Will hospital merger mania continue?

Excerpted from Robert Whitcomb's "Digital Diary,'' in GoLocal24.

The collapse of affiliation talks between Care New England,  the Rhode Island hospital chain, and Southcoast Health, in southeastern Massachusetts, as did the collapse of Lifespan and Care New England talks a few years back, raises the question of when we’ll see another hospital chain merger around here, given the inevitable turf battles.

With the drive for economies of scale and for sharing access to the best care and research, will the latest collapse lead to a big Boston-based chain coming in and taking over? Partners HealthCare, whose hospitals include Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham & Women’s, might eye expansion in these parts because Massachusetts regulators think that it has gotten too big and powerful in Greater Boston. The Brown Medical School would presumably not like a Partners invasion because Partners is joined at the hip with the Harvard Medical School behemoth. Maybe given the size and executive salaries of hospitals these days, affiliating with the Harvard Business School would be appropriate.

Many hospital chains want to merge to strengthen their bargaining power with huge insurance companies. Maybe in 10 years, we’ll have “Medicare for all,’’ which will make much of this moot.

In the meantime, we have something to learn from those independent hospitals, such as South County Hospital,  in southern Rhode Island, that have maintained their independence and high-quality care in the face of the massive disruption that that healthcare sector is now undergoing.

The 'Cauldron of Regeneration'

Bobbing for apples.

Bobbing for apples.


"Perhaps the most famous icon of the holiday is the jack-o-lantern.  Various authorities attribute it to either Scottish or Irish origin.  However, it seems clear that it was used as a lantern by people who traveled the road this night, the scary face to frighten away spirits or faeries who might otherwise lead one astray.  Set on porches and in windows, they cast the same spell of protection over the household.  (The American pumpkin seems to have forever superseded the European gourd as the jack-o-lantern of choice.)  Bobbing for apples may well represent the remnants of a Pagan 'baptism' rite called a 'seining', according to some writers.  The water-filled tub is a latter-day Cauldron of Regeneration, into which the novice's head is immersed.  The fact that the participant in this folk game was usually blindfolded with hands tied behind the back also puts one in mind of a traditional Craft initiation ceremony."

--   Mike Nichols, “All Hallow's Eve’’

Don Pesci: Apres le deluge, c'est Hillary?

The national elections at this point may remind poor battered voters of Oscar Wilde’s description of fox hunting: “The unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable!”

Republicans, Victor Davis Hanson writes in National Review, will have much repair work to do after the election – whatever happens. National Review has not been hospitable to Donald Trump’s candidacy, but the election should awaken second thoughts among conservatives. In “Conservatives Should Vote For The Republican Nominee,” Hanson takes a birch switch to what Trump supporters might call disdainfully the Republican Party Establishment.

Here is the central premise in Hanson’s piece:

 “Something has gone terribly wrong with the Republican Party, and it has nothing to do with the flaws of Donald Trump. Something like his tone and message would have to be invented if he did not exist. None of the other 16 primary candidates — the great majority of whom had far greater political expertise, more even temperaments, and more knowledge of issues than did Trump — shared Trump’s sense of outrage — or his ability to convey it — over what was wrong: The lives and concerns of the Republican establishment in the media and government no longer resembled those of half their supporters.
 “The Beltway establishment grew more concerned about their sinecures in government and the media than about showing urgency in stopping Obamaism. When the Voz de Aztlan and the Wall Street Journal often share the same position on illegal immigration, or when Republicans of the Gang of Eight are as likely as their left-wing associates to disparage those who want federal immigration law enforced, the proverbial conservative masses feel they have lost their representation. How, under a supposedly obstructive, conservative-controlled House and Senate, did we reach $20 trillion in debt, institutionalize sanctuary cities, and put ourselves on track to a Navy of World War I size?”

In the reliably conservative Wall Street Journal opinion pages, Peggy Noonan, a longtime columnist and once a special assistant and speechwriter in the reliably conservative President Ronald Reagan administration, permits herself to wonder what a Trump campaign might have looked like if Trump had been sane.

