President’s Column

by Bob Velez

If you missed the newest offering by documentarian of all things American, Ken Burns, you missed an epic story arc that encompassed the political careers of two presidents and one incredibly powerful woman whose efforts are still being felt around the world today.  It covered over one hundred years of American history and blended together a story of three lives marked by tragedy, heartache, exhilaration, success, failure, sickness, depression, joy, and a host of other human experiences that many of us have come to – or will have to – endure.  It sounds trite to say that it is a truly American story; a story of individuals who overcame massive obstacles to make a mark on our country and the world.  ‘The Roosevelts: An Intimate History’ was a comprehensive look at the lives of three historical figures who, in their own individual ways, inspired millions of Americans in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries and whose significance in the American experience has remained and will remain for, I believe, centuries to come.

While I encourage fans of documentaries and history to see this monument to the American spirit, I want to warn you ahead of time: if you are a follower of today’s politics and an optimist for what can be in our country, you may find yourself sitting in sackcloth and ashes and rending your garments lamenting the leadership – or lack thereof – that is on full display in Springfield and the nation’s Capitol.  Its hard to avoid the deluge of negative advertising that has infected local television broadcasts informing us that candidates running for office are self-interested, devious harbingers of doom who are eager to abscond with your vote (and your tax dollars) while feathering their nest and wielding political power to destroy lives and/or America.  Of course there are also the ads that show those same politicians as Mr. or Ms. Everyman/Everywoman who are humbly offering their service to the fine citizens of our country.  Are they a brood of vipers or friends to the common man?  I suspect that most of the politicians of today exist in a space on neither extreme, but I can’t say I would mention any of their names in the same breath as the Roosevelts.

Despite coming from a family of significant means, Teddy, Eleanor, and Franklin D. Roosevelt did indeed embrace the plight of the common man. Whether we speak of Teddy and his battles against the business trusts with a stranglehold on American commerce wringing every last drop of labor from the workers while paying barely subsistence wages (no, Wal-Mart wasn’t around in Teddy’s day), Eleanor fighting for universal human rights for all in spite of being on the receiving end of regular death threats, or FDR flexing government muscle to put millions of Americans back to work in hopes of stemming the human despair that had crippled us after three years of a Great Depression, their efforts to meet the material and emotional needs of our fellow Americans at times of incredible challenge in our country simply have no equal in today’s political environment.  Where are the leaders who can stir within us the desire to do big things simply because we can?  Is there a politician willing to tell us the truth that exists in the cliché “we all do better when we ALL do better”?  Who will proudly proclaim that we really ARE all in this together and that our collective will – also known as ‘government’ – is not a punchline or deserving of scorn in the name of liberty and individualism?

No, I’m not a Commie.  Nor do I believe that the means of production should rest exclusively in the hands of the proletariat.  But I do believe that the interests of the American people should be placed ahead of the unfettered pursuit of profit-by-any-means-necessary.  I do believe that the American spirit which built the Panama Canal and the Tennessee Valley Authority and helped win two World Wars exists and can be channeled once again to do big things for regular citizens.

One of the great things about Burns’ work is that instead of showing the main characters as legends whose characters are impossible to impugn, he chooses instead to pay particular attention to their flaws; the things that made them human.  Even the loftiest of optimists do not expect to find mythical superheroes in Washington D.C. able to leap tall buildings in a single bound and right all the wrongs that ail us as a society.  But are we foolish dreamers to yearn for a Roosevelt in our time?

Perhaps.

I’d like to think that there exists now or shall exist sometime in the very near future one or more Roosevelts who make their way into public service; who view politics and government not as something to apologize for but as a sacred trust in deed, not just word.  Who will embody and embrace the spirit of Teddy, Eleanor, and Franklin?  Maybe its you, Dear Reader, who will become such a man or woman of our time.

AT THE BARGAINING TABLE

Contract negotiations and bargaining can appear to be a daunting, long, and drawn-out process. GAU Vice-President for Communications Kevin Taylor recently contacted GAU Lead Negotiator Jim Podesva and Bargaining Team Spokesperson and Contract Enforcement Specialist Sandy Kim to ask both of them about the ins and outs of the process.

Kevin Taylor: The previous contract with the university expired on June 30, 2014. Shouldn’t we have had the new contract ready to go right away to start August 1, 2014? Why the delay? Has this resulted in any lost benefits on the part of graduate students? For example, in the old contract we received a raise every new academic year; did we receive a raise this year? Is everyone affected or just union members?

Jim Podesva: It would have been great if we’d had a new contract all ready to go, but both sides have to agree on it. It is hard to coordinate schedules, particularly during the summer, so both sides agreed that substantive bargaining would occur in the fall.

Sandy Kim: As you can imagine, it can be a time-consuming process, particularly with the difficulties scheduling meeting times for a dozen meeting to come together. GAs are covered by the terms of our old Agreement until a new one is agreed upon and signed, so we are still covered until our new Agreement takes hold. When our new Agreement is approved, it will apply retroactively from the time of expiration of our old contract. Continuing with your example, if we are able to negotiate a raise for graduate assistants for this academic year, it would apply retroactively, which should result in back pay for the length of our contracts working under the expired Agreement (so, for most of us, August – new contract). This affects all graduate assistants who are covered by the contract, dues-paying member or not.

Kevin: In March last semester GAU and several other unions came together with their “Intent to Bargain Rally.” What was the significance of that to the current contract negotiations?

