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Graduate Student Workers on the Rise

A forum on graduate student organizing and the future of academic labor.
By Justine Modica, Mae Saslaw, John Klecker, Alex Miller, Surabhi Balachander, Jeremy Glover, and Glenn Houlihan


Photo Credit: Michelle Mengsu Chang

Contents

Introduction
By Justine Modica

SUNY Stony Brook
By Mae Saslaw and John Klecker

University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa
By Alex Miller

University of Michigan
By Surabhi Balachander and Jeremy Glover

University of Wyoming
By Glenn Houlihan


Introduction 

By Justine Modica

The past year has pulled back the curtain on higher education, revealing the vast inequalities and imbalances of power that plague universities throughout the country. The COVID-19 pandemic that began last spring forced many universities to close their residential operations and move online, creating challenges for everyone working in higher education, especially those with precarious employment. With the switch to online learning, many administrators deemed custodial and dining staff disposable, refusing to extend pay continuation to some of the most essential workers on our campuses. This failure revealed the problems inherent in subcontracting all manual and service labor, but it also showed just how neatly that labor model worked for administrators seeking budgetary “flexibility.” Many universities expected graduate students to remain on the same time clock to completion as before the pandemic, with no promises of funding extensions. With access to labs restricted and archives shuttered, graduate students around the country found ourselves watching the sand drop through the hourglass of our funding timelines, unable to do the research we came to graduate school to complete. The situation is worse for our colleagues with children—without childcare and with schools moved online, graduate student parents have little, if any, time to work. The situation also exacerbated the gender inequalities in academia. When my colleagues and I in the Stanford Solidarity Network conducted a survey of graduate student parents at Stanford University, we found that student parents were able to work an average of only nineteen hours per week during the pandemic and that a wide gap existed between men (who reported having twenty-three hours per week for work) and women (who reported having only fourteen hours per week).

Graduate students have also responded to a host of threats to vulnerable communities on our campuses. When the Trump administration proposed a rule change to revoke the visa status of international students doing their learning primarily online, we were reminded of the precarious state in which many of our international colleagues live. Graduate students flooded university administrators’ offices with calls and emails demanding responses, and the AAUP and other higher education groups spoke out against the directive in statements and filed an amicus brief challenging it. The uprisings of summer 2020 following the murder of George Floyd also forced many of us to reckon with the roles of the police at our own universities and the ways they endanger our Black and brown colleagues. Many graduate student organizers across the country began to call for the abolition of university police forces and to demand that our administrators address ongoing issues of racial injustice on our campuses.

In the following forum, graduate student workers from campuses across the country share their experiences organizing academic labor in 2020. As graduate students, we do a great deal of the work that makes our universities’ research and teaching operations possible. Over the past year, we have been building labor power on our campuses and solidarity with graduate students nationwide. We petitioned, demonstrated, went on strike, and in many cases won. We addressed bread-and-butter issues of wages and health-care benefits as well as the broader and more endemic problems of racial injustice, infringement on Indigenous land sovereignty, and employment precarity. We each share different visions for what a New Deal for Higher Education might look like. We hope that faculty allies will stand with us as we work toward building universities that are more just and democratic and that distribute power and wealth more fairly among the people on our campuses who do the work. Whatever happens in the future, we won’t go back to normal.

Justine Modica is a PhD candidate in the history department at Stanford University. She studies the history of childcare labor in the United States.

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SUNY Stony Brook

By Mae Saslaw and John Klecker

Graduate student fees are a hardship for many higher education workers, and for students across the State University of New York system, they amount to wage theft of up to 10 percent of some graduate student workers’ annual income. The proposed New York State budget for 2022 includes funding to phase out these fees for SUNY and for the City University of New York, a measure supported by student organizers across the state. A similar bill was confirmed but not finalized the week before pandemic lockdowns began in 2020, and due to austerity cuts, the budget for 2021 did not include this relief for impoverished graduate students. As organizers at SUNY Stony Brook University, our movement to secure better economic stability for our peers kept its focus on the university administration for the past year.

In fall 2020, Stony Brook raised student fees without warning, bringing the bill per semester to over $1,000. Graduate students accept offers from the university that indicate our annual stipend, but the fees, undisclosed in the offers and due twice per year, took more than a month’s pay from some students. In response to the increase, rank-and-file members of Stony Brook’s Graduate Student Employees Union decided to ramp up our ongoing fight for an end to the fees. We sent a survey to members in late summer and the results were surprising—out of the roughly 950 members in the bargaining unit, almost half were interested in a fee strike.

