On Graduate Student Unionisation

 That 49% of white college graduates voted for Trump speaks volumes about the state of American higher education. Now, let’s be clear: crisis-rhetoric is about the only way to talk about the American university system. All too often this crisis is imputed to a Closing of the American Mind, due to illiberal communists, feminists, Black scholars, undergraduate campus activists who can no longer tolerate uncomfortable disagreement and thus destroy the spirit of free inquiry from within. The very groups that have the least power in the university hierarchy. On the contrary, I would argue that there has been a closing of the American Mind on the elite private university campus. We’ve just missed whose minds have been closed, and look set to remain closed for a while now.

The University of Chicago is the prime site of many of these contradictions. It is in the midst of a $1.7 billion development plan, it has been borrowing close to $900 million in the last three years; the 2008-discredited credit-ratings firm Moody’s has cut the school’s credit outlook to AA-. The Board of Trustees have engaged in an expensive construction project to rapidly expand the undergraduate population and give them an “experience” to match or exceed the promised experiences of undergraduates of other elite universities. The idea behind all this seems to be: more undergraduates, more fees; more undergraduates, more wealthy alumni; more undergraduates more fees and more alumni, and we can safeguard and restore an endowment under an extraordinary debt load. To maintain this heavy level of borrowing and construction investment, the money needs to come from somewhere. The Trustees, those in charge of the allocation of the university budget, have decided that it will come from academic departments; the actual sites where teaching and research happen. To pay for a construction boom to raise the undergraduate population to save the endowment, the Trustees have decided to take money away from faculty, graduate students, and many other research-affiliated workers who are teaching actually existing undergraduates and doing the labour of what a university is supposed to do: develop the society’s collective knowledge for the common good. University workers are paying with their labour for what to all appearances, can be read as a debt-fueled Ponzi scheme to raise land prices in Hyde Park.

When capital becomes scarce, a private institution responds by increasing its rate of extraction of value from its labour. Faculty at the university have to increasingly take up administrative work as administrators in departments are laid off due to budget cuts, faculty have less time for teaching and research. Graduate students have to now simultaneously teach, take coursework, research, do the administrative work of organizing workshops and conferences, and accomplish all this in five years so that they can stand out in a labour market where few universities are hiring tenure-track faculty anymore. The undergraduate population is increasing as a lot of the buildings have now been completed, but faculty hiring hasn’t grown in proportion: graduate students and new cohorts of temporary post-docs pick up the teaching slack. This extraction of value can be witnessed most clearly in the experiences of over-work, stress, and anxiety shared by most in the graduate student community. Moreover, this extraction is differentiated by age, race, gender, and class. Women graduate students are picking up the administrative slack in their departments. Older, senior graduate students are taking up more teaching responsibilities, to make up for reduced stipends and fellowships in the advanced years of the PhD. Poorer graduate students are having to look for other jobs to stay in school, which has the effect of taking time away from research and thus slowing it.

This self-inflicted debt crisis has made teaching, research, writing, collaborating, and living harder for all of us on campus. The perverse way in which the University of Chicago views itself as the meta-University, the campus where faculty from all over the world come to visit to get their epistemic paradigms tested and where each disciplines’ best practices and practitioners can be found, forces us to internalize and take responsibility for this stress and over-work as a condition of excellence. If it doesn’t hurt, you’re not doing it right. The university claims to be based on a trusteeship model of education. We will look after the faculty, the Trustees argue, so that the faculty can be best placed to look after the students. The students aren’t really workers, they are apprentices, caringly trained by faculty members. In reality, the only people being trained are the university’s accountants. Trustees have made things difficult for the faculty, and the faculty can’t but help relay some of that difficulty to their students – because a university has to be run while all this is going on. These issues have been made raised repeatedly by many voices on campus. Communication in this hierarchy is a one-way street.

