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As Universities are Gutted, Grad Student Employee Unions Can Provide a Vital Defense

Wednesday, July 5th, 2017

The exploitation of academic workers has simmered for decades. Now, buoyed by a National Labor Relations Board ruling that graduate employees at private universities have the right to unionize, a new generation is organizing unions across private universities—defying a wave of pushback from administrations. Some students win (Columbia, Loyola). Some withdraw (Duke). Some get caught in a limbo of university appeals (Yale).

But all of these efforts are integral to the U.S. labor movement, as graduate workers challenge their own exploitation and the neoliberal decimation of the higher-education institutions that employ them.

I’m a graduate worker at Vanderbilt University and a member of the committee organizing to unionize 1,200 graduate employees. I attend graduate school out of a passion for learning, writing and teaching young people. I came here to critique Western intellectual history by analyzing social, economic and political issues. These matters impact my life and the lives of loved ones; they are not academic hobbies or intellectual fancies. Even lecturing is no mere academic exercise: Higher education is what fosters democratic citizenship. It cultivates capacities for critical self-reflection, engagement in public discourse and thoughtful participation in a rapidly changing world. We need these pursuits now more than ever.

I did not come to graduate school to spend thousands of dollars out-of- pocket to fulfill professional obligations while watching my institution insidiously cut funding opportunities for faculty and graduate workers. I did not come to graduate school to listen to administrators rebrand us as students gaining ‘experiential education opportunities’ rather than as employees teaching introductory classes, executing research programs, or building scholarly communities. Most importantly, I did not come to graduate school to bolster a system that abuses its workers, ignores academic rigor, overlooks sexual harassment allegations against distinguished (male) faculty, engages in unlawful labor practices and disregards the needs of its staff and faculty.

And yet, this system demands that I participate by providing constant intellectual, physical and emotional labor, despite minimal job security.

Many scholars have already exposed the decline of education and the poor labor conditions of university educators. In his 2011 The Fall of the Faculty, Benjamin Ginsberg published a devastating analysis of the decline of faculty power. More recently, Elizabeth Anderson’s 2015 Tanner Lectures at Princeton, published as Private Government, chronicled dictatorial employment practices. And last month, University of Michigan dual-Ph.D. candidate Maximillian Alvarez penned “Contingent No More,” a manifesto criticizing the laissez-fare academic culture that perpetuates the “neoliberization of higher education.”

These writers illuminate the struggles of a new generation of faculty and graduate workers in academia. Burdened by insurmountable student debt and confronted by the machinery of U.S. capitalism, we fight just to survive.

Recent struggles in higher education are part of a long history of economic exploitation and domination over workers, problems that have pervaded U.S. society since its racist, genocidal and profit-driven founding. Whereas in the 1970s almost 80 percent of faculty were full-time, universities today have shifted to a contingent employment model. Non-tenure track faculty now compose 70 percent of the academic labor force, 41 percent of whom are part-time. Graduate workers are 13 percent of the academic labor force, almost 5 percent more than full-time, tenure-track faculty.

Why? Because contingent labor is cheap, and no tenure means we’re expendable. This allows universities to slash salaries for faculty while expanding bureaucratic administrations that obstruct grievance processes and legal redress.

In fact, Business Insider reveals that tuition has increased by 260 percent since 1980, compared to the 120 percent increase in consumer items over the same period. So, where is that money going, if not to faculty and graduate employee salaries? It is going to university administrators, whose employment has increased by 221 percent from 1975 to 2008. In contrast, faculty employment has increased by only 3.5 percent.

All the while, faculty and students are left in the dark as to how university revenue is spent. The Illinois State Senate’s 99 Percent General Assembly 2015 Report on Executive Compensation notes that “tuition increases have coincided with a dramatic increase in administrative costs, including the size of administrative departments and compensation packages for executives.” Vanderbilt University’s Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos was cited by Forbes as the fifth-highest- paid university president in 2012, with an annual salary of $2.23 million. He and 35 other university presidents across America made over $1 million that year. Nearly 40 percent of university presidents are eligible for financial bonuses for increasing statistics like graduation rates, at the expense of faculty resources for research and conference travel.

For the administrative university, undergraduates—our students—have gone from ‘future leaders’ to ‘commodities.’

The generation of capital, rather than free and critical thought, is increasingly becoming the purpose of higher education. Deans see themselves as micro-CEOs, while provosts and chancellors view the university as a money-making venture. We instructors are the face of the university and provide the classroom education that students pay for, yet revenue we bring in doesn’t pay for our security. Instead, we are told that admission to a doctoral program is a gift, that our employers are benevolent, and that quiet gratitude is the only appropriate response to our conditions. They pretend this is enough to ignore watching us sink below a living wage, struggle with mental health with little support, and work ourselves to exhaustion.