On the Democratic side, an email tsunami threatens to capsize Clinton’s plush ground-game schooner. And she is –- perhaps more than Trump –- unspeakable and uneatable. After nearly a half century in politics, ambition scrambles the brain. White privilege may or may not be a political myth, but political privilege is the original sin of politics. Just ask Machiavelli, or Hanson, a classical historian and author of A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War.

Here in Connecticut, the sort of people whose business it is to gauge the correlation of political forces are dusting off their crystal balls. All the editorials nominating so-and-so- for such-and-such have already been written. It remains only to pull the pins on the editorial endorsements.

Their left-of-center sensitive data receptors tell them that Clinton has the edge, both nationally and here in the Land of Steady Habits, which has steadily voted Democratic progressives into office. Connecticut progressives, in turn, have steadily voted in favor of cosmetic and temporary spending cuts. Once returned to office, they will vote in favor of higher taxes for two reasons: 1) They wish to use politicians to advance a particular rather than a general good, usually involving public worker unions; and 2) Despite the inescapably obvious consequences following tax increases and burdensome regulations – i.e. job losses, anemic economic growth and the flight from Connecticut of wealth-producing entrepreneurial activity -- they are perversely convinced, mostly for ideological reasons, that Connecticut is suffering a revenue problem, not a spending problem.

Hanson’s recommendation to national Republicans that they should adjust their polity to changed circumstances is not likely to be adopted by Connecticut Democrats, our new Aristocrats. Demography, rather than a filial regard for democracy, is destiny, say the demographers, and Democrats outnumber Republicans in Connecticut by a two to one margin; unaffiliateds outnumber both Republicans and Democrats. And so – what has been must ever be. That is the operative principle of most politics, until the roof comes crashing down, at which point there will follow a peaceful, small “d”, democratic revolution.

The one thing we know for certain about democracy, G. K. Chesterton reminds us, is this: “Democracy means government by the uneducated, while aristocracy means government by the badly educated.” To this many journalists reply, yearning for an aristocracy of thought and manners, “Bunk.” They can be safely ignored. Chesterton was a superb journalist, and that is why he said “Journalism largely consists of saying 'Lord Jones is dead' to people who never knew that Lord Jones was alive.”

Don Pesci is a Vernon, Conn.-based political writer.

Brakes needed in bike-path push

Excerpted from Robert Whitcomb's"Digital Diary'' in GoLocal24.

Alex Marshall, writing recently in Governing.com, raised some cautionary notes about the bike-path mania in some cities.

The biggest one is whether it’s worth it to eat up a lane of car traffic to assign the space to bicyclists.  Have cities adequately forecast the number of people who are likely to use bikes and maybe even give up their cars? We see a lot of dedicated bike lanes with very few bicyclists.  Perhaps in a city with a lot of college students, such as Providence, adense and carefully planned network of bike lanes can make sense. But what would be the tradeoff against what might be heavier motor-vehicle traffic congestion created by removing lanes?

And safety would call for many bike lanes to have physical barriers separating them from car and truck traffic rather than just lines. Many of these lanes now are too dangerous, especially compared to Europe’s.

I learned in Europe, where I used to work, and rode a bike a few times in the Netherlands, that compared with the U.S., car and truck drivers there bear much more legal responsibility in crashes with bikes than do bicyclists. That’s simply because the former are driving fast, multi-ton machines. “It’s a standard sometimes known as ‘default liability,’’’ Mr. Marshall says. We need that in America. (I wonder how the coming of self-driving cars might affect all this.)

U.S. jurisdictions should look at their traffic laws and make adjustments.

Perhaps after a few years of adding bike paths, communities might very rationally decide to turn some of them back to cars, trucks, buses and install light rail. My own preference is for cities and states to focus on mass transit, not bike lanes. But, of course, they’re both admirable.

-- Robert Whitcomb


David Warsh: Let's stop the jingoism about Russia.

A propaganda war bubbled up in London last week as an antiquated Russian aircraft carrier steamed down the English Channel, on its way to the coast of Syria.


NatWest, a subsidiary of the Royal Bank of Scotland Group, which is mostly owned by the British government, announced that it planned to close the accounts of Russia Today, the Russian government’s news service and television network – presumably because RT publishes material critical of Britain and the U.S.