The next steps were to gather signatures from graduate students pledging to withhold their fees and then to establish small organizing committees. An analysis of graduate student stipends compared with the cost of living at universities around the country showed that our pay was uniquely inadequate; this finding became a key component of the arguments we made in frequent call-in and write-in campaigns and on social media. We held a car-rally protest in early September, driving the loop road that encompasses most of our campus, to raise awareness and disrupt afternoon traffic. Following the car rally, participation in the strike increased, and by the time the second fee deadline passed in mid-October, more than five hundred graduate students collectively withheld more than $500,000. As the semester continued and our momentum and visibility grew, we made plans to escalate the movement, and we created a fund for fee strikers to recoup their eventual late charges so that more students could maintain the strike. The administration provided almost no official response until October 28, when students received an email from the university president announcing new scholarships to pay student fees for all terminal degree graduate students, beginning in spring 2021. We won.

Our unexpected victory proved that the money was always there. Administrators, given the option to exploit student workers, had chosen wage theft for years. Even with an additional $2,000 per year, most of us still earn less than a living wage. Living wages, basic income, and pandemic relief are priorities that extend beyond higher education, and so must our greater fight for the working class. For graduate students, the financial structures of our university system are linked to both a culture that devalues our labor and a grave deficit in funding for education.

A New Deal for Higher Education must begin with the acknowledgment that our universities have been severely underfunded for decades, and that we must prioritize research in climate science, health, and justice. We can pay for the work that must be done by taxing the billionaires and millionaires who have profited from the pandemic, including many who sit on university boards deciding that poverty and precarity are acceptable for everyone but themselves. With resources that will be available when we redistribute the wealth we produce, we must create a new culture of higher education that truly values diversity. We must disarm campus security and provide meaningful accessibility in pedagogy, bureaucracy, and work environments. We must pay all students for their academic labor so that economic disadvantage does not remain a barrier to educational opportunity. Relief from exploitative fees is a beginning. We are student workers and we need radical change, now. We know a better world is possible, and we have the power to build it.

Mae Saslaw is a PhD student in the Department of Geosciences at Stony Brook University. She is a field geologist and paleoclimate researcher. John Klecker is a PhD candidate in the Department of Chemistry at Stony Brook University and the business agent of the Graduate Student Employees Union at Stony Brook. When he is not organizing labor, he is performing research as a chemical biologist in quantitative pharmacology.

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University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa

By Alex Miller

The University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, the flagship campus of Hawai‘i’s only public university, sits on “ceded lands,” as the State of Hawai‘i terms those lands seized from the Kingdom of Hawai‘i after its illegal 1893 overthrow by American businessmen and the US military. Like the rest of the island chain, Mānoa is very much unceded by Kānaka Maoli, the Indigenous people of Hawai‘i. While the university utilizes the politics of representation to label itself an “Indigenous-serving institution,” it also holds the lease for another parcel of “ceded” lands, the summit of Maunakea, the archipelago’s tallest mountain and a sacred place for Kānaka Maoli. On Maunakea, UH continues to pursue the construction of a massive telescope complex, greatly disrupting a fragile and unique ecosystem. In 2019, when peaceful Kānaka Maoli and allied mountain protectors blocked construction equipment from access to the summit, UH and the State of Hawai‘i sent a large, militarized police force to terrorize and arrest them. Several Academic Labor United (ALU) members were among them. As organizers for ALU, the unrecognized union of more than 1,200 graduate assistants at UH, we believe that centering anti-imperialist politics is the only way to fight capitalist power and move toward justice at a university that is rooted in imperialism, racism, and collaboration with the settler police state.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated problems that graduate assistants have faced at UH for years. Our total lack of sick leave became immediately untenable, and our organizing work in partnership with our Graduate Student Organization resulted in current talks to implement a sick-leave policy. We created a student hardship fund, which has put the economic struggles of both undergraduate and graduate students into stark relief and disbursed nearly $9,000 to students experiencing hardship. Work- and learn-from-home demands for access to technology have further burdened many students. This past summer, threats to international student visas prompted our immediate organizing of the Shave ICE coalition, which sought to pressure administrators to declare UH a sanctuary campus from ICE. As UH planned to reopen for in-person classes in August, we fought to make classes totally online and protect workers and their families from unnecessary risk. Now we are fighting to protect ourselves from budget cuts and departmental reorganizations that threaten our contract renewals.

