University administrators say they tolerate free speech and association of students, expect for when their students and adjuncts exert their rights as workers. This has recently taken on purchase since the National Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that student-workers at private universities could form and join unions. At the core of the wave in United States higher education unionization has been workers wanting control over their labor, transparency in their work place, and higher wages. For example, graduate worker have been seeking unionization at Boston College for the past three years demanding better healthcare and at Grinnell College in Iowa student workers hope to unionize their entire student body. Of late, Ivy league institutions in the United States have taken national spotlight on the unionization which has been met with defeat and success. In the early part of 2017, Cornell University and Harvard University were unable to whip up the votes for their campaigns marking massive anti-union campaigns by university administration as one of the obstacles.
At the same time, Columbia University graduate workers won the right to unionize in October 2016 and Yale University also voted for unionization in February 2017. Both campaigns encountered pushback, even when graduate workers led a prosperous democratic election, thus leading to a hunger strike at Yale University. On 22 May 2017, more than 1000 protestors joined Yale University hunger strikers as they fought to have their unionization vote recognized by the University. To date, this is marking one of the largest solidarity efforts since the surge of unionization campaigns at private universities. The organizers resorted to the hunger strike as a tactic, precisely because Yale University’s administration would rather elide a democratic process than to see their graduate workers exercise their collective power.
Graduate unionization campaigns are not entirely new in the United States but part of a tradition where graduate worker unionization began in the 1960s during the height of the Civil Rights movement. The first graduate student labor union to win legal recognition in 1966 was the Teaching Assistants Association at the University of Wisconsin-Madison which emerged after a massive wave of sit-ins to protest the United States war in Vietnam. The graduate student unionization campaigns during the 1960s was where anti-war activists, socialists and civil rights leaders put labor at the center of their campaign for a democratic university education. Yet, the material conditions and the political demands have shifted since the 1960’s especially with respect to the rise in student loan debt, poverty among adjunct workers, and the rise of the far right on campuses. These issues and more have generated anxiety but also come with an explosion of activity on campus with material realities and free speech at the center of those conversations.
Austerity and neoliberalism have been a centerpiece for why graduate workers have taken on unionization efforts. On a structural level, austerity is immolating the humanities insofar that public universities such as the University of Wisconsin will reduce the state’s public budget by $300 million. Adjuncts are at the center of the unionization campaign—in some cases pointing out how graduate workers and adjuncts necessitate a revolt to upend the poor working conditions, limited resources, and low pay. Most adjunct professors are not provided with stable income and offices, subsequently, leading many to juggle between multiple jobs and working from their cars and cafes. Some have argued adjunct positions are driving people to poverty, yet dovetailed with this neoliberalism distress is a deluge of student loan debt among many students and graduates.
In the United States, the $1.3 Trillion student loan debt crisis is a central feature of national debate in higher education. Ellen Tara James-Penny, an adjunct professor in English at San Jose State recently attracted national attention for living out of her car despite her salaried position. Although she takes in $2500 per month, she has a debut of $143,000. Another adjunct professor, Mary-Faith Cerasoli also reported to The New York Times that she is homeless and resides in her car. The precarity of these two professors are not exception but a rule insofar that the rising cost of living and austerity is driving up debt and desperation. In addition, these anecdotes are not merely hyperboles to dramatize the predicament in US higher education but they are confirmed by the American Association of University Professors which has documented that 76% of higher education are adjuncts with many of them living below the US poverty line.
Uncertainty has become the norm. That is to say that academic labor has shifted from a secure and well-paying professorship to contractual and low-paying jobs. A recent National Institute of Health study showed that of the 86,000 PhD students in biology in the United States, only 29,000 will get a tenure-track position—leaving 57,000 graduates with non-tenured academic positions or positions outside of the academy. These dynamics are taking on a new tune in the current political moment where conservative ideologues in the White House and the streets are explicitly anti-labor and targeting leftists on campuses.
As Thomas Frank surmised in The Guardian, Trump will most likely appoint an anti-union justice who will overrule the August 2016 NLRB decision yet some of those anti-union campaigns are coming directly from US campuses. At the University of Pennsylvania, the unionization campaign has dealt with massive anti-union propaganda from graduate students who oppose collective bargaining. One key organizer of the Graduate Student Union at the University of Pennsylvania campaign proclaimed that the anti-union groups are part of “a right-wing ideologue to hijack this process.”