I read one or two RT items almost every day, via Johnson’s Russia List.  In fact RT publishes a good deal of interesting material.

Meanwhile, The Economist prepared a scary Putinism cover, a special section, and a tough editorial: “How to contain Vladimir Putin’s deadly, dysfunctional empire”.

The Spectator countered with ''Stop the Stupid Sabre-Rattling against Russia.''

“It’s not their side that worries me; it’s ours,” wrote Rod Liddle, a Spectator columnist.

Moscow bureau chief Neil MacFarquhar, of The New York Times, heaped ridicule on that Russian aircraft carrier. Neoconservative stalwart Robert Kagan, in The Wall Street Journal, asked, "What can the next president do about Russia? ''

Send U.S. troops back to Europe?  Retaliate for cyber-offenses?

This is jingoism.  Let’s get the election over with.  Then we can get back to business.

David Warsh, proprietor of economicprincipals.com, is a longtime economic historian and financial columnist.

Chris Powell: Newspaper archives increasingly important in criminal justice

Connecticut's Board of Pardons and Paroles, the Waterbury Republican-American reported the other day, is getting more generous with pardons, which erase criminal records maintained by government agencies and allow recipients to pretend that they never did anything wrong.

Among recent recipients of such pardons, the newspaper disclosed, were former police officers in Waterbury and Hartford who had been fired and convicted of fabricating evidence. Presumably now they can regain employment as officers, unless the departments to which they apply undertake background reviews broader than government records.

Any broader review will involve the archives of newspapers and other news organizations, which have become essential archives of criminal justice in Connecticut, since so many criminal charges, while justified, vanish from government archives because of plea bargaining and erasure laws as well as pardons.

Overwhelmed, Connecticut's criminal-justice system fails to produce much accountability for criminals, crime victims, the wrongly accused, and the public. As a result, much of the limited accountability resulting from criminal justice here now resides not in government archives but in the archives of news organizations.

Because news organization archives now may be more complete than government's and because they are accessible on the internet, news organizations are being flooded with requests from people who want reports of their arrests or convictions suppressed. Of course such reports can impair people's employment and social relations -- but then they often should, as with crooked cops.

Such suppression is deception, the opposite of journalism.


EVERYBODY AVOIDS TAXES: The furor over what appears to be Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump's avoidance of federal income taxes is hypocritical, for three reasons.

First, while Trump has refused to disclose his tax returns, tax avoidance is not tax evasion. Nearly everyone exploits legal deductions and exemptions to minimize taxes.

Second, while some deductions and exemptions are available only to the wealthy, Congress established them in the name of encouraging or discouraging certain economic activity. If deductions and exemptions are disgraceful, the disgrace falls not on the people who use them but on Congress for establishing them.

And third, contrary to the accusation of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, Trump's tax avoidance has not really deprived the federal government of any money. That's because the federal government enjoys the power of money creation and thus doesn't need taxes for revenue and has not needed taxes for revenue since gold and silver were removed as circulating money decades ago.

Rather, as the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Beardsley Ruml, wrote in 1946, the purpose of federal taxes has become social control -- to determine who has money and why. 

Trump has so much money on account of tax policies for which the Democratic Party is as responsible as the Republican Party.

AUTOBIOGRAPHY, NOT MERE TALK: Trump and his apologists keep saying that the vile conversation he had with the host of a celebrity gossip television show 11 years ago, caught on tape and disclosed the other day, was just “locker-room talk” and “banter,” disgusting to others but of no significance. 

Not so. For Trump was describing things he already had done. He even identified a married woman he had tried to seduce. Forgive or excuse him or not, conclude if you want that his character is less objectionable than Hillary Clinton's character or her policies, but what was captured on that tape was far more than talk. It was conduct and autobiography, and it has been confirmed by many women who, following disclosure of the tape, have detailed their awful experiences with Trump.


Chris Powell is managing editor of the Journal Inquirer, in Manchester, Conn.


Jim Hightower: Wells Fargo scandal exposes the moral rot in American big business

“Stumpf” is a German adjective for someone who’s obtuse, slow on the uptake, imperceptive, or to put it bluntly, stupid.

