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Labor Unions on Campus Dealt Devasting Blow By: Joseph J. Sabia
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, October 31, 2002

As reported in the New York Times, the United Auto Workers (UAW) were dealt a humiliating and crushing defeat last week when 70% of Cornell University’s graduate students voted to reject entrance into their union. The outcome shocked the UAW, as most observers expected liberal students to overwhelmingly embrace unionization. Just three weeks prior to the election, graduate student Joan Moriarty, also a paid employee of the UAW, told the local press, "I definitely think we're going to win. But we also want to win by a lot." When the votes were counted, the UAW turned out not to be bigger than Jesus after all.

The stunning defeat was orchestrated by a nonpartisan coalition of graduate students who organized under the catchy moniker "At What Cost?" Their extraordinary efforts serve as a model for students around the country who are facing Marxist unionization efforts. At What Cost’s formula for success was threefold:

    • Force union organizers to participate in dozens of public debates.

      Unionizing doctoral candidates at our nation’s elite academic institutions is ludicrous (even on distributional grounds), given that these students will be in the top 15% of all income earners in America upon graduation. Forcing union thugs to defend their position in department-specific debates elucidates the absurdity of unionization.

      Smaller settings permit students to comfortably prod union supporters with specific questions about the cost of unionization. When pressed for details, union organizers never have any logical, reasoned, well thought-out answers. Rather, they just rely on vague platitudes. As Cornell research associate Sinan Ünür stated:

      Whenever I spoke with a union organizer I just wanted to say, "Look, you can’t use the words ‘democracy,’ ‘seat at the table,’ or ‘voice.’ Now, tell me, why do you support the union?"

      The problem, of course, is that without these platitudes at their fingertips, UAW supporters would be mute. It is sort of like asking a liberal to describe a Republican president without using the words "dumb" or "stupid." An argument like "We need a voice" might be enough to convince a four-year-old that unionization is a good idea, but most graduate students are in their mid 20s to early 30s and have experienced life in the real world.

    • Espouse the libertarian principle of private voluntary choice.

      Union organizers continuously argued that forming a graduate student union would be "democratic" since a majority of students would have to vote to approve every contract negotiated by the UAW. But why is a situation where the majority of students can impose their will on the minority preferable to a situation where each student has the individual liberty to make his own choice?

      Under the current regime, each student makes a rational choice whether to enter Cornell for graduate school or to go to another university (or to get a job). Universities compete with one another to provide benefits packages to graduate students such that they will continue to attract the best researchers. There is no reason to believe that Cornell University (or any private college, for that matter) is colluding with other universities to keep wage rates artificially low. Hence, students who have chosen to enter graduate school are (i) getting paid what they’re worth in the market, and (ii) receiving benefits that are as least as good as what they could get in their next best alternative.

      Representatives from At What Cost? were successful in pointing out that individual freedom is preferable to living under the tyranny of the majority.

    • Burst the bubble of inevitability.

      Union organizers are taught by the UAW to create an aura of inevitability surrounding unionization. When representatives go from office-to-office to badger graduate students, they speak of "when the union comes" not "if the union comes." This tactic has the effect of demoralizing opponents of the UAW and reduces their likelihood of battling unionization.

    Fortunately, Cornell graduate students refused to fall for this trick. Almost immediately, At What Cost? organizers set up a informational website, started distributing literature, and began an extensive email campaign to assure union opponents that they were not alone in the fight. This invigorated students and helped mobilize massive opposition to UAW.

    Another tactic used by union proponents is to define the unionization battle as between the university administration and students. This is done to make students feel as if they are oppressed migrant workers fighting The Man. At What Cost? representatives successfully debunked this myth and correctly portrayed the battle as between pro-union and anti-union students.

    The campaign waged by At What Cost? was so successful that it convinced many former UAW supporters to change their positions. Heather Wynder, a graduate student in economics, was one such student:

    I originally supported the union based on an incomplete picture organizers painted of an antagonistic administration. I began to question the integrity of CASE/UAW organizers. They portrayed union representation as a "magic pill" to cure all graduate student ills while admitting no potential costs.

    But even with 70% of her fellow students opposing her, UAW thugette Joan Moriarty refuses to accept the fact that "democracy" has spoken. In an interview with the Columbia Daily Spectator, Moriarty ominously stated:

    "It is disappointing that this one's a loss, but we're going to continue to organize because people want a voice…It is not over."

Cornell graduate student Andy Sfekas is not too worried:

I think that with an extra year to do their research, to think about the costs and benefits of unionization, [graduate students] are going to have time to separate the facts from the emotion. I think they will reach the exact same conclusion as they did this year.

Hopefully, other private universities will follow Cornell’s lead and reject the poison of graduate student unionization.


Joseph J. Sabia is a Ph.D. candidate in economics at Cornell University.

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