In the past few months, ALU has renewed our political education and organizing efforts to recognize imperialism at work in seemingly bread-and-butter issues. Below-living wages of many graduate workers force many Kānaka Maoli who would otherwise complete their studies at UH to enter programs elsewhere, continuing the project of Indigenous displacement. The university profits from siphoning capital out of other countries when international students who cannot survive on our meager wages must take out additional loans from institutions in their home countries. Through our panel event “No Bans on Occupied Lands,” ALU formed our first working group for international graduate student workers.

A New Deal for Higher Education must demand a restructuring of the university from the ground up. Coalitions of workers, students, and community members (including Indigenous people) must replace the philanthro-capitalist takeover that plagues boards of trustees across the United States. We must demand that our public universities serve the public good, centering the needs of communities that are underrepresented and underserved by higher education. To do this, we must build our own power bases to challenge the wealth and resources of administrations. Labor unions committed to an organizing model and liberatory politics are the way to do this. Worker consciousness and power are what will force administrative power to be ceded, not lengthy letter-writing campaigns and endless meetings of diversity committees. Current faculty members must disinvest from the neoliberal model of change through advocacy work and appeals to power. Instead, they must organize a radical takeover of existing faculty unions, many of which have fallen into the complacency of business-model unionism, and leverage their power as workers through escalating campaigns of labor action, including strikes.

ALU organizers are moving toward these goals by working with faculty on campus and creating relationships of worker solidarity. It is imperfect work that requires constant navigation of our commitment to liberatory politics and the reality of the privilege, politics, and power of our members. Faculty collaboration would make the long road ahead easier for all.

Alex Miller grew up in the Susquehanna River valley. He now studies dance at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa.

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University of Michigan

By Surabhi Balachander and Jeremy Glover

From September 8 to 16, 2020, the Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO) at the University of Michigan went on strike for a “Safe and Just Pandemic Response for All.” We had two sets of demands, related to COVID-19 safety and policing. GEO’s COVID-19 demands addressed issues such as exposure to the virus at work, lack of access to testing, and loss of childcare or wages, all of which disproportionately affect communities of color, and especially Black communities—much like police violence. GEO’s strike revealed some ways that both university structures and organizing can fall short of serving the most vulnerable populations on campus.

It became clear as the strike went into its second week—and the university filed an injunction aimed at bankrupting the union should we continue to strike—that our policing demands were most controversial. This made sense: while summer 2020 highlighted the prevalence of police violence and the urgency of structural change, police have become integral, even defining, features of the modern university. GEO members’ debates about these demands revealed a continuum, from those who wondered if they were worth continuing our strike over to those who thought they were worth the risk of losing the union itself. What was missing from these conversations, at first, were the voices of the very people most affected by police violence. A group of mostly Black members of the GEO stepped up during the last days of the strike to refine the demands we brought to the bargaining table.

Our approach in refining the policing demands originated in a particular view of antiracist practice. Books on antiracism reached the top of bestseller lists last summer. Interestingly, many are marketed as “self-help.” While the work of antiracism does require critical self-reflection, we must also work to materially improve the lives of people of color—especially those in our immediate orbit, on whose lives we have the greatest direct impact. Identifying oneself as “antiracist” sometimes functions as a political distancing from one’s privilege rather than a set of commitments to ending racism—as did identifying as “abolitionist,” at times, in the context of our strike. People choose to identify as abolitionists because they are rightly unsatisfied by reform that fails to address the violent roots of policing and the prison-industrial complex. Sometimes, however, performances of abolitionist politics become disconnected from the historical and specific roots of abolitionist thought—which are in eliminating harm, reimagining justice, and prioritizing abundance. Rather than performing political purism, we must ask, “What can we do to help our communities now?”

The GEO strike could not have immediately achieved total abolition of campus police at the University of Michigan. For the first time, however, the university negotiated with the union about policing. The administration also acceded to our calls for the discontinuation of a pandemic-specific policing program on campus—a victory that has certainly protected Black students and other students of color. While we were forced to compromise for a still-bad approach to policing, it was important to leave behind an “abolitionist” state of mind in order to reduce immediate harm and open the door to future antiracist reforms.