This piece was originally published at In These Times on July 5, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Sabeen Ahmed is a PhD student in the Department of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University. She is interested in social and political philosophy and critical phenomenology. She is currently working to analyze refugee discourses through a critique of Western intellectual history.

Trump’s rollback of environmental rules will fail to bring back coal, report says

Wednesday, May 17th, 2017

“Can Coal Make a Comeback?” asks a new report by Columbia University researchers.

Spoiler alert: In its first few pages, the report states that President Donald Trump will almost certainly fail to bring jobs back to coal country or dramatically boost coal production.

Rolling back environmental regulations, as the Trump administration frantically sought to do during its first 100 days, will not “materially improve” economic conditions in the nation’s coal communities, according to the report.

During Trump’s presidential campaign, he repeatedly vowed to end a “war on coal” allegedly waged by the Obama administration. But as long as natural gas prices remain at or near current levels, U.S. coal consumption will continue to decline despite the Trump administration’s plans to roll back Obama-era regulations, the report says.

“Responsible policymakers should be honest about what’s going on in the coal sector?—?including the causes of coal’s decline and unlikeliness of its resurgence?—?rather than offer false hope that the glory days can be revived,” the report says.

The report was released by the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. It was authored by Jason Bordoff, the founding director of the Center on Global Energy Policy; Trevor Houser, a partner at consulting firm Rhodium Group; and Peter Marsters, a research analyst with Rhodium Group.

The report seeks to offer an empirical diagnosis of what caused the coal industry to collapse. It then examines the prospects for a recovery of coal production and employment by modeling the impact of Trump’s executive order directing agencies to review or rescind several Obama-era environmental regulations and assessing the global coal market outlook.

Even coal industry executives and coal country politicians have dialed down their rhetoric in recent months, according to the report. Robert Murray, CEO of Murray Energy and a Trump supporter, urged him to set more modest goals during the campaign and has warned post-election that there is little chance U.S. production can return to pre-recession levels.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) also cautioned?—?after the election?—?that ending the “war on coal” might not bring jobs back to his home state of Kentucky.

The Columbia University report isn’t the first to rain on Trump’s coal parade. In a report released earlier this year, Bloomberg New Energy Finance emphasized U.S. coal’s main problem “has been cheap natural gas and renewable power, not a politically driven ‘war on coal.’”

But words of caution haven’t stopped Trump from waging a crusade for coal. Two weeks into his presidency, Trump signed a congressional joint resolution eliminating the Department of the Interior’s Stream Protection Rule finalized in 2016 by the Obama Administration that would have limited the amount of mining waste coal companies can dispose into streams and waterways. In late March, Trump signed the executive order that called on the EPA to “review” the Clean Power Plan, the agency’s carbon-reduction plan for new power plants.

“Many of these actions will take months for agencies to implement and will be challenged in the courts. But they are clearly designed to communicate Trump’s commitment to deliver on his campaign promises,” the Columbia University report said. “Indeed, he signed his March 28 [order] at the EPA in front of a group of coal miners, and after signing, turned to them and said, ‘C’mon fellas. You know what this is? You know what this says? You are going back to work.’”

In the report’s best-case scenario for coal that the authors modeled, U.S. production would see only a modest recovery to 2013 levels at just under 1 billion tons a year. In its worst-case scenario, consumption falls from 730 million short tons in 2016 to 688 million short tons in 2020 despite Trump’s aggressive rollback of Obama administration climate regulations.

Rather than bet on a recovery in coal production, coal communities, governments, and other private and public sector organizations should work together to “leverage the other assets” that exist in coal country to attract investment in new sources of job creation and economic growth, the study said.

“This certainly isn’t easy,” the authors wrote. “Coal communities in particular are often geographically remote and lack the infrastructure necessary to attract large-scale investment. Miners and others in the local labor market often lack the skills necessary for jobs that offer the kind of compensation available in coal mining.”

The federal government could offer plenty of help to accelerate locally driven economic diversification efforts, according to the report. Infrastructure investment, tax credits, and re-purposing of abandoned mine land that has other economic use can attract new investment and job creation, it says.

“But this all requires a clear-eyed assessment of the outlook for the coal industry and a commitment to put sustainable solutions ahead of politically expedient talking points,” the report says.

This article originally appeared at ThinkProgress.org on May 15, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mark Hand is a climate reporter for Think Progress. Contact him at mhand@americanprogress.org.

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