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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Filed under Culture, Politics, Uncategorized, US Politics

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