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Obama chief of staff Jacob Lew, who multiple media reports say will shortly be named Secretary of the Treasury, led New York University’s campaign to break its graduate student employees’ union eight years ago.

Lew was hired as NYU’s chief operating officer and executive vice president in 2004. Shortly thereafter the National Labor Relations Board, newly stocked with Bush appointees, reversed a Clinton-era ruling that graduate student employees were entitled to collective bargaining rights under the National Labor Relations Act.

NYU’s graduate student union, GSOC, was recognized by the university in 2001, and nothing in the 2004 ruling prevented the university from continuing to do so. When the union’s contract expired the following year, however, NYU withdrew recognition and unilaterally imposed a new, dramatically more restrictive, “paradigm” of the GSOC’s role in graduate employee affairs.

The memo announcing that decision was co-signed by Jacob Lew, who the head of the GSOC’s local now describes as “the point person” in enacting the university’s new policy.

GSOC declared a strike that fall, which NYU met with threats, intimidation, and firings. The strike ended in failure in May of 2006, and Lew left NYU a month later — to become the chief operating officer of Citigroup Global Wealth Management.

A GSOC petition to overturn the National Labor Review Board decision denying them collective bargaining rights is currently pending before the NLRB, which now has a majority Obama-appointed membership.

The Resident Assistants in the dorms at the University of Massachusetts Amherst are, they say, unique in the country — they’re the only RA’s in the country who are represented by a union.

The Resident Assisants union at U Mass Amherst dates back to 2002, when an RA was fired for missing a single staff meeting, but there have been bumps in the road since then. Most recently Residential Life, the administrative department that oversees the RAs, eliminated 19 Apartment Living Assistant positions and attempted to cut the jobs of another 54 peer mentors.

Right now the Amherst RAs are in the middle of contract negotiations with the university, seeking minimum wage pay and protection against termination without just cause. Those negotiations have been ongoing for more than a year, and last week week fifty Amherst students marched on the contract negotiations, lining the halls outside the meeting room for four hours in support of the RAs’ union representatives.

More on this story as it develops.

December 6 Update | I’ll have more details in a later post, but I’ve just learned that the RAs approved the new contract last night. It provides for a 30% pay increase, and was ratified in an overwhelming vote.

Yesterday I wrote a piece about a Tuesday evening meeting of the CUNY Queensboro Community College Academic Senate, but the piece wasn’t quite complete because I didn’t have confirmation of the vote results or final text of the resolutions. Well, I do now, and it’s pretty extraordinary.

To recap: A few weeks ago an administrator at QCC threatened to dismantle the college’s English Department and outsource its composition course offerings in retaliation for the department’s refusal to scale back its comp courses to comply with CUNY’s new Pathways curriculum initiative. The administrator in question eventually apologized, and the president of QCC kind-of sort-of walked back the threats.

Which brings us to Tuesday.

On Tuesday evening the Queensboro Academic Senate passed two resolutions in which they rejected the administration’s actions in the strongest possible terms. First, they denounced any attempt to shut down composition at QCC over the Pathways dispute, declaring that such a move would violate state law, put the college’s accreditation in jeopardy, and contravene various binding regulations and policies. That resolution passed in a nearly unanimous vote.

But it was the second resolution, which passed by a reported 44-12 margin, where the Academic Senate really laid down the law. That resolution began with an overview of the deep flaws in the Pathways program and the method by which the CUNY administration attempted to implement it, and then continued on to declare the faculty’s support for the QCC English Department’s refusal to compromise their academic integrity in the composition vote.

Looking forward, the Academic Senate declared that they would not participate in any further deliberations on the implementation of Pathways at QCC “until and unless Vice President Steele’s email outlining the consequences of the English Department vote is formally retracted” and the administration pledges in writing “that the academic judgment and academic freedom of the faculty will be upheld without reprisal.”

Finally, the resolution declared that “no curriculum, adopted by the faculty under pressure and constraint, should ever be interpreted by Administrative personnel … or any media organization as denoting any degree of faculty support for the Pathways initiative, which is overwhelmingly rejected by members of our faculty as harmful to our students and poor educational practice.”

The upshot of this is that the QCC Academic Senate is not merely on record declaring its opposition to Pathways, but also vowing not to even contemplate implementation of any of its provisions until the administration guarantees their freedom to resolve those issues to their own satisfaction in an open, free, and unencumbered manner.

The pushback against Pathways is heating up.

In April the Associated Press published a story that’s gotten a lot of attention from education activists. According to the AP, a quarter of all recent college graduates are unemployed, and another quarter are “underemployed” — working part-time jobs, or jobs that don’t require a college degree. Mitt Romney has incorporated this talking point into his campaign speeches, in a highly distorted version that claims — as he did in Wednesday’s debate — that “fifty percent of college graduates this year can’t find work.”

It’s a huge leap from 25% to 50%, of course, but the claim hasn’t gotten a lot of pushback — in part because a few weeks ago the Politifact website rated Romney’s version of the stat “Mostly True.” I wrote all this up yesterday, and concluded that while Romney was misstating the facts, the AP had screwed up too and Politifact had made a bad call.

Yesterday afternoon I reached out to the AP’s main source, a Northeastern University economist named Andrew Sum who Politifact had also cited in their coverage of the issue.

He wrote back a few hours later, and said that both the AP and Politifact had bungled the story. Here’s how:

The total adult population of the United States is about 250 million, and the total employed population of the country is about 60% of that. But we don’t go around saying that 40% of the population is unemployed, because that wouldn’t make sense. Some people are retired, others are in school, and others are raising kids or hitchhiking cross-country or choosing not to work for any of a hundred other reasons.