Sandy: Since all unions are bargaining at the same time, we wanted to publicly show solidarity with the other unions as we kicked off the bargaining process. While the interests of each union may be different, fundamentally each union desires an equitable contract for its members that is the product of good-faith bargaining. Hopefully, we will be able to continue holding joint events which is a great way to energize and mobilize members. Along those lines, some of our interests will necessarily align with those of some of the other unions and those would be good opportunities around which we can hold events and maintain open lines of communication with our University colleagues.

Kevin: So we’re in the midst of bargaining. Who is involved and why? For the Union and for the University.

Sandy: Our team is led by Jim Podesva (History), as our Lead Negotiator, with Bob Velez (Political Science) as Lead Negotiator Support, or Jim’s right-hand man. I (Sandy Kim – Political Science) serve as the Bargaining Team Spokesperson and Contract Enforcement Specialist. James Anderson (MCMA) is our Secretary-Recorder, and David Guggenheim (Business), Joel Amnott (Philosophy), and John Flowers (Philosophy) all serve as Co-Statisticians and Observers. Our team also includes Bret Seferian, who is our IEA/NEA Uniserv Director.

The Board’s team is led by Gary Kinsel (Chair of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry), along with Deborah Nelson (General Counsel), Scott Ishman (Associate Dean of the College of Science), Lori Stettler (Assistant Vice Chancellor for Auxiliary Services), Katie Sermersheim (Dean of Students), Justin Schoof (Chair of Geography and Environmental Resources), and Beth Chester, who serves as their Note Taker.

Kevin: Are these things combative? What’s it like to be negotiating with the University? And how has the change in administration these past few months changed the dynamic?

Jim: There’s no doubt about it, the negotiations surrounding the last contract were adversarial and combative. There didn’t seem to be any real effort on the part of the administration to come to an agreement, and we fought every point, no matter how inconsequential. I’m pleased to say that with the change in administration there is also a change in tone to the current negotiations. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of stalling and negativity, but of course we’ll have to see how it goes further down the road.

Sandy: The sessions we have held haven’t felt particularly combative. At this point in the process, we’ve agreed upon the “Ground Rules” that will apply to the entire bargaining process and held the first of three scheduled meetings for each team to present their interests. We have yet to begin the substantive discussion on each individual issue yet, but based on the first handful of meetings we have had, I am optimistic for a bargaining season that is more collaborative than combative. By allowing each team to present their interests, without necessarily being married to specific terms or language, the goal is to have open and honest conversation and dialogue for each interest and together, come up with terms and language that is amenable to both sides of the table. The changes in administration seem to have brought about a collective sigh of relief that this bargaining season will not be as combative and antagonistic as the last round of negotiations tended to be at times.

Kevin: How long do negotiations typically last and why? How long do we expect these negotiations to last?

Jim: I don’t mean to be flippant, but they take as long as necessary. That being said, I’m optimistic we can come to an agreement in less than a year.

Sandy: I have no idea…though I certainly hope we have a new signed contract within the academic year.

Kevin: Are there many graduate student unions? If so, is there an existing model for negotiations?

Sandy: There are roughly 30 or so in the country, though some of them are within state university systems, so not very many at all. We are fortunate to have some institutional memory on our team this time around, with Jim Podesva, our lead negotiator, who also led negotiations for our last agreement. We have also been looking at other grad union contracts for language and interests that could work well for our contract.

Jim: Sadly, there aren’t a lot of graduate unions, but that is changing. Even at elite institutions there’s a move to organize graduate assistants, and there should be. Without graduate assistants, a university can’t function, whether it is SIUC or the University of Chicago.

Kevin: What are the top items up for negotiation and why? How does GAU solicit feedback from the student body?

Sandy: Last year, we sought feedback from our membership in anticipation of the upcoming bargaining season with an online survey from which we able to determine the top three interests: fees, stipends (salaries), and healthcare. We continue to have conversations with members, and graduate assistants more generally, and these discussions will also provide items for bargaining. Serving as the Grievance Committee Chair, I’ve also dealt with a number of issues that will likely be a part of our negotiations. As we delve further into the bargaining process, we hope to hold events at which we could provide information and solicit feedback from our general membership.

Kevin: What, if anything, can students do to support the union through negotiations? Can we make negotiations go any faster or smoother?

Sandy: The most important way for GAs to support the union is to sign a membership form and become dues-paying members. Although every GA is covered by the contract, only 10 to 15 percent are dues-paying members of GAU. It’s in our best interests to be able to tell the Board’s team that we represent 50% of all GAs as opposed to 20%. It’s a numbers game in some respects, and higher membership gives us greater clout around the bargaining table. It’s a great deal easier to say we speak for our members when we have the increased numbers to back up our claims for representation. We also hope that our members, and GAs more generally, take advantage of opportunities to receive information and give feedback when we hold events and meetings related to bargaining.

Orientation to Educational Opportunity: Natalie Nash’s Story

By James Anderson

Graduate Assistants United provided new graduate assistants at Southern Illinois University Carbondale an introduction to the union during orientation at the start of the fall 2014 semester in August. GAU also provided those incoming GAs with 250 donuts.

Natalie“That was thanks to me,” said Natalie Nash, 26, the union’s new vice president for membership. She said she specially ordered the confectionary from Larry’s House of Cakes, a shop on Main Street in Carbondale known for baking fresh desserts daily.

Nash, who, along with President Bob Velez, gave the union presentation at orientation, said not many donuts were taken as students were going in, so she and Velez started to get worried.

“You know, we did the speech and we were like, ‘And there’s more donuts outside!” and by the next break they were gone, Nash said.

Nash, a graduate assistant and teaching assistant in zoology, said people “didn’t seem too bored” by the union’s delivery. She said she was possibly “too nervous to realize if they were” bored or not.

