Unionizing and the high cost of living.

I’m often proverbially late to the party, unless it’s proverbially in my face.  I’m weeks late on breaking academic news (unless I’ve been procrastinating on Inside Higher Ed or BBC); months late on memes (unless I’ve been lurking on 4chan); years late on television, anime, and video games too.  Doesn’t help that I can’t afford cable, or a Playstation 3, DS or PSP, or my own Internet connection.  Because, you know, I’m an adjunct and that makes me poor.

These guys aren’t adjuncts, but they’re poor too.  In 2000, grad student teaching and research assistants at NYU signed a union contract that joined them with United Auto Workers, a white-collar workers’ union; this made them the first group at a private university to sign such a contract with their school’s administration: “The four-year accord raised stipends by nearly 40 percent, improved health benefits and paid the assistants extra if their work took more than 20 hours a week” (Greenhouse), which is better than any adjunct union I’ve been in.

In 2004, the labor union took away their right to unionize, stating that they were students and not workers, and now, under Obama’s administration, the whole thing has come to a head as these NYU TAs and RAs push for recognition as a union once more.

I didn’t go to NYU, but like many lucky English/Writing MA, MFA, or PhD candidates, I had a position as a TA.  I was paid nearly $30K for the year for a 1/2 course load.  My class was capped at 12 students, and my faculty commitment was minimal since I was also a student, working on my MFA thesis and finishing up my own course work, 3 classes a semester in addition to the 1 course I taught.  In addition to the bimonthly living stipend, the TA position did something magical: it covered my tuition and gave me Aetna health insurance for free.  In short, this gig was heaven, and I wish I’d appreciated it more when I had it because (God knows) it’s never coming back.

Life is expensive, especially when you’re a student living in NYC.  There are books to buy.  Rent and utilities.  Commuter costs.  Groceries.  You tend to eat out much more as a student than as a real human being.  You tend to drink more.  As an adjunct, you have to meet these expenses and more: you have to commute, eat, pay copying costs, course book production, live in an apartment and pay bills.  On top of this, because you are no longer a student, you have to pay back loans.  Tuition isn’t a concern, but if you’re a TA it isn’t a concern for you either.  Insurance, however, is a concern, since TAing covers the cost of school insurance as well.  Now factor in that typical adjunct pay is in the neighborhood of $20K before taxes and that TA fellowships are often tax-exempt, and suddenly the disparity is glaringly evident.

I don’t want to dismiss the NYU students’ complaint outright, and I really don’t want to call it whining—it is true that they are indispensable workers at any university—but I do think there’s a wide gap between their situation and ours, and I want to take issue with others’ conflation of the two.  It also burns me more than a little that they were at one point recognized as a union, when an institution I previously taught at went out of its way to define adjunct faculty as “management staff,” which, according to their ruling, deprived us of the right to unionize.

Let me be clear. Life is hard, for students and for adjuncts, and I don’t think this issue is actually about polarizing the two groups, as the New York Times article suggests, but it seems to me that graduate student TAs already receive benefits for their services that adjunct faculty do not.  Also, NYU does apparently offer graduate student TAs the chance to join the adjunct union, so why not hop on that bandwagon?  Do they want their own union just for the better contracts they could negotiate?  In this economy I can’t blame anyone for trying to hammer out more money, but if this is the reality of the situation than we aren’t talking about “rights” or “fairness”; we’re talking about how to squeeze an extra buck out of the administration, and as such I don’t have much pity for them.

It depresses me to think that somehow this might fly—that it has flown at one point—and adjuncts, who are hired as part of the work force, are banned from unionizing at certain institutions.  I am also left wondering if the 40% raise in their 2000 contracts came from the adjunct faculty salary budget, or at the expense of adjunct faculty jobs altogether.  Not that we should be guaranteed a number of positions anywhere, and I certainly don’t know all the facts to philosophize about this properly.  But if we’re making this an issue of fairness, grad students can survive on what they have.  I’m not so sure we can.

Creative Commons License
This work by V. Manivannan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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