Labor Day Is a Time to Mobilize

By Ralph Nader; Posted: 08/30/2013 2:31 pm

“Labor Day is the ideal time to highlight the hard-fought, historic victories already enjoyed by American workers and push for long-overdue health and safety measures and increased economic benefits for those left behind by casino capitalism. After all, it was the labor movement in the early twentieth century that brought us such advances as the minimum wage, overtime pay, the five day work week, the banning of child labor and more.”

Read more on The Huffington Post.

Get To Know a GAU Steward – Sandy Kim

s-kimPolitical Science Steward Sandy Kim responded to several questions the GAU Communications Committee asked about her experiences, education, and union activism.

GAU Communications Committee:  Where are you originally from?

Sandy Kim:  Chicagoland suburbs

GAU:  How long have you been at SIUC?

Kim:  I am starting the second year of my PhD.

GAU:  Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Kim:  I came down to Carbondale two summers ago with my partner, who is a grad student in the Philosophy Department. Our furry family consists of our cat (Piper), our new puppy (River), and two gerbils (Merryweather and either Flora or Fauna).

GAU: Why are you pursuing a Ph.D. in Political Science?

Kim:  Originally, I had planned on going to law school, but eventually came to the realization that I was far more attracted to the study of law, as opposed to legal practice itself. Although I’ve been politically active most of my life, it wasn’t until the last two years of undergrad that I became more interested in the study of politics and government.

GAU: What are your research interests?

Kim: My current research interests are centered around American politics and public law: religion and politics, particularly the intersection between religious interest groups and the public sphere; varying interpretations and conceptions of religious liberty; the LGBT social movement and group mobilization; and the judiciary, especially the Supreme Court.

GAU:  When do you plan on graduating, and what are your plans post-graduation?

Kim:  My partner and I both plan on being done in 2017-2018, at which time we will both pursue careers in academia.

GAU:  How long have you been involved with GAU?

Kim:  This is my first year actively involved with GAU.

GAU:  What do you currently like most about SIUC?

Kim:  Despite the usual grumblings about the University, I feel like it’s a good environment for graduate students to learn about teaching and research. I like my Department and am confident that it will prepare me well for a career as an academic.

GAU:  What do you like best about GAU?

Kim:  I like that there is a union that represents graduate assistants specifically since our interests and concerns can be quite different from the other shareholders at the University.

GAU:  Is there anything you would like to change about the union, and how might that change take place?

Kim:  I feel that GAU needs a huge boost in membership, which requires current members to reach out to colleagues and friends about the benefits of union membership. There have been some public image negatives of GAU in recent years, and I think that we will all need to work together to enhance the reputation and effectiveness of our organization.

GAU:  What motivated you to become a steward?

Kim:  It seemed important to ensure that our Department was active and represented in the GAU, and I wanted to help provide a familiar link between our graduate assistants and the union.

GAU:  How do you see your role as GAU steward for the Department of Political Science?

Kim:  I hope to serve as a liaison between our Department’s graduate assistants and the GAU. I hope my colleagues feel they can come to me in order to address any issues or concerns they may have, and we can work together with the GAU on resolution.

GAU:  What do consider the biggest issue – or biggest issues – for graduate assistants at present?

Kim:  Decreased funding for state universities in general.

GAU:  Do you view unions as important today for workers in the private and/or public sector? And how important are unions for graduate student workers in the contemporary university setting?

Kim:  For us graduate students planning on continuing in education, it is a good way to experience firsthand unions in action.

GAU:  What advice would you give new graduate students/assistants in your department?

Kim:  The first year was pretty rough…find some way to balance classes, work, and fun with family and / or friends, all while sleep-deprived. I’ve been told that it gets better.

GAU:  Is it important that GAs become involved with GAU in some capacity? Please explain.

Kim:  I’m a firm believer than an organization is as good as its members make it. GAU is what its members wish for it to be, so I believe it is extremely important for members, dues-paying or not, to be involved.

GAU:  What are your hopes for the union this year?

Kim:  I hope we can produce a significant increase in membership, particularly in preparation for contract negotiations and further financial difficulties for the University and the state.