Since 2007, the Graduate Student Union (GSU) at the University of Chicago has consistently articulated this critique and has organized to win many victories to make the work of education possible in an administrative environment designed to make it impossible. Salaries for TA positions have been doubled. Salaries for Lecturer positions have been increased by a third. Advanced residency tuition hikes have been frozen since 2010: an absurd practice where the university penalizes a graduate student for having spent too long on their research, when research of any kind takes time in ways that cannot be easily predicted. The parental leave policy for graduate students has been improved. All in all, the GSU has recognized that good research and teaching takes time, and to be asked to divide our labour in these many contradictory tasks means that we should be adequately paid for it. Insofar as the university has shied away from systematically addressing racism and sexism on campus, including cases of sexual harassment; the GSU, along with other campus groups, has consistently stepped up to support the victims whose dignity has been denied. In other words, the GSU has done its best to save the University of Chicago from itself.

This is why I believe we should unionise. Collective bargaining means that there will be a legally enforceable system by which graduate students can participate in negotiating and designing the conditions of their labour: the labour of education and research, the labour that makes a university a university. If the Trustees want to go and build a $1 billion casino on campus to compete with a future Trump University, a legally recognized graduate student union will be able to fight their attempts to pay for it out of the graduate student stipend. Moreover, a legally recognized graduate student union will mean a significant reform in the governance structure of the university such that an necessary and powerful branch of its community will have representation and a voice on key strategic decisions. This brings us back to the crisis of the elite private university and the closing of the American mind.

At Yale, eight departmental units have voted for Local 33 to be their union and start bargaining new contracts. The university has refused to recognize this union and has refused to start bargaining. This is a “breach of their legal duties under federal law”. At Columbia, the students have voted 1602-623 in favour of unionisation, the university administration has decided to contest the election. Graduate workers at Columbia described this as “just another baseless effort by the University to ignore the democratic process”. What will the University of Chicago do to keep up with this closing of the ranks of elite private universities against the democratisation of their governance structure and the re-intellectualisation of their primary research and teaching workforce? Why can’t administrators see that a union might be a practical and feasible innovation in corporate strategy to ensure that a university can most effectively maintain its brand of being a university? What’s preventing them from entertaining such difficult, uncomfortable, and challenging thoughts about vital institutional reform in the face of grave institutional, economic and political crisis?

It is likely that the University of Chicago, along with Yale and Columbia, will employ considerable resources to delay union recognition, wait for Trump to replace Obama’s appointees in the National Labour Review Board, and so wait for graduate students to be de-recognised as workers with a right to collectively bargain. 49% of white college graduates voted for Trump, it is becoming clear that many elite private university trustees agree with him.


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On the Conjuncture II

The prevailing liberal consensus has failed. By this I mean the ideas, visions, plans for the future held by the leading liberal politicians and intellectuals in many countries – my writing so far has only focused on India, the UK, and the US – have come to nothing. Within their own terms, within the presuppositions that they are committed to; they have no idea what more they can do to win elections. Winning elections to govern more sympathetically than conservative parties has been their main claim to legitimacy against left critiques.

The quickly diminishing leading liberal party in India, the Indian National Congress, is committed to dynasty rule that has automatically, and rightly, ruled out its credibility amongst most of the electorate. Ed Miliband’s Labour tried to square the circle of offering economic competence, technocratic verbiage (‘predistribution’ matches ‘trumped up trickle down’ for rhetorical futility), and anti-immigrant sentiment to find that more or less the same package was more slickly, and believably, sold by the Tories. Clinton’s slick, data-driven campaign lost handily to a man who can’t finish a sentence. Why?

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On Safe Spaces

“So if someone tells us it is just to give to each what he is owed, and understands by this that a just man should harm his enemies and benefit his friends, the one who says it is not wise. I mean, what he says is not true. For it has become clear to us that it is never just to harm anyone.” Plato, Rep. I. 335e1-5

Amidst the Facebook maelstrom that accompanied the rather thoughtful and sharply precise letter sent by Dean Ellison of the University of Chicago, it was little-remarked that Plato’s Republic – the cornerstone of the Western political-philosophical tradition, a formative text for many undergraduates and professors here – begins with the violent establishment of an intellectual safe space. Indeed, Plato’s larger dialogical-philosophical project can be read as a thorough, culture-defining attempt to think through, to dramatise and vividly stage for his theatre-obsessed polis the simple question: what makes for a good conversation about the truth? What makes a conversation real? Where is it that conversations come to an end? Why do they do so? In what kind of spaces do we feel free to think? With what kinds of interlocutors can we feel out the good? What jokes, stories, poems, songs, and images do we tell each other as we try to describe to one another the indescribable truth? What compels us to talk to one another about the things that matter most? What compels us to keep silent?