Nash, who has done improvisational comedy and theater, said she nevertheless felt confident “the union was very warmly welcomed” at the big orientation and during all the different department orientations she attended.

She attended almost 10, including the ones for art and design, music, rehabilitation, zoology and the big orientation with Velez.

“She was very good, very articulate,” Velez said about Nash’s performance during the university-wide GA orientation. He said he trusts the work they did and continue to do “will bear fruit.”

Now a TA for Zoology 118: Principles of Animal Biology, a class also for non-majors, Nash hopes the fruits of her pedagogical labor are realized as well.

As the TA for the course, which she facilitated during the spring 2014 semester too, Nash attends two lectures, teaches three lab sections and has one-hour office hours for each of those sections every week.

In the class, she said students – among other things – do science experiments; learn more about the scientific method; get into the nuances of cellular structure; study the basics of muscles, tissues and organs; discover the dynamics of diffusion; and explore the ins-and-outs of mitosis and meiosis.

Because it is a class for non-majors, “you don’t get people as enthusiastic about the subject matter,” and sometimes students are “dragging their feet because they have to be there.”

They “sometimes” get sassy, she said. Nash said she tries to make the subject interesting for those non-majors who otherwise might not be as engaged with the subject matter.

Early education at home

Nash said she generally enjoyed school growing up, but she learned in a unique setting where there was little cause for sass. She was homeschooled from first grade through high school.

“It really just allowed me to be kind of true to myself,” she said. It was quite “structured,” although Nash said she could choose the order of what they worked on each day.

While she said her homeschool experience and extra-curricular activities exposed her to a multiplicity of perspectives and opportunities, she noted not everyone who is homeschooled is as fortunate and some only get to see one viewpoint.

“I think that is a shame,” she said. But the “homeschool network” she and her family were a part of encouraged critical thinking attuned to many views, she said, noting that she took karate classes and swimming classes at the YMCA and was interacting with other kids there as well.

Nash lived in Maplewood, Mo., an inner-ring suburb just outside of St. Louis, while growing up. She would have been in the Maplewood and Richmond Heights school district if she went to public school.

But her mother decided when Nash was in kindergarten that she wanted to take on the responsibility of educating her at home.

Her mother taught Nash and her sister who is two years younger. She also tutored a friend’s brother who was autistic, Nash explained.

On top of that, her mom landscaped their “really big backyard” and “probably repainted every room in the house like, twice, over the past 25 years,” Nash said.

After taking care of her grandparents throughout Nash’s childhood, her mother is now taking care of the neighbors in their old age.

“We’re all Irish, so we’ve got that bond,” Nash said about the relationship her family has with neighbors.

She did not grow up in a distinctly Irish neighborhood, however.

“There is an Irish neighborhood – ‘Dogtown’ – but this one was not,” Nash said. “So that’s kind of why we were so close.”

While her mother oversaw most of the homeschooling, she said her father worked as a bartender at a few places, including Union Station, when she was growing up. For a short period of time he also worked at Washington University so the kids could enjoy the family dental plan, she said.

He also worked – and still works – as a bartender at The Schlafly Taproom on Locust Street in St. Louis.

“He’s the only bartender there with gray hair,” Nash said about her dad, who is also the oldest server there behind the bar.

But he knows his stuff, Nash intimated when recounting visits she and her dad have made to the taproom’s other Maplewood location.

“So we’ve gone there together for breakfast,” she said, “and the manager there has walked up to my dad and asked his advice on a reservation issue that came up.”

Community college to Thailand and back again

Nash, who started community college at 16 and graduated three years later with an “English-heavy” associate degree, has also received some fortuitous advice – not only from her father, but from a friend who was an entomologist, studying insects.

After taking a biology class at community college and then enrolling at Webster University in St. Louis to pursue a bachelor’s in the discipline, she said she realized the related field of zoology was her passion.

“Plan A” – which was in her mind by the time she was doing undergraduate work at Webster – “is to get a PhD in zoology and become a university professor,” she said.

Webster, which she said has dedicated teachers, does not have “a whole lot of research opportunities, and they don’t really have zoology.”

So she asked her entomologist friends for advice on what other universities to look into for research experience.

“She actually told me to contact UIUC [University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign], but all I remembered was IUC, and so when I Googled it I came up with SIUC,” Nash recounted. “And so I was like, ‘Alright, I’ll contact them.’ And so I just kind of asked around if anybody would be needed a lab technician.”

Someone did. She landed a paid position and worked 20 hours per week in the lab at SIUC during the summer of 2011, right before her senior year at Webster.

So she considered SIUC, among other schools, as the place to pursue a master’s degree.

But first she set her sights abroad.

Webster has a campus in Cha-am, Thailand, about two hours south of Bangkok. She opted to attend school there for a semester as an undergrad, living in the nearby beach resort city of Hua Hin while overseas.

In addition to the vast “multicultural experience” of taking classes in a different country with a lot of Thai students as well as many from Europe, she said she took classes she wouldn’t have otherwise. Since the Cha-am campus did not offer many biology courses, she took classes in international relations, human rights, critical thinking and roots of religion during her semester abroad.

Later, she took a two month trip “and just kind of, you know, blew all of my savings because I figured I wouldn’t be traveling again for all of grad school,” she said about traveling to Europe and back to Thailand with one of her friends.

Coming to Carbondale, despite the fees

After taking a year off following graduation from Webster, Nash started at SIUC in August 2013.

Nash said she could have ended up somewhere else, however, if not for semi-ambiguous wording in the acceptance letter SIUC sent her.

