To an outsider, the work that a graduate student has to do might seem easy. A bunch of people who get paid to read and write all day, yeah? What could be easier than that?
But the work that graduate students do is extensive: we read; we write; we teach, with all of the grading and outreach work that such a job entails; we are pressured to write on things that “contribute to the literature”, meaning that we must come up with ever more inventive lines of inquiry in our research; engaging such research requires that we do traveling to uncover the mysteries of America’s social, political, and economic history in our nation’s highly fragmented system of archives. In addition to this, students must navigate the politics of each department, making sure that the people on your dissertation committee get on well enough so that infighting does not compromise your ability to produce quality work and graduate.
All of this must be done while keeping an eye on the caps that most departments place on both the money they will give you and the time you have to complete your work. Small wonder that most graduate students spend at least 40 hours a week on their graduate work.
We have not even discussed the health care needs of many graduate students. Depending on the field, anywhere between a third to half of graduate students live with some sort of mental illness. The things needed to ameliorate these illnesses all cost money: psychiatrists, counselors, and medicine if necessary. These ills of the mind can also affect the body, with grad students often experiencing sore throats, muscle aches, stomach aches, and much more around stressful periods in study, such as comprehensive exams and dissertation defenses. Even if you go to the student health center on your campus, taking care of yourself is not necessarily a cheap proposition.
These realities have driven graduate students in the United States to fight for the right to collectively bargain ever since the late 1960s, when the graduate students at the University of Wisconsin in Madison formed the Teaching Assistants’ Association. Today, this fight has spread across the country’s graduate schools like wildfire, with campaigns at Washington, Duke, American University, Yale, Columbia, and the University of Chicago.
But just as the factory owner rarely grants voluntary union recognition to their workers, so it has been with the deans and department chairs in American universities. Universities have even refused to bargain with graduate students after the successful conclusion of a unionization vote. If you are an anti-labor administrator, the stalling tactic makes sense: Donald Trump is president now, and despite his paeans to the American worker during his campaign, his appointments to fill vacancies on the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) are likely to share his own anti-union views.
This is the academy, however, and such sentiment would be out-of-step with what is perceived as a bastion of modern American liberalism. So justifications must be found elsewhere, and they have been pretty galling.
When graduate students at Yale decided to fast in protest of the university’s refusal to bargain with the students who have voted for unionization, the university’s Dean of Humanities Amy Hungerford referred to the students as “privileged” and of cultural appropriation. Left unexamined by Hungerford, of course, is how the refusal to bargain with students who expressed themselves in a democratic election and attacking them as unworthy of the rights and benefits of a union contract does not “compromise the very foundation of their intellectual commitments by refusing to meet disagreement with debate”.
Hungerford and others have also resorted to minimizing of all the work that graduate students put in to make their careers viable and their departments successful. Perhaps the most shameful example of this has been the testimony of administrators during the University of Chicago’s NLRB hearing, where university deans and their anti-labor lawyers have testified that “most of (graduate students’) experiments fail” and that “having a TA grade….for me is no help”.
Putting aside the absurdity of both statements — the rumble you hear is graduate students laughing while imagining the reaction from tenure-track professors if their TAs went away tomorrow — such rhetoric ultimately hurts the cause of higher education in general. In 2013, Gov. Pat McCrory (R-NC) went on Bill Bennett’s right-wing radio program and said
“’If you want to take gender studies that’s fine, go to a private school and take it,’ McCrory told the radio host. ‘But I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job.’
The two criticized philosophy Ph.D.s in a similar manner later in the program. ‘How many Ph.D.s in philosophy do I need to subsidize?’”
Two years later, 46 majors across campuses in the University of North Carolina System were due to be eliminated due to severe budget cuts that McCrory signed into law. The budget cuts came under fire for targeting historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) for massive cuts or closure, in addition to the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, which is one of the few public universities created for Native Americans in the United States. And because the state of North Carolina disallows public-sector collective bargaining, the fight against such draconian austerity measures was far more fragmented than it is in other states.
The anti-student and anti-labor rhetoric of these college administrators has impact far beyond the classroom. While these administrators might think that they are only kneecapping student labor power on their own campuses, what they are actually doing is giving reactionary legislators the justification to annihilate the notion of education that is open to all, regardless of race, creed, class, or color.
They should be fought every step of the way, and if the activity at Columbia University’s commencement is any indication, America’s graduate students are up for winning this battle.