GAU:  What are your hopes for graduate assistants and for graduate students generally at SIUC and beyond?

Kim:  Graduate assistants are a vital component of university education and as such, I hope that we are able to work together with faculty, staff, and administration to continuously improve the teaching and research environment.

Developments in Detroit and Beyond

By James Anderson

detroit

If we get beyond rhetoric and the all-too-often spurious explanations of political-economic issues in the major news media, there are important lessons to be learned.

For starters, let’s examine recent circumstances in Detroit.

The city became the largest municipality in U.S. history to file for bankruptcy in early July. Thousands of public employees engaged in a protracted struggle to retain the pensions they paid into throughout their working lives so as to ensure a decent standard of living after a career of service.

Historically speaking, the situation points to a larger systemic trend. Since the 1970s the economy has been in a prolonged period of stagnation. This dovetails with deindustrialization spurred by the rise of multinational corporations capable of shifting work overseas where labor is cheap and working conditions are abysmal.

The process has to do with increased international competition – but not in the sense that is commonly understood. There is increased competition among workers internationally because big companies can pit workers against each other by off-shoring production often to subsidiaries, affiliates or contracted suppliers. Yet it is only a handful of firms that monopolize markets, exploit international wage hierarchies and control prices.

Intensification of this process contributed to serious centralization of capital furthered by greater speculative finance.

As a result, Detroit automakers suffered, and so have workers the world over.

To wit, we have witnessed extreme polarization of wages, wealth and poverty. Two percent of the global population now owns more than half the world’s wealth.

Analysts routinely demonstrate the realities of widening inequality in the United States as well, concurrent with a steep decline in union membership over the last couple of decades. Legislation and policies have been less than favorable to unions, and too little has been done with regard to the country’s growing wealth gap – now a stark reality.

Economist Edward Wolff found that one percent of the population controls about 43 percent of the nation’s non-housing wealth.  A report from the Economic Policy Institute found that CEO compensation increased about 875 percent from 1978 to 2012 – an amount appreciably greater than the 5.4 percent growth in the average worker’s compensation over the same period. Unlike largely unaffected CEOs, workers’ small gains in income are largely offset by an array of contemporary policies and higher costs of living that fall disproportionately on labor.

Again, Michigan serves as case in point. To compensate for a failed financial system and poor policy, employee pensions and medical benefits became fodder for the fiscal chopping block.

We can note here how the impact of macroeconomic system changes shed light on the situation in Michigan. As auto industry analyst Zoe Lipman wrote regarding the precarious conditions in Detroit, “National policies and trends—that neglected manufacturing and encouraged investment in financial products and short term returns at the expense of long term investment in communities, infrastructure, and the middle class—didn’t help.”

Similar to the situation across the country, even amidst stagnation, the productivity growth in the U.S. has outpaced non-supervisory worker wage growth since the mid-1970s, as illustrated by Michigan University Law School graduate and former U.S. House of Representatives legislative director Ross Eisenbery.

Likewise, we should recognize the continuation of legislative trajectories across the country.

Following in the footsteps of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker who passed anti-union legislation in his state back in 2011, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signed a bill into law that made Michigan the 24th right-to-work state.

Snyder did this in spite of a 12,000-strong popular protest in the state Capitol. He did this despite Section 24 of Michigan’s constitution that says earned pensions benefits “shall be a contractual obligation thereof which shall not be diminished or impaired thereby.”

And Snyder passed the legislation despite a statement he made earlier last year, when he said, “right to work is an issue that may have its time and place, but I don’t believe it’s appropriate in Michigan during 2012.”

In addition to the opposition Snyder faced from thousands in Lansing – and from his self circa several months prior – the chair of SEIU’s National Republican Member Advisory Committee, Andy Potter, also disapproved of the legislation – an indication of support for collective bargaining on both sides of the partisan aisle.