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On the Conjuncture I

This is a lot. The gravity of the situation hits me in waves. This wasn’t supposed to happen. I had assumed the Obama coalition from 2012 would hold up, given that Obama had made a couple of speeches endorsing Clinton. Michelle had made a really strong one too. I had thought it would be the margin of Obama’s win over Romney, that the bad old familiar order would continue. I didn’t bother to look into the polls or the specific states in the Midwest more closely, Clinton was experienced enough and the Democratic GOTV machine strong enough to carry it home.

Seeing the results come in on 11 pm on Tuesday, I felt a sinking familiar to me from past election nights. I was now numb to the painful realization that the familiar, comfortable liberal world of the late 90s and early 2000s was ultimately over. This certainty has been exploded many times in my life now. I felt like when I did in Edinburgh in May 2014, preparing to move to Chicago in a couple of weeks but broken apart by the Modi BJP’s resounding win: a clear single-party majority for the most authoritarian candidate in India since Indira Gandhi. It reminded me of what I felt seeing David Cameron win a single-party majority in May 2015. Like Clinton this year, Ed Miliband of the Labour Party ran an unfocussed, uninspired campaign – dogged by a press more intent on bringing him down a peg than challenge Tory dogmas on deficit-spending. It reminded me of the Brexit referendum in June this year; another muddle-headed campaign for an admittedly unpleasant and imperfect status quo surprisingly lost to a clear, direct message – fuck ‘em.

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If Bernie had won

One silver lining of Clinton’s victory in the Democratic Primary is that American liberals and media figures have been able to maintain the healthy and absolutely necessary fiction that there is an unbridgeable chasm of political difference between themselves and Donald Trump. Can you imagine what would have happened if, in some sequence of unimaginable events Bernie Sanders had won the Democratic nomination?

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In defence of Jeremy Corbyn

“It might be in my party’s interest for him to sit there, it’s not in the national interest and I would say, for heaven’s sake man, go!” David Cameron

For observers of British politics, it might not come as a surprise that the press and most of the politicians in the country have taken advantage of Brexit to launch a comprehensive assault on the very possibility of an anti-racist social democracy. There are multiple parties involved in this assault, making for a curious, yet on reflection entirely understandable, list of allies.

We had David Cameron, former Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party who by calling this referendum to resolve an intra-party dispute, had brought the very union of nations that comprises the United Kingdom into doubt. On his last outing at the Prime Minister’s Questions – an increasingly frivolous forum where one hears howls of laughter when a colleague brings up the rise in child poverty in the country – David Cameron spoke on behalf of the “national interest” to demand that the leader of the opposition Labour party, Jeremy Corbyn, resign.  “For heaven’s sake man, go.”, thundered Cameron, with cheers erupting in the hall and across the twitter feeds of English journalists. Not just journalists, but political and public figures across the political spectrum agreed. For the national interest, Jeremy Corbyn simply has to go. Cameron had honourably resigned upon losing the referendum. Why didn’t Corbyn?

Then we have much of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), the group of Members of Parliament who won their seats campaigning for Labour in the last general election, but are now attempting to assert dominance over the broader Labour movement and party members who by and large prefer Corbyn to any alternative leader (Times/Yougov poll). The week after the referendum, the PLP voted 172-40 to pass a no-confidence motion in Corbyn as leader of the Labour party. Their leaders in the Shadow Cabinet (ostensibly appointed by Corbyn as an act of intra-party unity) had spent the previous weekend resigning periodically for maximum public effect. The Labour party is now in disarray. Corbyn has forced many Labour MPs to undermine their opposition to the real architects of the Brexit disaster, the Conservatives, by training their sights on him. For the national interest, for the country to have a functioning opposition the man who was apparently the cause of this disaster now has to go. For heaven’s sake, he has to go. This plea is now being seen across the British press as a question beyond narrow political concerns, a matter of basic human decency. Something to be done for the national interest. What nation are Cameron and the Parliamentary Labour Party speaking for? To what sort of nation does Jeremy Corbyn pose a threat?