Despite the national political mood, graduate workers have remained tenacious. At the University of Chicago, the Graduate Students United have scheduled an upcoming vote for 17-18 October to decide whether they will have a union. In response, the university has requested a stay—which would derail the mobilization efforts and the enthusiasm that has kept this issue going. One could also surmise that this could also be read as in concert with the projected conservative appointment of the Supreme Court Justice. However, the US Supreme Court has recently decided to take on the case Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Council 31, which would hinder a public sector’s union ability to collect union dues—thus causing a detrimental impact on the existing public sector unions as well as the campaigns that are ongoing.
Free speech on university campuses has also emerged insofar that university administrators have used university-distributed e-mails to caution against responses from far-right attacks and have advocated for impartiality. In response to recent debates on US campuses about the rise of the right, Princeton University administrators decided to put for their own perspective about the free speech debate. The Vice President and Dean sent an e-mail to the student body indicating:
“Regardless of where you stand on issues such as climate change, white nationalism, the rights of transgendered [sic] people and immigrants, and many more, we encourage you to learn from the divergent perspectives of others, including our many faculty whose expertise provides nuanced and varied analyses of just these topics.”
Nevertheless, students resist and construct their own narratives to combat the growing hate on US campuses. In a rejoinder, graduate student workers from the Princeton Graduate Students United, Black Student Caucus, Latino Graduate Student Association, Queer Graduate Caucus, and the Princeton University Democratic Socialists of America stood above the fray in their response. They exclaimed:
“There is no room in civil, democratic society for these two positions to ‘debate’ on an even playing field. Allowing or encouraging such “debate” does not affirm ‘free speech’ but instead threatens many people whose safety and personhood has long been devalued.”
What makes the graduate workers commentary so powerful is that the unionization efforts are uniting groups that have otherwise organized separately and they are putting forth a live debate about the free speech and hate speech debates brewing on US university campuses. While the university exclaims “neutrality,” the far right feels emboldened. As such, it is noteworthy that graduate workers are taking a principled stance that is also channeled through collective organization. They recognize that the university is not merely a place of rhetoric but where policies can shape vulnerable populations.
Relatedly, with the wave of deportations in the United States, immigrant students—especially Deferred Action for Child Arrivals, otherwise known as DACA, immigrant students have faced major scrutiny under the Trump administration. Graduate students and unionization campaigns have tapped into the pulse of a growing and vibrant immigrant rights movement to stand alongside and with immigrants who fear possible deportation. Ancillary to that, Donald Trump’s new iteration of the Muslim ban on 24 September, restricting travel of most citizens from Iran, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Chad and North Korea, will disproportionally be detrimental for Muslim students from these respective countries—something tied to the US government’s exercise of militarization in the Middle East.
Graduate student unions are not merely linked to austerity in the states, but it also a question of using the university system to decolonize education as is the case at the University of Cape Town. In the South African context, student-workers have called for national strikes and an end to discrimination in higher education. Their unionization mobilization has made explicit how the continuation of apartheid-like policies has perpetuated a systematic exclusion of Black South Africans from higher education. During the height of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2015, Black American students were explicit about making links to how American universities profited from settler colonialism and the enslavement of Black people, leading many to believe that the movement has reinvigorated breathe into university campuses.
Moreover, graduate student unions have the potential to gather students from various class backgrounds, ethnic groups, and immigration statuses. The battle for unionization for higher education in the United States reflects the fault line of universities today. They are not sites where people can collectively learn and flourish but are institutions that reinstitute power dynamics, rather, they are becoming a place where the right wing is encroaching and progressive professors such as Keeanga-Yahmatta Taylor are under attack. Groups such as the Campus Antifascist Network have been mobilizing across the United States to challenge these attacks by the so-called, alt-right. Much has changed from the 1960s where unionization efforts dovetailed with a massive anti-war movement, the upending of legalized segregation, and cultural shift in mainstream politics. At the same time, many of the graduate workers are living and breathing through the recent history of the Occupy Movement, the Arab Spring, and the Black Lives Matter movement. The experience of cohering at Zuccotti Park, Tahrir Square, and Ferguson has shown that people can and will collectively organize and the union can be that space where power is further realized.