Here, Black graduate students worked to hold our union accountable, while the union was in turn working to hold the university accountable. We need to recognize that those not in positions of structural power are also capable of perpetuating harm. The first step of allyship is listening to those around us—and working to see them both as people and as imbricated in power structures. When we work together, we will make mistakes. There will never be a movement without conflict, but in learning to listen to other people’s concerns and remain accountable for their well-being, we become stronger. We have to learn to apologize and change course as needed, with the constant goal of centering the most marginalized members of our communities. Organizing with an approach focused on antiracism, allyship, and accountability is the only way to build healthy movements and imagine universities that serve us all.

Surabhi Balachander is a PhD candidate in English language and literature at the University of Michigan. Her research explores rurality, race, and the environment in American literature. Jeremy Glover, also a PhD student in English, focuses on Black speculative fiction in his research. Balachander and Glover are cochairs of the BIPOC Caucus of the Graduate Employees’ Organization.

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University of Wyoming

By Glenn Houlihan

Graduate assistants looking to build student worker power at the University of Wyoming face a problem: we have no union to join. Wyoming is a state notoriously hostile to organized labor. “Right-to-work” laws; a small, dispersed population; and a state legislature dominated by ultraconservative Republicans make organizing exceedingly challenging. Labor’s already fragile influence at UW was further tested during the fall 2020 semester: following a 10 percent cut in state funding, the land-grant university is facing a staggering $43.3 million budget reduction in the current biennium.

Unfortunately, my American studies program was included among those initially proposed for elimination by the UW administration. While we have seen cuts to liberal arts jobs and programs in many state institutions across the country, this inclusion came as a shock: our MA program is fully funded by a separate endowment, so eliminating it wouldn’t save the university any money. We undertook a successful letter writing and media campaign in defense of the program, yet I couldn’t help thinking how useful it would have been to possess a local union’s support and resources during the antiausterity organizing.

In August 2020 I joined AFT Academics (AFTA), the associate membership local of the American Federation of Teachers. While this is a nonbargaining union, it has been invaluable in helping me connect with a network of union colleagues across the United States. In response to COVID-19, AFTA issued a powerful statement that rejected austerity and challenged the “inconsistent and inequitable” nature of universities’ pandemic arrangements. Demands in the statement, which echoed those set forth in the joint statement “AFT and AAUP Principles for Higher Education Response to COVID-19,” included retaining all contracted employees, making a fair transition to online learning, and extending health-care coverage to all students and employees. These points directly tied into AFTA’s “Community-Led Campuses” campaign, which advocates for giving academic workers a voice and vote in institutional decision-making.

AFTA has also demanded that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) stop its relentless attacks on international students. In July 2020, the DHS attempted to ban international students from residing in the United States if their universities offered online-only classes in the fall. Thankfully, this ban was overturned—but the denigration of international students has continued to escalate. Notably, the DHS has also proposed a rule change concerning student visas that would replace “duration-of-status” visas with fixed-term visas. The proposed fixed admission time frame for a PhD program, four years, is clearly inadequate considering that the median nationwide PhD completion time is 5.8 years. As an international student myself, I was heartened to see my union focus on a group that offers so much to US academia but is consistently viewed as dispensable by the federal government.

During AFTA national meetings we are often asked to consider what would change for us if we had the type of power described in the Community-Led Campuses vision. For me, that power would mean cost-of-living adjustments for stipends, better-quality health care, and hazard pay for teaching during a pandemic. Taken together, these simple reforms would drastically improve living standards for university staff.

Another idea that repeatedly comes up in meetings is a wall-to-wall union that covers anyone who receives a paycheck from their university. This would include graduate assistants, janitorial staff, and food-service workers: if you are an employee of the university, you are eligible to join. While this approach raises questions of how to address power differentials among those represented, it would build solidarity among workers who are precariously situated within the university framework and help navigate antiunion attitudes in red states such as Wyoming. (The Coalition of Rutgers Unions, represented in the article that follows, is a model for this form of organizing.)

It is clear that collective action is the only way to fight the increasingly disastrous neoliberal university structure. Indeed, in the face of destructive cuts there is good news: between 2013 and 2019, sixteen new graduate student employee bargaining units formed around the country, representing 19,600 graduate workers. These units will fight for what all academic workers need: solidarity, not austerity.

Glenn Houlihan is an MA student from the United Kingdom researching graduate assistant unions at the University of Wyoming. His recent career experience includes teaching, copywriting, and working on a US Senate campaign.

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