And in compiling at their unemployment statistics for young college-educated Americans, the AP apparently made exactly that error.

According to Professor Sum, the employment rate for young college graduates is “in the high 70s,” within striking distance of the AP’s 75% estimate. But as he points out, that figure includes people who are out of the workforce voluntarily — if you add those who have chosen to go to grad school, for instance, the figure rises above 80%.

I haven’t seen Professor Sum’s data yet (I asked late last night, and haven’t yet heard back), so I can’t say for sure what his figures on college-educated youth unemployment are. But they’re clearly more in line with the 6.8% to 9.4% range that I reported yesterday than the 25% the AP implied (and Politifact endorsed), never mind the 50% in Romney’s attack.

And this stuff matters. It matters because for all the flaws in the American university system, higher education is still a tool for social mobility in this country. Unemployment rates are lower in every age and gender and race category for who have college degrees than for those who don’t, and income averages are far higher. If wildly exaggerated claims of college-grad unemployment have the effect of pushing students out of higher ed, most of those students will suffer. It’s just not right.

And that brings us back to the AP, and to Politifact. Professor Sum says the Associated Press “misrepresented” his findings, and that Politifact “ignored” the corrections he presented to them. In so doing, both news organizations have disseminated false information, provided ammunition to wrongheaded attacks on higher education, misled the nation’s students and policymakers, and given cover to repeated blatantly false statements made by the Republican nominee for the presidency of the United States.

Like I say, it’s just not right.

October 7 Update | Still no correction from Politifact, and I’ve noticed another, more egregious version of the error elsewhere on their site.

Back in August, a few weeks before they took on Mitt Romney’s version of the 50% unemployment rate claim, Politifact devoted an article to addressing a near-identical assertion in a presidential election ad put together by a group called the Republican Jewish Coalition. Like Romney, the RJC made the false claim that “one out of every two kids who are graduating college right now can’t find a job.”

Unfortunately, Politifact took the same “not having an ideal job is pretty much the same as not having any job at all” tack here that it would later take with Romney’s claim, and judged the assertion “Mostly True.” Even worse, they misrepresent Professor Sum’s findings even more baldly in this piece than in the September one, claiming — in flat contradiction with what Professor Sum told me about his conclusions — that “according to Sum’s research, about a quarter of recent college grads literally can’t find a job.”

October 16 Update | Still no correction, update, or acknowledgment from Politifact, though I reached out individually to each of the writers, researchers, and editors on the story a week ago today. I sent them all a link to this post via Twitter just now — we’ll see if that helps.

Update |Professor Andrew Sum, the original source for Romney’s claim, says the candidate and the news media have “misrepresented” his findings, and that fact-check site Politifact has “ignored” his corrections to their misleading report. Details here.

•          •          •

In last night’s presidential debate, Mitt Romney made a claim that was specific, shocking, and false. “Fifty percent of college graduates this year,” he said, “can’t find work.”

There are a few ways of interpreting this statement, but none of them add up.

A study published this summer found that for college graduates under the age of 24, the unemployment rate for the twelve months ending in March of this year was 9.4%. More recent data for college grads aged 21-25 put the number at 6.8%.

So where did Romney’s 50% figure come from? An Associated Press article about a study of “underemployment” among college grads. This is going to take a little unpacking, so bear with me.

For the purposes of this AP story, a person was defined as “underemployed” if they were working in a job that required less education or fewer skills than they possess, were working part-time other than by choice, were working outside their field of expertise, or were working for less money than their similarly situated peers.

Even in good times, underemployment is common, and it’s particularly common among young college graduates — a job that doesn’t require a college degree may be a stepping-stone to one in the same field that does, for instance, or an internship or a part-time gig may get your foot in the door.

Among all employed young college graduates in 2007, before the current recession began, more than a third — 34.7% — were considered underemployed. In fact 26.8% of all working college grads, regardless of age, were underemployed that year, up from 25.2% in 2000. Underemployment is hardly ideal, in other words, but it’s not an acute crisis, it’s a long-term reality of our economy.

So what happened to underemployment rates in the current recession?

They went up, as you’d expect. In 2010, the most recent year for which data have been published, the underemployment rate for employed college grads under 25 was 39.1%. Unemployment for the same cohort stood at about 10%, which means the total for unemployment and underemployment combined was about 45%. According to the AP, that figure has risen to a bit over 53% in the last two years.

But there’s something very strange about the AP’s numbers. Take a look at this, from the AP story:

“About 1.5 million, or 53.6 percent, of bachelor’s degree-holders under the age of 25 last year were jobless or underemployed. … Out of the 1.5 million who languished in the job market, about half were underemployed, an increase from the previous year.”

According to that passage, which has been repeated in a Politifact article on the Romney claim, underemployment among recent college grads stands at about 25% of the total group, as does unemployment. And from what I can see that doesn’t fit with the published data at all.

According to official government statistics, the unemployment rate for all Americans aged 20-24 currently stands at 13.9%, and hasn’t crossed the 15% threshold at any time in the last year. Unemployment among Americans aged 16-24 who have college degrees is, as you’d expect, considerably lower.

Unless I’m missing something huge, then, the government’s figures don’t back up the AP’s claim of 25% unemployment among recent college grads. Not even close.

So what’s the reality? As far as I can make out, among recent college graduates something like seven to ten percent — not fifty percent — “can’t find work.” A little less than half of the rest are “underemployed,” which means they’re doing jobs which aren’t a particularly good fit for their preferences and their degree. Most of those would be in a similar predicament if the economy was booming, but a significant minority, maybe ten or twenty percent of the total, have been dumped in that category by the downturn.

So there you go.

About This Blog

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StudentActivism.net is the work of Angus Johnston, a historian and advocate of American student organizing.

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