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Neoliberalism in one country

The politics of reaction in the UK are scrambling. The events and debates surrounding the upcoming Brexit referendum reflect well the chaos, the idiocy, and sheer bloody-mindedness of Tory rule. The quality of the coverage, most notably the naked class-interest on display, reflects well the Tory press. In its efforts to sustain and popularise the Blairite neoliberal settlement by protecting Cameron at every turn, this press has found itself all-too-successfully aping his inability to sustain a thought for more than ten minutes. It has been the PR-man of the PR PM. Unlike most PR campaigns, this one – the project of the Tories and their press to reinforce their class rule – has done and will continue to do an astonishing amount of damage to the people of the UK in a short amount of time.

First the contours of Tory rule. This referendum was called by David Cameron to appease the backbenchers or the ‘fringe’ of his party who have questioned the European project since the 1990s. This potted history by a former editor of the Spectator – a publication that recently described Muhammad Ali as a “performing seal” – argued that Euroscepticism within the Tory party was began as a movement for liberty, modernity and national economic flexibility in response to poor governance by an increasingly sluggish European behemoth. At the start, these meek, cool-headed Tories merely wanted the EU to focus on “trade and business” rather than “grand political projects”. As they were ridiculed and marginalized by Blair in the 2000s, and then by the Clegg-Cameron coalition in 2010, their stance couldn’t help but harden into outright malevolence for these effete cosmopolitan elites (Blair, Brown, Cameron and Clegg) who had little concern for the true interests of British business. Blair’s failure to use his outsize charisma to “reform the EU” per Carswell’s requirements forced the latter into the hard Brexit position. What were these reforms that Carswell and the charmingly dubbed Brexiteers wanted? Tellingly, the accomplished journalist and one-time editor of Britain’s oldest conservative magazine allows this question to pass in silence. Whatever they were, they clearly weren’t racist.

We have two factions in the Tory party who have been given complete hegemony in the British political debate as it is reflected in its papers and broadcast media. The Remainers on the one hand, led by Cameron and Osborne, are arguing for more of the same. By their expected win they are hoping to silence their power-hungry opponents within their party once and for all. On the other side, the Brexiteers, led by Michael Gove, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farrage, given intellectual weight by giants like Douglas Carswell and Daniel Hannan, and emboldened by the racist campaign run by Zac Goldsmith in London last winter (a campaign which failed), are all too eager to overthrow the ‘metropolitan’ conservatives and benefit from the economic and social chaos inevitable upon their victory. The Tory press have little interest in the opinions of those outside the Tory party. Thus Corbyn while reserved yet steadfast in his support for Remain but with his politics of moderate Keynesianism considered far too left-wing for “acceptable mainstream opinion”, has continued to be given short shrift by the big papers. No doubt he will be blamed no matter the result.

We have an apparent paradox. If, as I argued, the ascendancy of neoliberalism in the UK is total, then why is there a right-wing faction within the right-wing party unhappy with its apparent success? The EU has no issues with the brutal austerity policies pursued by the Conservatives. Indeed it inflicted something similar on Greece late last summer.  The EU has also done little to reign in the City of London and its financial sector’s profitable boondogglery. The access to the single market in labour and goods that the EU offers is a net economic gain for the UK – the country is the largest recipient of FDI in the single market, acting as the primary conduit for international capital into the continent and continental investments into the outside world.  If Tory rule consisted primarily in safeguarding the interests of capital, the interests of the ruling class as we have said, why then is a significant faction within the Tory party willing and almost quite able to throw a massive spanner in its profit-making operations by triggering Brexit? A “Leave” vote would cause a massive loss in financial confidence in the country for all of its trade and legal agreements with the EU – a significant portion of its economic external relations – would be put in limbo. The UK would then have to negotiate an exit as a much weaker partner ripe for punishment by an already hurting Europe. Continue reading

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