Ironically, it also happens to be the surname of Wells Fargo’s belatedly ousted CEO, who’s now mired in what might be the most shameful banking scandal yet. For seven years or so, John Stumpf has presided over a venal bank policy, pressuring Wells Fargo’s retailing employees into systematically stealing from particularly vulnerable, low-income customers of the bank.

During this time, he padded his own fortune with more than $100 million in personal pay. When this mass rip-off was recently exposed, Stumpf — the big boss getting the big bucks to be in charge — pleaded ignorance.

In an act of what Sen.  Elizabeth Warren called “gutless leadership,” he publicly blamed the corrupt corporate culture on thousands of the bank’s low-level employees.

But the chief wasn’t the only stumpf at Wells Fargo. Where were its board members, who are empowered and duty-bound to set, monitor and assure ethical corporate behavior from the top down?

For seven years, this 15-member board of governance sat idle, apparently incurious about their corporation’s flagrant, widespread thievery, which involved setting up bogus and unasked-for accounts in the names of Wells Fargo  retail customers even after a 2013 report by the Los Angeles Times exposed it.

Far from investigating and clamping down, the board kept shoving multimillion-dollar bonuses at Stumpf and other top executives.

Bear in mind that this is a powerhouse board, made up of top executives from other corporations, former government financial officials, and big time academics. And they are extremely well-paid to be diligent, getting up to $400,000 a year to keep Wells Fargo honest.

What’s at work here is the ethical rot that now consumes America’s entire corporate system — a stumpf system that steals from the many to further enrich the few, buying off the integrity and vigilance of those who run it.

OtherWords columnist Jim Hightower is a radio commentator, writer, and public speaker. He’s the editor of the populist newsletter, The Hightower Lowdown. Distributed by OtherWords.org.

Thomas Hook: Rural beasts moving in on exurbia

Photos and text from Thomas Hook, in Southbury, Conn., a   frequent contributor to New England Diary

I was sitting in my den downstairs reading the newspaper when out of the corner of my eye I spotted something moving. Turning my head, I saw a black bear shambling towards our garage. He or she is a large animal (average size is 250-300 pounds). The bear was literally less than 10 feet away and the size, bulk and actuality of him astonished me. 

My first thought was to get a picture. I ran upstairs, got my camera and looked out the window to where the bear might be but I couldn’t see it. I went out the front door and suddenly saw it coming out of our garage. I noticed both ears were tagged as it stared at me from 20 yards away. It quickly moved away into a copse of small trees in our front yard.

It was raining hard and the visibility wasn’t good and so when it suddenly appeared from the foliage (moving fast) all I got were two blurry shots, but get them I did! I would have taken another few but was interrupted by our 30-pound dog, Reggie, running out the door commencing to chase the bear into the woods. I furiously screamed for him to stop because one whack from the bear’s paw might have been the end of our dear little friend. 

Reggie stopped 30 yards into the trees and came back, doubtless sensing how upset I was. My last glimpse of the bear was it looking back at me from down in the wetlands.

I got Reggie inside and then walked into the garage to inspect the damage (we’ve had bears visit us before). It only had time to open one can used for storing birdseed before it must have grown alarmed and shifted into flight mode. 

With the bear now confirmedby the pictures, I now can look forward to photographing some of the other animals normally associated with truly rural areas, and nor our exurbia, that have eluded me but have been seen in the neighborhood either by me or others: moose, fisher cats and bobcats.


Llewellyn King: Attack of the giant pumpkins threatens civic life

Giant pumpkins are a clear and present danger, and we are not being told about it. Linus of the comic strip Peanuts no longer gives us the heads-up.

Consider in 1900, the largest pumpkin on record weighed in at a modest 400 pounds. Two men could lift it. That was the typical weight of obese pumpkins until 1980, the year after the accident at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant, when they started getting bigger, a trend that continues. Suspicious, eh?

Monster pumpkins this year are coming in at more than 2,000 pounds, with the American champion weighing a scale-busting 2,261.5 pounds. It was grown in Rhode Island.

But maybe there are bigger pumpkins lurking in the Amazon. The Swiss claim a bigger pumpkin, but they would, wouldn’t they?

