Low Wages and Exploitative Conditions Are Sparking Graduate Student Strikes

The U.S. University imbued with the ethos of managerialismThe stewardship of intellectual property has been morphed into a corporate enterprise. Since the advent of the neoliberal era began, college administrations have been infiltrated with capitalist priorities. This has led to prohibitive tuition rates and the cultivation precarious workers, which has caused severe strain on many who actually do the actual labor for the academic profession.

Here are some facts worth repeating, many of which have been noted-upon: U.S. student loans have reached inconceivably vast proportions. Even advanced schooling is far from a guarantor of future financial security; for those aspiring scholars fortunate enough to find any employment at all, those prospects are overwhelmingly of becoming adjunct or contingent faculty — highly stressed and low-paid. The dim conditions faced by most academics are not romanticized. For most, tenure remains a dim hope.

Many graduate students find themselves trapped between these multiple fronts: student debt, earning, and being burdened by past student debt. sub-living-wage paythey are not happy with their current work and may face declining future opportunities. To keep a steady supply of low-cost labor, universities have become over-reliant upon graduate students and other contingent faculty. Graduate students have taken a united stand against the precarious and unfavorable conditions that plague American academic life. This is evident in an increase in organizing activity over the last year.

New York’s private Columbia University has been at the forefront of these unfolding dynamics. There, the Student Workers of Columbia, United Auto Workers (SWC-UAW) Local 2110 are engaged in an ongoing strike — the fourth since the union’s 2016 founding — that’s now stretching into its sixth week, punctuated with a picketDecember 8th, which sought to reiterate union demands. Months of negotiations with university have yielded little. a tentative agreement,Eventually, the union was rejected and there was mounting friction.

Organizing at New University

The organizers of SWC-UAW had to deal with predictable administrative intransigence throughout long periods of mediation. anti-union broadsides. Local 2110 is now live two successive actions2021: The first strikeIn March, the union organizers claimed that a strike to improve working conditions was met with a halt on raises. After filing two unfair labor practice (ULP) chargesThe National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), a government agency that enforces U.S. Labor Law, was the source of the current strike. It was initiated by the union on the basis ULPs and to reaffirm their economic concerns. The administration enjoined this legally protected action with yet more retribution — this time, threats of illegal firing — which organizers promptly answered with a third ULP.

This volleying derives in part from the Columbia administration’s unwillingness to sanction wage adjustments that would sustain their critical labor force. Columbia’s endowment is more than $14 billion. This self-destructive refusal continues. That sum is not atypical for top private schools — Harvard’s is $40 billion; Yale, Stanford, Princeton and other venerable universities all boast endowments ranging in the tens of billions, and invest them to lucrative effect. Columbia’s investment returns last year were an astonishing 32 percent.

Yale and Stanford pay their graduate students however, comparatively well. Comparative literature Ph.D. student Dennis Hogan has been organizing with Brown University’s American Federation of Teachers-affiliated union, the Graduate Labor Organization (GLO-AFT), since 2015. Until November, he was the union’s elected political director on its inaugural executive board. “Private schools,” Hogan pointed out in an email to Truthout, “especially those with large endowments, have in many instances proved willing to offer wage and benefit increases either as an attempt to head off a union threat or in union negotiations.”

Columbia has not yet taken the compromise route. The depth of the school’s coffers draws an unflattering contrast: Graduate students say they are paid as little as $29,000 a year. The SWC/UAW is calling for a $45,000 minimum wage, with minimum $26 an hr for hourly workers, and 3 percent yearly increases. This is in addition to the current $15. Their demands (better healthcare provisions, including vision and dental care, and neutral arbitration in harassment and discrimination cases) is not a petty concern. systemic issuesColumbia and elsewhere, and the denial or treatment of health care places students directly at risk.

Truthout spoke to second-year sociology Ph.D. student and SWC-UAW member Jonathan Ben-Menachem, who is active in the union’s cost-of-living and communications working groups. “We aren’t even asking for pay that reaches the point of cost of living in New York City,” he noted — which is, of course, one of the most expensive places to live in the United States.

