#NLRB decision v athletes & students as shadow workers #highered #criticaled #ncaa

by Stephen Petrina on August 22, 2015

There are a few high profile workplaces wherein the worker pays to work: amateur athletes in sporting venues, strippers in strip clubs and students in classrooms are among the most notable. On 17 August however, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) overturned Northwestern University’s football team’s bid to unionize as employees. This overturned a 2014 regional NLRB decision paving the way for players to unionize.

The decision hinges on whether athletes are “primarily students” and whether those with funding or paid jobs are “statutory employees.” The NLRB did not rule on these questions and researchers have yet to adequately theorize the problem of whether students per se are workers. If students are workers, what type of workers are they?

Ivan Illich offered the best analysis thus far in depicting students as shadow workers (see also NYT article). Without the shadow work or unpaid work of students, and increasingly professors, academic capitalism would come to a halt or at least be curbed. Paying students for studying and performing in classrooms would mean that colleges and universities would have to recognize all students as the workers or employees that they are. The 2004 NLRB decision that graduate student teaching assistants are “primarily students” entirely overlooks shadow work. Like the athletes at Northwestern, all students would have the prerogative to unionize.

Compensating or remunerating shadow work would mean that colleges and universities would have to recognize that most of its faculty members are doing the work of two these days.

But the counter question is why faculty members are all too willing to do the work of two? This academic shadow work buttresses and contributes to the growth of academic capitalism—it bails out the system from certain failure. As Illich says, “increasingly the unpaid self-discipline of shadow work becomes more important than wage labor for further economic growth.”

In “Threat Convergence,” we tried to work through this problem by analyzing the changing nature and definition of the academic workplace. It’s a start. Given the fragmentation, intensification, segmentation, shifting and creep of academic work, it is due time researchers attended to the problem as opposed to the continued romanticism of the intellectual.