In the world of Cucurbita maxima (Latin for big pumpkin), these monsters are fit for a pie for the Kardashian family. Have you noticed the Kardashians only seem to do three things: take selfies, conduct social media fights and eat? Just watch “Keeping Up with the Kardashians”: They are always eating. The family’s many crises are dealt with food. Did Kim go to Maxim’s when her jewels were stolen in Paris?

Actually, pumpkins are good-eating. Always sprinkle cinnamon on pumpkin. Cinnamon is to pumpkins what drawn butter is to lobster: It just belongs.

When I was a boy, I ate a lot of pumpkin and it was either mashed up with or without sugar. My brother and I liked the sugared version, while my father preferred his simply boiled.

But that was before people started growing pumpkins as big as elephants. What is the purpose of a 2,000-pound pumpkin? Do you need a chainsaw to cut it up? Who needs to cook with a vegetable that was brought in on a truck, held down by chains? Even the best-equipped kitchens do not have forklifts.

Worse, there is the way that pumpkins are taking over our politics.

The first politician to show their influence was John Boehner, the former speaker of the House, whose face kept turning pumpkin-orange before our startled gaze.

Now comes Donald Trump, clearly a man who has had sinister dealings with pumpkins: His orange hair is the giveaway. What do the pumpkins want? Can Trump deliver or will Hillary Clinton get the Pumpkin Party endorsement? Some of her pantsuits are already Hubbard squash-colored.

Halloween and Thanksgiving are when the pumpkins come to haunt us. Forget the witches, it is the gourds muscling in on our innocent festivals.

Yet all year in domestic gardens, U.S. Department of Agriculture research centers and in secret pumpkin patches, pumpkins are sucking up nutrients to grow bigger and bigger. Soon they will rival the Trump Tower and the Grand Coulee Dam.

What do they want? Why are they courting our celebrities, our politicians and corrupting our children? Oh, my gourd!

Be afraid, the pumpkins are on the loose for the next month.

Llewellyn King, based in Rhode Island and Washington, D.C., is a veteran publisher, editor, columnist and international business consultant. He is host and executive producer of White House Chronicle, on PBS.


'Inhaled in one smell'

View of the Boston skyline from Belmont.

View of the Boston skyline from Belmont.

“At no other time (than autumn) does the earth let itself be inhaled in one smell, the ripe earth; in a smell that is in no way inferior to the smell of the sea, bitter where it borders on taste, and more honeysweet where you feel it touching the first sounds. Containing depth within itself, darkness, something of the grave almost.” 

-- Rainer Maria Rilke, in "Letters on Cezanne''

A lovely down-to-earth downtown

On Main Street in Warren, R.I.

On Main Street in Warren, R.I.

Excerpted from GoLocal24's "Digital Diary'' column.

Congratulations to downtown Warren, R.I., for being named one of “America’s 5 Great Neighborhoods’’ by the American Planning Association for the town’s “foresight, innovation, and cooperation” in building a better place.

It has always seemed to me a bit of a miracle that downtown Warren has been able to maintain its shops, restaurants and other signs of being a healthy old-fashioned, pre-mall downtown. That Warren is not a rich town and that its downtown is not an all-too-precious place like, say Stockbridge, Mass. (where Norman Rockwell worked) or Nantucket makes it all the more attractive.

-- Robert Whitcomb

Don Pesci: The old-time party bosses are looking better and better


A shrewd political observer once said that Americans rarely solve their most pressing political problems; instead, they amicably bid them goodbye.

Take the primary system by way of example. The primary system itself has been attended, especially during the current presidential election campaign, with glaring problems that pretty nearly everyone has studiously ignored. It is the primary system that has given us two of the most unpalatable presidential candidates in U.S. history. Nearly 50 percent of voters on either side of the political spectrum this year will be voting against the presidential candidates, according to a September Pew Research poll.

Primaries lengthen the political season, an unintended result of a “participatory democracy” that benefits news producers, editors and candidates but few others.