According to Ben-Menachem, the union’s concerns have been treated dismissively by administrators during the mediation process. Columbia has also been paying its employees since 2016. $1,500 an hourTo a lawyer Bernard Plum of the firm Proskauer RoseWho? has represented The New York Times, Disney, Pacific Gas & Electric other major corporations in anti-union litigation.

Local 2110’s eminently reasonable requests have been echoed by supporters among tenured faculty in the English and philosophy departmentsAmong other things, New York Rep. Jerry Nadler (and reliable labor fan Danny DeVito). Ben-Menachem described “a faculty rally where tenured professors came out and emphasized how small and reasonable our demands are.” Nevertheless, SWC-UAW proposals have been largely rebuffed by the administration; when the latter has responded, it’s been with lowball offers.

These tensions in Columbia are at the crossroads of austerity and casualization of academic work, as well as a growing momentum for collective action. These same patterns are evident across academia. New York University’s Graduate Student Organizing Committee (GSOC) went on strike in spring 2021Also, they are seeking improvements in pay and benefits, and to bar the administration from calling the New York City Police Department about minor incidents. This strike resulted in a contract that closely resembled Columbia’s goals: a $26 an hour minimum wage and near-complete health care coverage, along with other wins.

The Harvard Graduate Students Union, also represented by UAW, launched its October launch a three-day strikeAt their own institution the second action in two years. Another strike was avertedAfter eight months of negotiations, a tentative agreement was reached. In a display of solidarity, members of the GSOC and the HGSU joined Columbia students on the picket line last Wednesday, as did representatives of Brown University’s GLO-AFT.

GLO-AFT President Rithika Ramamurthy. “The graduate labor force after 2008 has consistently been confronted with a decimated job market and a climate of austerity that universities themselves create,” she told Truthout. “But grad workers are becoming radicalized in the same way many workers are right now. Why?Many grads are asking the same question. Are I allowed to make poverty wages, or not get dental care, if my employer is able to pay a football coach a million dollars or is making record returns on their investment?

Graduate students have created new threads of solidarity, as they recognize the interconnected nature of their efforts. Students won fair treatment only by taking collective action. Other schools have also taken notice. Similar struggles were waged to achieve the same goals. have been wagedThis year, the Graduate Workers Organizing Cooperative at Colorado State University. A majority of the 17,000 University of California student in May were in Colorado State University. Student Researchers UnitedVoted to unionize and were just awarded recognitionin December. In December, Ramamurthy, Hogan, and others organized the GLO AFT at Brown. a successful union contract, securing job protections, COVID funds and an independent grievance mechanism — and in the process, spearheading union efforts at the Ivy League.

The Plundering of Higher Education

These interconnected battles are underpinned by a pernicious, totalizing trend: The corporatization and privatization of universities. Idealized notions and concepts of academia have helped to hide the fact that academic work, teaching and researching are labor like any other, regardless of whether they are done by tenured professors or graduate student. Graduate student teaching positions have been long viewed as a privilege for gifted students, despite their heavy workloads and sub-minimum wage pay. This implied that they should be grateful for their circumstances. But the teaching assistant’s role has evolved away from that of the apprentice hand-selected for intellectual cultivation — they have now been instrumentalized as an essential labor pool, effectively serving as academic temps, and earning a pittance in return. In a speech to an adjunct union in 2014, Noam Chomsky explained how the reliance on adjuncts and grad students is “part of a corporate business model designed to reduce labor costs and to increase labor servility” — a workforce kept “cheap and vulnerable.”

Mythologies of the “life of the mind,” which have utility in instilling self-sacrificing attitudes among the workforce, persist — but the exploitation, impossible to ignore, has created a shift in consciousness. “Recognizing your lack of control over your work and its conditions is a key component in working to change it alongside others,” Ramamurthy said. “That is also what creates solidarity between grads across institutions. We are all living in the wake of the decisions made by people that plundered higher education.”

Regardless of the prestige they may enjoy in their chosen profession, the sad truth is that adjunct professors as well as graduate teaching assistants are often qualified as the working poorLiving at or below the poverty level “[T]he conditions … have been deteriorating for some time,” Hogan said. “There is really no longer any incentive being offered to those who keep their heads down and don’t cause trouble, at least not on any systemic scale.” The shifting self-perception of graduate students — viewing themselves, increasingly, as laborers — has prepared the ground for organizing.