Student fees per semester at SIUC are about what the fee total is for the entire academic year at UIUC, Nash noted.

“Because of that and the way it was worded in my acceptance letter [from SIUC], I made the unfortunate assumption that the listed fees was for the whole year here,” she admitted.

Looking back, she said she could see what was meant with the wording, but because of the way the letter said fees are about $1,500 for fall and spring semester, she assumed that was for both semesters combined.

If she would have realized how much graduate students – and those who work as graduate assistants, employed by the university – pay in fees at SIUC, she said her choice of universities might have been different.

“I honestly don’t know if I would have come here,” Nash said.

Nash added that because she had some money saved, she managed to not take out any loans as an undergraduate. Circumstances changed once she came to Carbondale.

“I have to take out student loans now even thought I have a stipend, and tuition waiver and everything,” she said.

The situation is “daunting,” Nash said.

Problematic language, institutional problems

There are many reasons, Nash said, she loves the university and the master’s program in zoology – which is why, she acknowledged, she might have decided to go to graduate school at SIUC even if she knew coming in the exact cost of the fees. But, she pointed out, there are pressing issues that need to be addressed, on campus and on a broader societal level.

To the point, a lot of sexism at the university occurs “without men being aware of it,” she said, because it does not “occur to them to think about how women are socialized” to offer help, be caregivers and make other sacrifices as those disparate power relations become normalized.

Like with racism, privilege prevents those who are not as oppressed from recognizing oppression, she said.

“You can still have a sexist action even though you are not sexist, even though you didn’t intend it to be,” she added, underscoring the ways in which sexism – as well as racism, both of which affect GAs as students and as workers, Nash contends – operate not just at the individual level but become institutionalized.

Nash, who said she identifies as a lesbian, also pointed to the normalization of “rape jokes” on campus as problematic.

When helping an undergraduate club a while back and participating in the organization’s events, she said she heard “rape jokes” five times. Nash said she called out those who made the jokes every time. People should really question whether “it’s acceptable to use rape as an adjective,” she added.

In contrast, there are other serious uses of the word where the answers are not so easy, she acknowledged.

For example, Belén Fernández recently used the phrase “Neoliberal Rape” in a headline for an article about the culpability of the dominant social system – and a market-fetishizing mentality – regarding rape of women in Spain.

Fernández noted rape victims are often blamed for their crimes, similar to how victims of the financial crisis “were made to pay for the crimes of the elite; in 2012, the Associated Press reported that there were no fewer than 500 home evictions being carried out per day, prompting rampant suicides.”

The “neoliberal system predicated on the violent severance of interpersonal bonds such that no human solidarity can challenge the reign of capital” also fosters collective insecurity, Fernández added. This gets “repackaged as individual insecurity to be dealt with on an individual basis, with no acknowledgement of structural causes,” so marketing of “products like anti-rape nail polish and rape-resistant underwear” individualize the problem and attempt to address it through commodification with predictable consequences, she suggested.

Vandana Shiva, a physicist and eco-feminist environmental activist who won the Alternative Nobel Prize in 1993, has used the word in another serious context after a series of thousands of incidents of rape were reported in India several years ago.

“When there were the—the epidemic of rape started with December last year in India, you know, I did a piece that connected a violent economy, which thrives on the rape of nature, but also then creates social systems where men have no work, they have no meaning, and they’re seeing Bollywood films all based on sex and violence,” Shiva said in December 2013.

The point is “we need to see these connections a bit more,” argued Shiva, who also founded the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology and its offshoot the Navdanya biodiversity program committed to promoting “Earth Democracy” and rejuvenating indigenous knowledge and culture.

Shiva underscored those connections in an editorial deploring the relations of debt and despair created by Monsanto, headquartered in the greater St. Louis area not far from where Nash grew up. Monsanto controls 95 percent of the cotton seed market in India through its genetically-modified organisms, Shiva wrote, and the corporation commodified the common resource of farmers – seed – into “intellectual property” from which it collects royalties and extracts profits as farmers’ debt and the consequent debt-induced suicides grow.

“Uncivilized people rape the Earth for today,” Shiva said about what corporations like Monsanto and the fossil fuel industry do to the natural world.

Nash said the “rape of the land” is undeniably a serious issue, although she understands why other people would be opposed to the language in this context.

“Whether or not it is OK, it’s definitely, it’s incredibly different” from using the word “rape” in a joking way or as a wholly inappropriate adjective to describe success over something, Nash said.

The undergraduate club she worked with has since taken initial steps to discuss the problems with the latter usages, she said.

But Nash emphasized the persistence of the problem. She also acknowledged the efforts of Emma Sulkowicz, a rape survivor who has been carrying a dorm room mattress around with her everywhere she goes on Columbia University campus until her rapist is expelled or leaves.

Seeking justice within existing institutions fraught with institutionalized racism and sexism has proven problematic elsewhere.

The Oklahoma NAACP recently called on the Justice Department to investigate the case of an Oklahoma City police officer accused of rape.

Two African-American brothers who spent more than 30 years behind bars after being found guilty of rape and murder were exonerated this year. In June, New York City agreed to pay $40 million to the five black and Latino men – the “Central Park 5” – who spent years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of raping a female jogger.

Acknowledging the racism entrenched within the system, Nash said it is also important to remember the notion that victims of rape often make false accusation is false.

Further, when a rape victim really comes forward it “does not ruin a person’s life,” and rapists ruin their own lives when they decide to rape, she said.

Unions at University: Degrees of benefit and benefits beyond the degree

Regarding sexism and racism on campus, the University of California Student-Worker Union, UAW local 2865, created an “Anti-Oppression Committee” to address those problems as part of a “social justice unionism” approach, which Nash said sounds promising.