The current primary season began on the Republican side 18 months ago when Texas  Sen. Ted Cruz announced his candidacy for the presidency. In due course, 16 other Republican hats were thrown into the ring. After the Republican Nominating Convention dispersed 16 months and millions of dollars later, Donald Trump, whose conservative bona fides and political affiliation still remain in question, emerged with the Republican nomination clenched in his teeth. Among the vanquished also-rans were three anti-establishment Republicans – Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Ron Paul – all Tea Party favorites and thorns in the side of the ancient Republican Party regime.

On the Democratic side, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was almost defeated by Socialist Democratic senator from the People’s Republic of Vermont, Bernie Sanders. Votes tallied at the Democratic Nominating Convention showed Sanders winning a not inconsiderable 1,865 delegates before he put forward a motion to nominate by voice vote Hillary Clinton, who, hacked e-mails later disclosed, had turned her efforts to subverting Sanders’s presidential bid.

During his primary campaign, Sanders refused to dwell on Clinton’s e-mail scandal, remarking to a smugly smiling Hillary Clinton during one of their debates that America was “sick of hearing about your damn e-mails," in hindsight a fatal strategic mistake. Sanders did mention that his campaign had been subverted by the Democratic National Committee, a charge later confirmed by hacked e-mails that Sanders thought tedious and not worth mentioning.

Almost everyone, except true-believers on both sides of the current political barricades, will agree that both Republican and Democratic Party nominees are scarred with defects that would not have made it past the jeweler’s eyes of the party bosses of yore.

The last real Democratic Party boss in Connecticut, John Bailey, would not have failed to notice both Mrs. Clinton’s glaring defects, not the least of which was her husband,  and Mr. Sanders’s leftist drift from what used to be called among Democrats the “Vital Center” of American politics.

Mr. Bailey would have allowed liberalism, but not libertinism, and he would have put the kibosh on Democratic candidates who favored an administrative repeal of any of the first 10 Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.  Pragmatic to the bone, Mr. Bailey almost certainly would not have sanctioned a measure to force The Little Sisters of the Poor, first brought to the East Coast of the United States by Abraham Lincoln, to dispense condoms to fellow workers who were not nuns or priests. He also would have counseled against any polity that refused adamantly to make reasonable accommodations with Evangelicals and members of the Catholic Church.

America began to experiment with presidential primaries as early as 1901. From 1936 to 1968 only 20 states deployed primaries, which were useful, progressives realized, in wresting political power and influence from party bosses like Mr. Bailey – and vesting political power… in what?

We now know the answer to this question.  Political power and money is now controlled by political party outliers. We have got rid of John Bailey, and replaced him with political PACs that furnish negative ads and dark money in the service of political actors who, petite parties themselves, are independent of either of the major two parties.

Because incumbent politicians are able to tap into money and power resources unavailable to their competitors, the political campaign table has been tilted in favor of incumbents favored by the county’s left of center media – which means that the correlation of forces pushes moderate Democratic candidates off center and, in some cases – c.f. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren – very far left. These correlations of force have produced an ever widening, unbridgeable gap between the two major parties.

What Mark Twain said of the weather in New England – everybody talks about it, but no one wants to do anything about it – is also true of the modern primary system, which had been put in place long ago by progressives to mitigate what they felt were the defects of a strong two-party political system.

A party system that once depended upon sometimes corrupt party bosses for financing and direction now depends upon PACs that operate outside campaign-financing laws, provided they do not engage in promoting specific candidates. These party outliers are the wellspring of vicious ads that have only a nodding connection with the truth. The parties themselves are poor.

Primaries have reduced national conventions to rote political thought and action, breaking the indispensable live connection between state and national politics, which is now run by the whimsical nominal heads of parties. In November, the nation will reap what it has sown.  This time around, the primary system has allowed access to the presidency of two of the most unloved candidates for the presidency in modern times. And dark politics has produced nation-wide cynicism, dark thoughts and dark deeds.

Don Pesci is a Vernon, Conn.-based essayist, mostly on political topics.

Joseph W. Ambash: Unionization of grad students will hurt education

The recent decision by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in the Columbia University case granting students who serve as teaching or research assistants at private universities the right to unionize dealt a major blow to private higher education as we know it. The NLRB’s cavalier disregard for the complexities of a university education is breathtaking.