Perhaps, Potter read the report from labor education professor Gordon Lafer, who showed that right-to-work laws that prevent unions from getting fair share contributions from those they bargain on behalf of are not nearly the economic boon many suggest. Lafer showed that there is no relationship between right-to-work and unemployment rates and that both union and non-union workers see an average $1,500 decrease in wages when those laws are passed. His analysis suggests right-to-work legislation also fails to attract employers to a state.

And the city of Detroit has fallen victim to the folly of other ill-advised policy.

In the wake of the 2007-08 financial crisis, the titans of the auto industry in Detroit (i.e., CEOs, shareholders, owners) who made decisions that negatively impacted their business, got bailouts for their companies. General Motors and Chrysler received public subsidy, but it was those atop the socioeconomic pyramid that benefited from the bailouts, not the workers.

Broader contextualization helps clarify Detroit’s predicament further.

The turn toward speculative debt-leveraged finance that started several decades ago, coupled with so-called “free trade” initiatives that opened up borders for large corporations while circumscribing the workforce, further accelerated and exacerbated problems for Detroit’s auto industry.

The merging of commercial and investment banks in the 1990s, so-called “securitization” (that fails to secure the overall economy or most people’s finances), predatory subprime loan lending and the latest government bailout for big private banks after the housing bubble burst put undue pressure on the entire economic system. Already in peril, Detroit’s problems mounted.

The enactment of emergency finance manager laws strip the public of decision-making power. The laws put that power in the hands of Kevyn Orr, an un-elected city manager.

However, the real injustice lies in how costs have been socialized while profits have been privatized.

What moral – or even economically sound – justification can be given for bailing out banks and big corporations but not the municipality and pensioners? It is the workers whose pensions are threatened that suffer doubly due to the still precarious recessionary conditions engendered by oligopolistic entities and the ramifications (e.g., denial of accrued pensions the public employees paid for).

And lest we forget, these disturbing trends course through the sphere of public education.

The Detroit Public Schools Emergency Financial Manager, Robert Bobb, pushed for mass closure of public schools and privatization of the school system in 2010.

The model of education reform implemented in New   Orleans that involved shuttering lots of public schools, firing unionized teachers and opening up privately-run charters served as a sort of blueprint.

The business-model restructuring of education relegates students and parents to the role of consumers. In effect, they are prevented from meaningfully participating in the decisions that impact their lives in the present and the future. This is especially true considering the far-reaching affects education can have for the entirety of an individual’s life.

And lack of public funds – owing to anti-democratic trends outlined above – are used as the rationale for further cuts to public services and evisceration of education essential to the common good.

It is imperative we realize that deleterious social consequences are not limited to Detroit.

Youngstown and Cleveland, Ohio, have suffered mightily through these past decades of stagnation aggravated by policies designed – explicitly or tacitly – to discipline the workforce and redistribute wealth upwards.

The Philadelphia school district announced the closing of 23 public schools and the firing of 1,200 employees in June so as to, the story goes, close a multi-million dollar funding gap. Similarly, dozens of public schools have been shuttered in Chicago.

However, there are inspiring signs of change in the other direction all the time.

The public pension attack it Detroit brought out a slew of protestors. Faced with the possibility of being denied their pensions, firefighters in the city organized working groups to collaborate on alternative answers. And around the same time as the bankruptcy filing, fast food and other service workers in Detroit and Flint, Mich. – as well as St. Louis, Kansas City, Chicago and New York – participated in non-traditional demonstrations as part of a “living wage campaign” to pressure employers to pay enough for full-time workers to live on.

There is other promising action as well.

In some of his most recent work, political economist Gar Alperovitz discussed how the United Steelworkers Union recently announced a “union co-op” strategy to develop worker-owned companies across the country. The development is especially noteworthy considering that the union was initially opposed to steelworkers taking control of the Youngstown Sheet and Tube mill when 5,000 workers lost their jobs back in 1977.

Workers support for similar initiatives came to fruition in Cleveland when Evergreen Cooperatives opened in 2008, creating living-wage jobs in low-income communities while democratizing the workplace and empowering the workers.

These projects illustrate the innovative impulse of unions and labor today, even amidst disconcerting trends.