“The university is totally invested in you believing the idea that you are, first and foremost, an individual receiving an education … not a member of the workforce that makes it run,” Ramamurthy said.

Universities are unable to pay fair wages to teachers and researchers, which can lead to a reduction in the quality, diversity, sustainability, and sustainability their core functions. Fair pay for student teachers and adjuncts is also an issue of racial and gender equality — a living wage allows students with fewer familial resources, often those of marginalized identities, to pursue the same avenues that have long been available to the privileged.

Yet at Columbia and elsewhere, says Ben-Menachem, even if a living wage were on offer, “We would still be precarious. People are swimming in undergraduate student debt.” Undergraduate tuition rates at Columbia are some of the highest in the nationThe cost of education has risen to an all-time high. Cuts in state fundingThis is also true at public universities. Between 1985 – 2017, the average costThe cost of attending four-year colleges in the United States increased 497 percent. Correspondingly, average student debt has more than tripledThe national student loan debt has increased 602 percent since 1970 and by 602 percentage since 2003. According to statistics from Education Data Initiative, individual debtAverage income for 43.2 million students is $39,351.

This pincer attack of precarity — abyssal debts and abysmal pay — is traceable to the prerogatives of corporate management models adopted by universities. Corporatism has managed to gain entry into an institution that was once more or less accessible for the public and offered viable career paths. It is now almost impossible to maintain this arrangement.

The outlook for academics after completing an advanced degree is not better. True to corporate form instructional budgets have been continually downsized(or, in the euphemism: been subject to) “academic prioritization”) with the humanities particularly impacted. According to New Faculty Majority, an adjunct advocacy group, “contingent” workers — non-tenure-track instructors, part-time adjuncts and graduate teaching assistants — now make up three-quarters of college faculty.

A 2016 report from the American Association of University Professors found that “the average part time faculty member earned $16,718” from one employer, forcing adjuncts to work at multiple schools, or take multiple jobs. “Nearly one-quarter of adjunct faculty rely on public assistance, and 40 percent struggle to cover basic household expenses,” Higher Education reported. These faculty have been over-reliant on to keep labor costs down, which has led to an alienated academic subclass. Malcolm Harris wrote this 2017 book: Kids These days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials, “Graduate students are highly represented among this new precarious class of teachers; with so much debt available to them, universities can force them to scrape by on sub-minimum wage fellowships, which makes grad students a great source of cheap instructional labor.”

Low academic pay and student debt are well-known problems. Less well-known is the fact that revenues from the twin forces spiraling tuition rates, and instructional spending cuts often go directly to the students. further inflating the already-bloated ranksAdministrators: A bureaucratic regime that makes-work managers earn salaries that are more like those of their corporate counterparts than their faculty colleagues. In parallel, the devotion of revenues to “student services” allows for the construction of flashy amenitiesLike student centers, gyms, stadiums, and other luxuries that colleges have turned towards in hopes of attracting students or compensating for a less-respected reputation. Both students and professors suffer from worsening financial conditions.

However, the consequences of these machinations are now undeniable. As Rachel Himes, a Student Workers of Columbia union member wrote in an article for Jacobin, “If graduate students are coming to seem more and more like workers, mega-universities like Columbia are increasingly being recognized as the billionaire corporations that they are.”

Shifting Legal Terrain

Graduate students are being mobilized to strike and labor organizing as they struggle with the confluences of these factors. Graduate student unions at public schools, especially, have a long history. at least 1969. However, precedent has been unable to grant legal protections to private schools for unionizing for more than a decade. In 2004, weighing whether to certify an organizing effort at Brown University, a Republican-dominated NLRB ruled that graduate students were exclusively students — not workers — denying them the legal right to hold union elections and bargain collectively. Universities were happy for this. (There was a similar agreement. NLRB back-and-forth on the question of whether adjuncts were “managers” and thus could not unionize.)