In a long-anticipated decision, the NLRB ruled that any student who performs services for an institution, under its control, for compensation, is a “common-law” employee entitled to unionize under the National Labor Relations Act. The NLRB’s sweeping decision lumped together undergraduates (who may serve, for example, as graders and discussion leaders), master’s degree candidates and Ph.D. candidates in its definition of employees. The decision ignored that many students must serve as teaching assistants or research assistants as part of their master’s or Ph.D. degree requirement, even if they would otherwise not want to do that “job.”

The decision’s lone dissenter, Republican Philip A. Miscamarra, anticipated that the strikes and other economic weapons that often accompany collective bargaining “will wreak havoc” and may have “devastating consequences” for higher education, particularly for the students who are trying to earn their degrees.

His dire prediction is not a case of crying wolf. Experience tells us that the adversarial process that is baked into the structure of collective bargaining will profoundly change the culture of campuses whose students are organized by unions. Unlike public-sector collective bargaining that is governed by individual state laws that typically prohibit strikes, the National Labor Relations Act anticipates that the process of collective bargaining will be fraught with adversarial positions that, if not settled amicably, often lead to strikes, lockouts and the replacement of workers.


The U.S. Supreme Court long ago stated that that “the principles developed for use in the industrial setting cannot be ‘imposed blindly on the academic world,’” because the interests at stake in the academy are different than those in an industrial workplace. Despite this observation, the NLRB ruled that the industrial model of the National Labor Relations Act is appropriate for private-sector campuses.

The consequences of this decision cannot be underestimated:

For the first time in our nation’s history, students at unionized campuses who are given the opportunity to teach or do research as part of their degree program or university experience will have to join a union or pay an agency fee in order to obtain their degree. This will transform an educational experience into a mere job.

Also for the first time in our history, research assistants—virtually all of whom in the hard sciences are required to engage in research and produce original results in order to write their dissertation—will be considered employees whose wages, hours and other “terms and conditions of employment” will be subject to bargaining on unionized campuses. This will transform the very purpose of their education into a job about which an outside union can insist on bargaining.


Disputes about what constitutes “wages” will require years of litigation, since the NLRB’s decision identified the stipends typically awarded to graduate students at elite institutions as wages where the requirement of teaching or research is embedded into the curricular requirement for such students.

The identification of proper subjects of bargaining will produce lengthy and complex litigation that will typically last far beyond the tenure of the students affected by those disputes. Will issues such as how many papers a teaching assistant has to grade; who will be awarded assistantships; and how many students should be in a section be considered “terms and conditions of employment” that must be bargained with a union?

The distinction between mandatory subjects of bargaining and the strictly academic issues about which universities would not have to bargain will test the limits of universities’ academic freedom. The often-Byzantine rules imposed by the NLRB on employers will now be engrafted onto unionized campuses. The NLRB has aggressively invalidated typical work rules, such as civility rules, because they allegedly chill employee rights to engage in “concerted” activity.

NLRB decisions also routinely find that employees may lawfully insult and demean their supervisors and managers as part of concerted activity. As a result, many standard campus rules may become unlawful if applied to unionized student assistants. Identification of who is an “employee” will inevitably morph into claims by unions that members of sports teams on scholarships, members of orchestras who receive stipends to go on tours, and similar student groups should be entitled to bargain about their stipends and terms and conditions of employment because they are “common-law employees.” Although the NLRB sidestepped this issue in 2015 when it declined to assert jurisdiction over Northwestern University football players, the Columbia University decision is broad enough to encompass these activities.

Private university administrators have a new, unfortunate landscape confronting them. Hopefully the NLRB’s decision will eventually reach the courts, who may bring common sense to this misguided result. Congress also may have a role in limiting the harm that will likely result from the decision. But make no mistake: This stunning decision will, if unchecked, forever change our private universities. Like it or not, applicants will no longer be “admitted” to unionized institutions; they will be new hires, no different in many respects from hourly workers in industry.

Joseph W. Ambash is the regional managing partner of the national labor and employment law firm Fisher Phillips. This first ran in the Web site of the New England Board of Higher Education (nebhe.org).