As regards other injustices at the university, she said the situation GAs at SIUC face is “unjust on the broad contract level,” although things vary at the departmental level and in the workaday relationships across assistantship appointments.

Stipends across the board could “probably could be higher,” she admitted.

GAU is bargaining a new contract with the University this semester, and stipends are high on the list of items for the union to address.

Nash said the benefits for becoming a member and getting involved are more direct this year because of the bargaining. But some people do not know what the union does, she said, which prevents participation, as does somewhat understandable but self-centered thinking.

“You can benefit from the union without paying the dues,” Nash said about the general situation improving for all GAs, even those who do not support the union or opt not to pay the $23 per month to join the union. “And I think a lot of people just ride it through that way.”

The union should and must still struggle for all assistants, said Nash, who joined the union the first weekend she came to SIUC.

It should not be “an exclusive club” either, she said, but rather open to and attentive to the needs of all GAs, especially because the University is not.

“It feels like grad students aren’t a priority of SIUC,” Nash said, qualifying with “maybe this school is going to be a little more union friendly,” given recent changes in top-level administration.

She said “there’s not enough pressure on the university,” however. “I don’t feel like they feel pressured at all.”

But pressure must come from below.

Nash, who for her thesis plans to study the dispersal of the southern pine beetle with the help of advisor John Reeves, stressed opportunities for putting pressure on the University to improve conditions for GAs are related to pursuing the possibilities the University setting offers.

“Graduate school is so much more than just your thesis,” said Nash, who will still research different samples of beetle populations, run “micro-satellites” to determine if the insect populations in Louisiana are genetically similar to those in Mississippi.

There are more species of beetles than there are species of mammals, Nash said before reiterating the rationale for not limiting your life to only degree-directed research.

She said supporting each other in the union helps grads “stay grounded,” and meet people with many different perspectives from different departments to better understand what campus is like for everybody.

“Don’t get lost in your research,” she advised.

 

James Anderson is a doctoral candidate and a member of the GAU Communications Committee.  He has served as steward for the College of Mass Communication and Media Arts, and as co-chair for the Legislative and Political Action Committee. His interests include social movements, alternative media, critical theory, prefigurative politics, horizontalidad, political economy and praxis.

Tomorrow: GA United Family Picnic!

GA United Family Picnic

Friday, Sept 5
5 – 7pm
Evergreen Park (Pine Tree shelter)

FREE FOOD AND BEVERAGES

ALL GRADUATE STUDENTS AND THEIR FAMILIES ARE WELCOME!

This park is adjacent to the Carbondale Reservoir and there is playground equipment for kids. We will have burgers, brats, and a veggie option as well as non-alcoholic beverages.

Please come! Tell your friends . . . heck, tell your enemies!

Bob Velez
President, GA United

picnic-september1

A Welcome and a “Thank You”

By Bob Velez, President, GA United

 

temperamental-women            The fall 2014 semester is underway and I offer a “welcome” to new and returning SIU grad students!  We start off this new academic year with new leadership in both our union and the university administration.  Your GAU bargaining team is gearing up for meetings with the administration’s team to secure a new contract that will cover a multitude of items including stipend levels, benefits, and working conditions.  GAU will do our best to provide whatever information we can on the progress of these negotiations throughout the semester and we are optimistic that we will secure a fair contract that balances the needs of graduate students and the university.

 

GA United is, of course, part of the larger organized labor movement; a movement that has its roots in New Deal legislation that made collective bargaining legal and saw the birth of several unions including the American Newspaper Guild and the United Auto Workers.  Those unions, ironically, formed during a time of enormous strain on the U.S. Economy: the Great Depression.  Unemployment reached 25% in the United States and rose even higher in some other countries.  The widespread poverty and lack of opportunity notwithstanding, these trailblazers called for the labor provided by the workforce to be recognized as valuable to the business sectors they worked within and risked their jobs (and, sometimes, life and limb) to organize for better pay and working conditions.
minneapolis-teamster-strikeWhile we are currently not in a period of widespread want and woe, it is not uncommon for some segments of the population to criticize unions and the labor movement for seeking more for their members.  Its no secret that Illinois is in a precarious financial state and as public employees, our fates are inextricably bound to those of Illinois; at least for our time here at SIU.  While we make no guarantees regarding what we will be able to secure in our next contract, we do not apologize for a collective bargaining process that seeks to better the situation for our members.  State funding for higher education has been only one victim of the full frontal assault on public budgets over the last decade or so.

 

I invite new and returning grad students to join GA United.  As I said during the new student orientation this year and in several departmental meetings, more members gives us more clout at the bargaining table.  Membership has its privileges as well; not the least of which is having a say in the governance and operation of the union that represents you.  As an all-volunteer run union, we always need individuals to invest their time and energy in keeping our ship afloat.

 

strike-ends            One final note: you are receiving this newsletter over a “long” weekend.  While Labor Day is generally viewed as various things including the end of summer, the beginning of campaign season in an election year, and the deadline for wearing white clothing and accessories, it commemorates “the social and economic achievements of American workers” (http://www.dol.gov/laborday/history.htm).  Some of those achievements include, but are not limited to: the 40-hour workweek, the end of exploitative child labor laws, and the weekend.  Some of these gains were bought with enormous sacrifice on the part of labor activists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and it is easy to take them for granted today since we rarely face the brickbats of business thugs and mercenaries eager to crack the skulls of “rabble-rousers”.  For their sacrifices and commitment to the cause of organized labor, I offer a heartfelt “thank you”.  It is my ultimate hope that we all spend time reflecting upon those that came before us and did the heavy lifting of securing for labor a spot at the table.