Graduate student organizers were forced to seek voluntary recognition from their schools after the 2004 ruling. This is an easy mistake. New York University (NYU) (for the second time) became the only private schoolWhen the Graduate Student Organizing Committee was awarded recognition in 2014, it was a unionized group of graduate employees. It was only in 2016, at the tail end of the Obama administration, that the reversal of the Brown decisionThe private school unions were certified; revigorated organizing followed shortly. The replacement of the unfriendly Trump NLRB — which had proposed in 2019 to again declassify graduate students from worker status — is a major driver of the recent spateOrganising activity. Biden’s NLRBWhich? revoked the 2019 proposalThis promises to create a minimally hostile legal environment.

In fact, the NLRB’s critical 2016 reversal of the Brown decision hinged on a certification petition from Columbia’s very same UAW Local 2110, then known as the Graduate Workers of Columbia University. This union has always been at the forefront for graduate student movements. It was their continued efforts, parallel with the difficult years between 2004-2016 that kept them at the forefront of the graduate student movement even in those difficult years. dogged organizing at other private universitiesThat helped to increase pressure on the NLRB for the removal of the legal barrier.

Local 2110 welcomed undergraduates into its ranks and became the Student Workers of Columbia. It now has around 3,000 students from all backgrounds. (The aim of recognizing undergraduate course assistants is first and foremost to extend solidarity, but also to limit the school’s ability to further casualize labor by shifting work to undergrads if grad-student teaching assistants win better protections.) Last year, Columbia’s graduate and undergraduate students stood togetherA tuition strike of historic proportions was organized to protest the current working conditions as well as racial injustice issues. But it is not only the case that the Columbia administration has simply been immovable — its actions, claim SWC-UAW organizers, have extended into illegal retaliation, resulting in ULP charges that will be settled at the NLRB.

Sparing with Administrators

SWC-UAW Local 2110’s earlier strike in March had ended in a tentative agreement — which was, however, ultimately rejected by union members. The bargaining committee was forced to resign due to rank-and-file dissatisfaction with the agreement. During those negotiations, Columbia had protested that the pandemic had devastated their finances — but “it turned out,” said Ben-Menachem, “that Columbia earned $3 billion during the last year.” The university had misrepresented its financial situation, extracting concessions by leading the union “to bargain on factually incorrect terms.”

There has been a pattern of disingenuous maneuvering. Administrators froze a 3 per cent increase in compensation as a retaliation for the spring strike. In retaliation, administrators froze a 3 percent increase in compensation. The school then made an abrupt change to the graduate assistant pay structure. It eliminated the lump-sum stipend. The longstanding stipend arrangement had subtly furthered a sense that graduate pay was a gift, rather than due wages — but, that said, it did grant strikers an advantage. By making all pay biweekly, says Ben-Menachem, the university deployed “a mechanism to punish strikers and make sure that we don’t get paid. In the past we had the lump sum, so if we’re on strike, they can’t deprive us of wages … But because our pay is already so low, even without a strike, students were already going into debt.”

In tandem with the pay restructuring, the university required “attestation” — meaning that employees “have to say, ‘I am not striking, I’ve been working,’ in order to get paid,” Ben-Menachem continued. “Withholding attestation is how the union demonstrates its power. The university is actively counting how many people are attesting or not when they gauge what kind of concessions they want to give us.”

The most recent strike, ongoing since November 3, is responding to the same pay and benefits concerns, but is also proceeding on the grounds of an unfair labor practice charge related to the summer’s pay changes. In early December, an administrator sent an emailThreatening to deprive those on strike by December 10 of work assignments. The replacement of strikers in an unfair labor practice strike is illegal and constitutes another ULP. The administration claims that the strike was purely economic, and replacement is therefore permissible. SWC-UAW has filed a third ULP as a response.

Other bad-faith administrative actions have included promising “movement” on concessions, only to bring a previously rejected agreement to the table — after which the provost emailed the entire university claiming unreasonableness on the part of the union. Columbia rejected a proposal for nondiscrimination/harassment that would have allowed students the right to choose from arbitrators to provide a neutral review of the findings.

All of this culminated in a December 8 picket that remained peaceful despite another widely circulated email in which they were administration claimed, baselessly, that the action was violent. In the wake this latest action, school presented the union a contract offer: a marginal pay increase (which, accounting for inflation, amounts to a pay cut), a minimum wage $4 lower and child care provisions weaker than requested, a lack of vision and dental coverage for Master’s students and a rejection of neutral arbitration, effectively allowing the university to investigate itself on discrimination and harassment. The administration is offering concessions that are at best marginal. As of this writing, SWC-UAW’s strike continues.

