contract, setbacks with the NLRB, a failed strike, the strategy of continuous organizing, the administration’s response, and other topics. Their struggle represents some of the greatest successes and also some of the greatest setbacks in graduate employee labor organizing so far, and as such is especially worthy of detailed study.

The folks of GSOC argue that politics, politicians, and legislation follow activism and self-organization. As they point out in the clip above (part 3 of 4) the TRACBRA legislation that would ensure bargaining rights for teaching and research assistants — that’s a gesture, a drop in the bucket. It’s important, but nowhere near as important as self-organization.

See part 1 of the GSOC-UAW video: A Union Cannot Stand Alone.
See part 2 of the GSOC-UAW video: A Culture of Continuous Organizing.
See part 3 of the GSOC-UAW video: Politics, Organizing and the NLRB
See part 4 of the GSOC-UAW video: Shame on You, NYU.

Also see the book edited by some of the folks interviewed here, The University Against Itself with Andrew Ross, and a special issue of Workplace: A Journal for Academic Labor, edited by Christopher Carter, Beyond the Picket Line: Academic Organizing After the Long NYU Strike.

Carter has written an especially good assessment of the core point made by the GSOC folks in this video–the crucial role of campus alliances, in his just-released Rhetoric and Resistance in the Corporate Academy (Hampton, 2008). Chapter 4, “The Student as Organic Intellectual,” tracks the importance of undergraduate USAS activists in GSOC’s successful first round of bargaining.

Graduate Students United (at U. Chicago):
Part 1: Why Grad Employees Unionize
Part 2: Ballad of the Dissertators
Part 3: Pushback
Part 4: Unions and Academic Democracy

Learn more:

17th Annual Coalition of Graduate Employee Unions Conference
Hosted by GESO in New Haven, CT. July 31-August 3 2008

8th International Conference of the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor
Hosted by COCAL-California, San Diego State University. August 8-10, 2008

4th Annual Canadian Coalition of Graduate Employee Unions Conference
Hosted by GTA-Union at the University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario. August 7-9, 2008.



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