 

 

From a pain in the neck to Conscientização: The “untested feasibility” of humanizing the university

By James Anderson

The day before my 10-year high school reunion my neck and shoulder started aching.

This was not an ordinary ache, but a sharp and debilitating onslaught of unrelenting pain and stiffness.

While I made it to my reunion and managed to dance – hurting my ego far worse than my neck, the pain continued with the same severity for about a week.

Overwhelmed and in a world of hurt, it occurred to me: I am not as young as I used to be. The irony of the injury occurring the day before my high school reunion was not lost on me. To be human is to be fragile. Our fragility can increase with age and intensify with chosen vocation.

In addition to carrying a bag over my shoulder for too long the day before the onset of pain, another likely cause has to do with sitting hunched over a computer for hours typing away, which I have been doing regularly for some time now.

When I was TA my first few years at SIUC, I spent hours each day at a computer grading or responding to emails from students in my lab. These days I am at my laptop incessantly, either working on my dissertation or annotating texts in order to do more work on my dissertation.

CONSCIENTIZACAO_1234715043PWorking through the pain and the second chapter of my dissertation this last week, I had occasion to return the writings of Paulo Freire, the seminal thinker in the critical pedagogy movement and a major influence on the philosophical-historical approach for my project.

Throughout his work, Freire argued humans, as sentient beings, are not just conscious but also conscious of being conscious. We have an innate capacity to objectify our existing reality and reflect upon it. By critically apprehending our reality, we represent it so as to pose it as a problem. We question how it came to be so. Tracing the genesis of the problem, we consider how its historical context normally conceals but can also reveal the way unjust relations are reproduced. We problematize the normality of present configurations, evaluate how commonsense assumptions elide injustice, and assay the prevailing practices producing subjects geared to thinking in ways conducive to maintaining unjust arrangements.

As “beings of praxis,” according to Freire, humans unite action and reflection. Our endowment for objectification of experience enables critical reflection upon the world, which enables us to project beyond what is and posit what could be. Informed by our imaginary, we can transform the world. Transforming the world “is to humanize it,” wrote Freire, who qualified that transformation can lead to humanization (realization of potentials) or dehumanization (an increase in the gap between what we are and what we could or want to be).

This poses a problem. Provided we use our capacities for conscientização, for the in-depth perception of contradictions, we recognize these alternatives subject to our action. Realization of the possibility for making the world more just emerges, for Freire and many of us, as the desired course of action and object to be achieved.

To maximize our potential we need to be both physically and psychologically healthy. When graduate assistants are expected to accomplish more during the 10 or 20 hours they are contracted to work on average each week, this leads to one of two negations of our potential. It either pushes a GA to increase the intensity of labor at the expense of physical or psychological health, or it results in a GA quietly working longer than his or her contract specifies, which can imperil health and impede a person’s success as a student when overwork without remuneration impinges on graduate studies.

“The problem of graduate student overload without proper compensation is a serious one that I have frequently seen during my nearly three decades in higher education across multiple universities,” James Garvey, who recently assumed new responsibilities in the graduate school at SIUC, just told GAU.

He added that GAs “should not tolerate over-commitments that tax their degree progress, interfere with their lives, or strain their health.”

While exploitative overwork cannot be blamed for my neck injury – or the fact I feel old because 10 years have passed since I graduated high school – it has no doubt been injurious to the health and degree progress of other GAs.

As Garvey suggested, this is not limited to SIUC. It is a problem afflicting cash-strapped universities across the country increasingly reliant upon the low wage labor of graduate students.

But graduate student workers nationwide no longer see it as inevitable.

Ana Maria Araújo, who Freire married and affectionately called “Nita,” explained in the notes to her husband’s book, “Pedagogy of the Heart,” that the notion of “untested feasibility” pertains to a “belief in the ‘possible dream,’ and in the utopia that will come once those who make their own history wish it so.”

In critically articulating themselves as workers – woefully undervalued workers – members of United Auto Workers local 2865, the graduate student-workers union at the University of California, committed to the struggle for a better contract. Rejecting the notion that an academic labor utopia would be awarded as a gift, their union argued “there are only gains that we win for ourselves, together, fighting.”

The Academic Workers for a Democratic Union, the democratic reform caucus within UAW 2865, advanced their struggle by advocating social justice unionism, which encompassed promotion of internal participatory democracy for rank-and-file empowerment and formation of an “Anti-Oppression Committee” committed to addressing issues of racism, sexism, xenophobia and homophobia/transphobia.

As a result, student-workers at UC “made big gains on both bread-and-butter and social justice issues,” in their new contract, Katy Fox-Hodess, a doctoral student at UC Berkeley and a guide on the UAW statewide executive board, noted publicly.

Natasha Raheja, a doctoral student in anthropology at New York University and a member of the NYU grad union, GSOC-UAW local 2110, implored leadership to recognize the possibilities demonstrated by their sister union in California. Raheja suggested a “member-led contract victory” – set to be the first for private sector student workers at a university in the US – “will reverberate across the academic labor movement.”

Graduate Assistants United is now negotiating a new contract with the University. While conditions in Carbondale differ from the situations in New York and California, the struggle to humanize the university resonates with us. Conscious reflection upon how best to overcome conditions that limit potentials animates us as students and as workers, as it surely does those who labor and study at UC and NYU.

And we must recognize the limiting situation as more than just a proverbial pain in the neck, as it were. Following Freire and a long history of labor and syndicalist mobilization, we can recognize the situation as an open-ended reality ready to be transformed by solidarity and struggle. The new semester offers new opportunities for testing the feasibility of this.

