Labor Historian Nelson Lichtenstein on the NLRB’s Brown decision:
The stakes are huge because if one explores the logic inherent within the NLRB majority opinion, we are moving not just toward the extinction of the American labor movement, but into an Orwellian universe in which words like “individualism,” “education,” and “choice” turn into their opposites. In distinguishing between the educational and economic functions that graduate students perform, the Republican appointees harked back to the original language of the Wagner Act from the New Deal era and embraced something close to a class-warfare reading of American labor law. The 1935 statute, they argued, was “premised on the view that there is a fundamental conflict between the interests of the employers and employees.” More important, the GOP appointees, emphasizing a passage from an earlier decision, argued that “the vision of a fundamentally economic relationship between employers and employees is inescapable.” Thus, according to their reasoning, if graduate students have something less than an antagonistic relationship with administrators and professors, if they are paid mainly to learn and not work, they are not employees and therefore not covered by the labor law. Such a Marxist analysis of labor relations flies in the face of the argument that conservatives have long made to declare both the labor law and the labor movement antique and obsolete: that both modern management and postindustrial technology have made for cooperative and nonadversarial relationships within the world of work. High-tech firms like Microsoft declare unions unsuitable to their well-educated, hyper-creative employees. Even General Motors says it now rejects the production principles pioneered by Frederick W. Taylor and Henry Ford, correcting “the great flaw in the assembly-line concept” that “tends to exclude the creative and managerial skills of the people who work on the line.” So if the current NLRB has returned us to a stark world of polarized classes, I hope that the government will soon inform the millions of workers at Wal-Mart, Kmart, FedEx, and other anti-union firms who are constantly bombarded with a contrary message.
Of course the reason the Republican members on the NLRB echo such class-warfare polarities is to make the argument that graduate students at Brown, New York University, and other big universities are there not to work but to learn. And like their hyperindustrial conception of the world of work, they also subscribe to a Victorian notion of education, which is at once highly personal and, at the same time, utterly authoritarian…Right-wing conservatives argue that any job that contains a spark of creativity, a bit of authority, or an element of education or apprenticeship should be exempt from the labor law and the union compass. They are happy to consign the union idea to the most onerous, repetitive, and undignified
forms of labor. And then, of course, as the union idea becomes synonymous with such jobs, the same ideologues argue that teachers, programmers, nurses, doctors, journalists, and writers would be crazy to link their fortunes with such unfortunates. In truth, all jobs, even the most low-wage and low-skilled, require
judgment, self-reliance, and initiative. All work can and should be dignified. By the same measure, the labor movement needs to make it abundantly clear that you don’t have to be a horny-handed proletarian to benefit from a collective defense of one’s self-interest, which is why 18th-century printers, 19th-century craftsmen, and 20th-century airplane pilots, screenwriters, and baseball players joined the house of labor. Union work rules and wage standards are best understood not as a depersonalizing straitjacket, but as the code of workplace law — a practical instance of “equal protection under the law” — to which all men and women are rightly subject.