Administrative incorrigibility retaliationIs par for the courseIn campus organizing. In their efforts to stop unions from being formed, universities have a variety of tactics at their disposal. Stonewalling union demands is a reliable tactic. This delays until the union opponents graduate and is replaced by a less experienced crop.

“Institutional memory and turnover are definitely threats,” Ben-Menachem noted. Private universities’ massive endowments also enable them to wait out strikes or hire replacement labor. Student bodies can be divided with incentives to break bonds of solidarity for individual gain: Pressures exist to maintain relations with faculty who might write letters of recommendation or exert influence over the course of one’s career.

Still, universities’ overreliance on graduate students and adjuncts has created a weakness: Their centrality to school functioning gives them leverage. The various strata of the workforce in the modern university — tenured faculty, tenure-track, contingent or adjunct, graduate student teaching assistants, postdocs, undergraduates — make for a particular strategic alignment. Tenure protects some union allies in the faculty, while students are powerless as paying customers, as Columbian students proved with their tuition strike. As administrators are quick turn to them when graduate student workers withhold their labor, faculty and undergraduates can also refuse to work as replacement workers. Sympathetic students may show solidarity by being patient with grades and classes delays; many Columbians have done so because they know that it is the university who is forcing the issue. Undergraduates and student groups like Columbia’s GS (Gay Straight) Alliance have also helped fundraiseThey expressed their support. There are also possible avenues of solidarity with other university service or clerical employees.

The Student Workers of Columbia are engaged in a critical fight: Whatever gains the Columbia union is able to win will be looked to as a model by other campus efforts, and the NLRB’s resolution of the ULP charges could establish a significant precedent, says Ben-Menachem: “An unfavorable ruling for Columbia would have pretty big and terrible implications for graduate labor organizing generally — if we got an unfavorable determination, it could ripple out into all the other case law. We know that our contract affects everyone else.”

Visions of a Better Academia

Administrators should expect to see an increase in animosity if universities continue to transform into profit-seeking corporate entities. This has been at the expense the workers who are the engines of these institutions and their resistance will only increase. Many people have lost sight of their ideological blinders. The corporatized university can be described as a corporation. However, it is often surrounded by rhetoric that paints schools and universities as the guardians of intellectual production.

In order to reorient colleges towards egalitarian education, instead of status-building and transactional exchange, we must get rid of the destructive competitiveness and exclusivity that have infiltrated the academic field. “The horizon must be making grad school a secure, stable job that allows people to live securely, start families, begin saving for retirement and generally enter adulthood on steady footing,” Hogan says. “I think that the future of this movement depends on leveraging our political power to make wealthy universities into institutions that truly serve the public rather than just hoarding money, power and prestige.”

Hogan cites innovative efforts like Higher Ed Labor UnitedA national coalition of academic unions representing all parts of the country is called. Broadening solidaritiesAlready, there have been hints at the possibility of transformative change. “There’s an extraordinary amount of natural solidarity that exists among grads at different institutions,” he added. “I think we’ll see the emergence of larger, sectoral organizations that hope to influence the higher ed landscape at scale.”

At Columbia, “My experience organizing with SWC has been pretty unforgettable,” Ben-Menachem told Truthout. “I’m in awe of the people I organize with, who have spent hundreds of hours fighting for a contract that will mostly benefit workers who haven’t even arrived here yet … We have developed strong bonds of solidarity, and I think our union will be an important site of ongoing mobilization for all of us. I think we’ve been able to give undergraduates one of the most meaningful educational experiences outside of the Columbia curriculum — now they know what a picket line is!”

The campus’s renewed will to take collective action is a step in the right direction. It can reverse the current trends of high tuition, exploited contingent labor, and concentration of power in the hands of administrative staff. The fight will demand solidarity and not competition, universality over meritocracy. Labor organizing is the vector of change for working people — and graduate students and their allies among the faculty and student body are witnessing its power firsthand.

Note: Readers may donate to the Student Workers of Columbia strike funds here.