 

James Anderson is a doctoral candidate and a member of the GAU Communications Committee.  He has served as steward for the College of Mass Communication and Media Arts, and as co-chair for the Legislative and Political Action Committee. His interests include social movements, alternative media, critical theory, prefigurative politics, horizontalidad, political economy and praxis.

 

 

James Garvey Talks with GAU

Having recently accepted additional responsibilities for the graduate school, James Garvey, interim vice chancellor for research and professor in zoology who writes sci-fi fantasy novels in his spare time, also accepted a request for an interview with GAU. Our union asked him about his new responsibilities, the condition of the graduate school, work conditions for graduate assistants and the protagonist with earth-communing superpowers from one of his novels.  

 

GarveyGraduate Assistants United: Susan Ford delayed her retirement to serve as interim provost and vice chancellor of academic affairs. As a result, you’ve been given additional responsibilities in the graduate school. How do you feel about your new role and about the state of the graduate school?

Dr. James Garvey: I am delighted to provide my services to the Graduate School. My days as a graduate student were among the best I ever had. It is my hope that I can provide a similarly positive experience for the graduate students here at SIU. I’ve been working at graduate training for the Center for Fisheries, Aquaculture, and Aquatic Sciences and the Department of Zoology as Professor and Director for several years and hope to take some of the tricks I learned and apply them to the whole university. I can’t do this alone. Thankfully, Provost Ford left me with a very capable, highly motivated, and extremely positive staff in the Graduate School. They make my new job fun and enriching.

The state of the Graduate School is strong. Enrollment is up, especially in terms of international students. With many new faculty members arriving on campus this fall and several novel graduate programs on the way, we should see graduate students increase in prominence on campus in the near future.

GAU: What are some of the biggest problems, and some of the most promising aspects of the graduate school you’re now partially administering?

Garvey: As with all things, the biggest problem for the Graduate School revolves around funding. We’d like to provide more fellowships, assistantships, and tuition support for our students, although resources for these opportunities are thin. My goal is to help identify sources of support through alumni, industry, professional graduate programs, and agencies to assist in the financial health of our student population. Another challenge is getting the word out to potential students about what a great place SIU is for graduate study. The world is becoming increasingly crowded with conflicting information about the job market, the fate of academia, and the utility of a graduate education. Graduate School is not for everyone. But for many fields, a solid graduate degree is necessary to be competitive in life. We need to better showcase the successes of our students and draw on those great stories to grow our Graduate School.

Our graduate students are chock full of promise and have accomplished amazing things. Without our graduate students and their hard work, SIU’s mission as a research-intensive institution with access for all would grind to a standstill. Also promising is the large number of new faculty members coming to campus, who will teach more courses, provide fresh ideas, and help our graduate students grow as professionals. SIU has a great infrastructure for doing research and creating scholarly works. We are renovating labs and studios and are watching a new interdisciplinary research facility on west campus come to life. These resources will provide unique opportunities to do cutting edge graduate work.

GAU: Many graduate students are also employed by the university as Graduate Assistants. All GAs are represented by Graduate Assistants United and are covered by the union’s contract with the Board. The union is in the process of bargaining a new contract. What do you think are the biggest issues facing GAs that could possibly be better addressed in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement and make it easier for GAs to be healthy and successful graduate students?

Garvey: Graduate school is an interesting mix of work, lessons, and play. Many graduate students are lucky enough to get an assistantship, with a corresponding tuition waiver. My parents never really understood this about me when I was getting my masters and PhD degrees– that I could get a professional degree and be paid for it. The concept is sincerely a good one. Schools like SIU can attract the very best students and exchange a higher degree for the good fortune of having talented, smart people help the faculty enrich the academic environment, stimulate undergraduate education, and create knowledge.

Most graduate students have unique needs and expectations that their academic cousins in professional tracks like law, medicine, and business do not. A high-paying career is not guaranteed after graduate school, making the notion of racking up high debt post-baccalaureate prohibitive. Look at me. I scored a PhD in ecology, studying fish. If I could not get economic support as a graduate student, I would never have pursued a career path I love, and society would be less one fish squeezer. Perhaps I am not the best example, but graduate school ensures that smart people take a bit of a risk to better their world and help train generations of people who go on to better, fulfilling lives.

To stay competitive, to ensure that our graduate students do their very best, and to simply do the right thing, SIU and other universities need to balance high expectations for our graduate students with their unique needs. Graduate Assistants United is a way for students to speak with one voice to SIU and ensure that they have fulfilling, productive lives. I can see many important issues that our students need to consider, including fair workloads, a comprehensive health plan, a fearless workplace, and competitive stipends. Students need to keep the perspective that they are getting a valuable degree to do something they are passionate about for a decent price and that cash-strapped universities like SIU have limited resources to give.

GAU: What is your impression of GAU, and how important is it for graduate students who work as GAs to be involved with the union?

Garvey: Collective bargaining is part of the fabric of shared governance, such as the Graduate Professional Student Council, that SIU celebrates. As with all forms of unions, the collective unit must represent the needs of all its members, not just those that choose to pay their dues. This is the grand challenge facing GAU and other bargaining units on campus– getting the silent, non-participants to join and engage so that their voice is heard when dealing with the very important issues facing graduate education at SIU. Educating graduate students that their dues translate to binding contracts with teeth is critical for all sides, including SIU’s administration, to be successful.

