WSJ editorial about fight between UAW-unionized grad students and administration at Columbia over pay. Funny because WSJ usually takes a pro-management line, but in this case both management and labor are reifications of the virtue-signalling leftist elite.
What do Deere & Co. and Columbia University have in common? Their workers are represented by the United Auto Workers and have gone on strike this fall seeking higher compensation. Yet the contrasts are instructive about the state of higher education.
Many Columbia class sections have been canceled since early November, and final grades have been thrown in jeopardy due to a seven-week strike by the Student Workers of Columbia-UAW, which includes 3,000 graduates and undergraduates who assist with teaching, grading and tutoring. Columbia recently told undergrads they could choose to receive a pass-fail in any course this semester in “appreciation of how difficult this term may have been for you.” Many would prefer actual grades.
While workers at companies like Volkswagen and Amazon have rejected unions, Big Labor is winning with university employees. Last week the UAW was recognized as labor representative for 17,000 student researchers at the University of California. About a quarter (100,000) of UAW members are university employees.
It’s worth reflecting on why unions are having more success on campus. No doubt academic workers are liberal. But it’s also true that they are often treated poorly by universities to support high-earning administrators and tenured faculty.
Consider Columbia, where many student workers earn little more than New York City’s $15 hourly minimum wage. Columbia this spring offered to raise its minimum hourly wage to $17, and the salary of doctoral candidates with 12-month teaching appointments to $42,350. Students rejected the proposal. Columbia’s latest offer is $20 an hour and $43,621 for full-year positions.
The UAW wants $45,000 for 12-month appointments and a minimum $26 hourly rate for non-salaried workers, with annual increases. The union says a single adult had to make at least $45,285 to live in Manhattan in June 2020—before this year’s inflation.
“Columbia made $3.1 billion in returns on its investments this past year alone,” the union says, adding that its demands for a three-year contract would amount to a mere “3% of its increase in net assets from investments.” Columbia charges $63,530 in undergraduate tuition and fees ($82,584 including room and board), which over four years is as much as a cost of a house. President Lee Bollinger earns roughly $4.6 million, and full-time professors make on average $268,400. It’s fair to ask why the university can’t afford to pay student workers—many of whom are being buried in debt that they may never be able to repay—more given they do much of the teaching and grading.
The university has nonetheless held firm and last week warned that striking workers might not be offered positions this spring. The union has accused the university of retaliation and filed unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board. Columbia says it is offering PhD students “one of the most generous packages of any university in the country.”
We take no side in this dispute, though you have to smile at what the Marxists might call the contradictions of academic production. When Kellogg Co. last week threatened to replace striking workers, President Biden called it “an existential attack on the union and its members’ jobs and livelihoods.” Deere and Kellogg pay their factory workers more than Columbia does its academic grunts. Kellogg says most workers at its cereal factories earned $120,000 last year.
Democrats seem less perturbed by the Ivy League school’s hardball bargaining. Seven New York Democrats sent a letter last week to Mr. Bollinger that couldn’t have been more gentle, encouraging the university “to strengthen its efforts in good faith bargaining.”
Columbia’s faculty have also professed solidarity with student workers, which costs nothing. But they haven’t stepped in to help deliver the education for which undergrads are paying a small fortune. Deere and Kellogg used salaried workers to keep their plants running during union strikes. Is it too much to ask tenured professors to grade exams?
Companies that underpay workers and mistreat customers won’t survive long. But universities with brand names have a captive clientele as well as steady subsidies in the form of federal student loans. This is why many were able to get away with keeping classes remote last year without discounting tuition.
The next time you hear professors lecture about inequality in America, ask them about the state of the academic working class.