GAU: Student fees for the 2012-2013 academic year totaled $3,352.68, according to the SIU Institutional Research and Studies Factbook. Based on the different wages for GAs listed in the back of the existing contract between GAU and the University, the average assistant in a PhD program on a 50 percent assignment earns $1,633.91 per month, or $14,705.19 for the academic year. That average GA thus pays more than two month’s pay back to the University in fees for the academic year. GAs also pay the full amount for parking, which affects those who have to drive to the university to work. Is all this acceptable?

Garvey: I suspect that fees and other costs of campus life will be a topic of deep consideration in the near future. Increased fees are a result of many complex factors including shortfalls caused by caps on tuition, which GAs do not pay but undergraduate students do, the cost of running the physical plant of SIU, which includes our parking lots, roads, and public safety, and the rising costs of non-optional needs like health care and potentially optional ones like recreation, mass transit, and the environment (i.e., green fee). Graduate students need to consider the benefit of paying fees that enhance the university environment and experience versus the loss of these resources, not only to themselves, but also to the integrity and value of the institution to undergraduates, who pay for the lion’s share of SIU’s costs. Alternate funding mechanisms to cover fees such as off of grants and through donations should be explored as ways to offset the burden of costs of graduate education.

GAU: SIUC has yet to become fully compliant with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The current Student Health Insurance Plan has been criticized for being underfunded, and it is expected that it will soon no longer be certified to meet the minimum essential benefits required by law. What is the reason SIUC has not yet adopted a new fully compliant plan, and what do you think the solution is to ensure that students have accessible, affordable and quality health care?

Garvey: The sad truth about all public universities like SIU is that these schools are rapidly losing the support of public tax dollars and operating more like private institutions. Costs like health care, employee salaries and benefits, maintenance, and energy are rising, while oversight of tuition income continues to be driven by state officials, who are rightly reluctant to allow educational costs to rise for their constituents. The administration of SIU has tried, with arguable success, to control costs, but health care is taxing our limited budget. The university is in the process of seeking affordable, comprehensive health care plans for all our students, but our fiscal uncertainties combined with a rapidly changing health care market make it difficult to find an appropriate plan, especially as it pertains to the unique and varied needs of graduate students.

GAU: Under the ACA, employers like universities are obligated to provide employees working 30 hours or more per week with fully compliant health insurance. After passage of the ACA, the graduate school limited GA workloads to no more than 20 hours per week (a .5 FTE). “This restriction relates to the university’s current understanding of the Affordable Care Act and its impact on the way [graduate assistant] benefits will be determined,” read an email, obtained by Inside Higher Ed and sent by Susan Ford to deans, chairs and directors at SIUC regarding the new GA workload limits. “This restriction is consistent with practice being enacted at universities across the country and put in place after consultation with the various offices involved with [graduate assistant] benefits on campus.” Given that the university has yet to become fully ACA compliant, is there a possibility for making an exception again for .75 FTE GA assignments, which some graduate students needed in order to make enough money to pay bills?

Garvey: I would say that the graduate students have reason to be optimistic that a reconsideration of the caps on workload assignments for graduate assistantships will occur soon.

GAU: Per the existing agreement between GAU and the Board of Trustees, GAs have a specified number of hours they are supposed to work on average per week. While many GAs work those average number of hours (10 or 20), anecdotal evidence suggests some are also increasingly expected to do more work during the same amount of time – to grade more papers, research faster, etc. As with other jobs, when the intensity of labor is increased above a certain point, it can be detrimental to the physical and psychological health of the worker. Unduly increased work intensity for GAs can negatively affect an assistant’s studies as a graduate student and adversely affect the university because it compels reduction in quality of teaching and/or research. How serious is this problem, and if serious enough, what can be done about it?

Garvey: The problem of graduate student overload without proper compensation is a serious one that I have frequently seen during my nearly three decades in higher education across multiple universities. It is not unique to our time or to SIU and will always be a challenge in academia where it is difficult to parse apart various roles of teaching, mentoring, research, and studying. Graduate students need to be vigilant of their workload obligations and should not tolerate over-commitments that tax their degree progress, interfere with their lives, or strain their health. Any student with a valid complaint needs to document their working conditions and report them to their Graduate Director and/or me immediately. If we can’t straighten out the problem, there are clear rules for mitigation as outlined by the GAU contract.

GAU: Dr. Ford has said the university is searching for a permanent dean for the graduate school to begin in January, which is when she had initially planned to retire. Any chance you will be that dean?

Garvey: I love graduate education and enjoy this job immensely. I might consider applying.

GAU: “Both Darwin and Snoopy will be waiting for me in the afterlife, waiting to give me a tour,” you wrote on your blog. “I fear the voice of glory might sound like the adults in a Peanuts cartoon rather than a glorious celestial orchestra playing for peace and goodness.” On that blog, you also plug your book, “Earth Rising,” a sci-fi fantasy set in a world where human cities have fallen and nature flourishes, in which you tell the story of protagonist Amy Marksman who discovers she has amazing powers to commune with the earth and see little green people. What would Amy say is awaiting GAs in the afterlife, and what advice would she give to GAs who are struggling for better conditions in this world?

Garvey: Oh, you read my blog and cite my book. I’m not sure whether I should be embarrassed, flattered, or humbled. Amy Marksman is a dear character to me and goes through some pretty harrowing experiences. I hope Graduate School is a cinch in comparison. And if you see little green people like she does, you might want to visit the Student Health Center. Amy would say that you get what you work for, no matter how daunting the task. If you fight for what is right and just, stand up for yourself, and keep a positive attitude during your graduate career, life after graduate school will be rewarding and fulfilling, even if you have a few scars and wrinkles to show for it.

 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.