Regarding education, there is a refusal to accept hollowing out of the public good and forceful rejection of the attack on educators’ rights.

The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) went on strike in September 2012, epitomizing what University of Illinois Chicago professors Eric (Rico) Gutstein and Pauline Lipman called “social movement unionism,” by garnering unprecedented rank-and-file participation and widespread grassroots community support in the face of profit-motivated school closings.

As Amy Goodman reported, there was a sit-in at one of the 49 schools in Chicago slated for closing this last June, and a hunger strike launched by two Philadelphia public school parents and two workers in response to the lay-offs and closures in their city.

To be sure, the thousands that flooded into Lansing, Mich., to inveigh against policies detrimental to unions (and society) reminiscent of the huge outpouring of pro-union support in Madison, Wisc., in 2011, show sentiments of solidarity and support for working people remains strong.

As activism and union organizing steps up against socially injurious agendas in Detroit, across the Midwest and beyond, we too should show solidarity. There are many ways to do that. Perhaps one of the easiest – yet not inconsequential – ways to is by collectively working for fair treatment of graduate assistants and students at our own university. Perhaps by promoting equity where we have the most influence we can set a precedent for improving conditions in education and beyond.

James Anderson is a Ph.D. student and the GAU Steward for the College of Mass Communication and Media Arts. His interests include social movements, alternative media, critical theory, prefigurative politics, horizontalidad, political economy and praxis.

Student Loan Rates

by James Anderson and Matt Ryg

Student-Debt1

As economic concerns mount for us all, recent legislative action gives us reason to pause, reflect and then act.

Many of you are well aware that Congress made crucial decisions about student loan interest rates this summer. They first failed to reach a deal on rates for federally subsidized student loans by the preferred date of July 1, resulting in what would have been a 6.8% interest rate increase.

With time to act before the rate went into effect, the Senate approved a bipartisan plan that tied the Stafford loan rates to financial markets, putting students in a precarious double bind. With substantial bipartisan support, the House followed suit, passing the legislation July 31.

Some celebrated this as working across party lines for the benefit of the public. As reported in the New York Times, Rep. Luke Messer (R-IN) called it “a great victory for taxpayers, because taxpayers won’t be forced to subsidize student loan rates that are arbitrarily set by politicians,” adding that it proves “Washington can work.”

Yet, we worry that while working for some, Washington is not working for too many people, especially students. The latest legislation regarding student loans provides a case in point. While the loan rates might not be “arbitrarily set by politicians,” they are now subject to the arbitrary whims of speculative financial markets.

We question whether it is truly “a great victory for taxpayers” because students and taxpayers are (or at some point will be) one and the same. And students will now be individually subsidizing payment for “public” education in order to get the degrees necessary to attain jobs that benefit the common good.

When politicians pass the legislation tying Stafford loan interest rates to financial markets, it forces students who take out loans to indirectly subsidize the “too big to fail” financial institutions that engaged in the risky behavior that helped produce the unfavorable economic situation today, which supposedly makes these budget-tightening policies necessary.

Rolling Stone reporter Matt Taibbi recently said that the costs of university education “have been rising at roughly three times the rate of inflation over the last couple of decades, three times the rate of the consumer price index,” and this rise in cost that primarily benefits administrators is being subsidized by student debt via government loans that will now indirectly subsidize speculative finance.

Jenna Johnson quoted Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) in the Washington Post after the bill first passed the Senate, pointing out that those in congress who supported the deal assume that lowering interest rates on loans this year is all that matters, which is “the same thing credit card companies said when they sold zero-interest credit cards, and it’s the same thing subprime mortgage lenders said when they sold teaser-rate mortgages.” Warren added: “In all these cases, the bill comes due.”

The senator had previously proposed students pay the same rates that big financial institutions get through the Federal Reserve discount window, an appreciably lower 0.75%. Just prior to the last compromise being reached in the Senate, Warren introduced an amendment with Sen. Jack Reed to keep interest rates where they are now. Sen. Bernie Sanders proposed authorizing new rates for only two years.

But the bipartisan opinion prevailed, prompting Warren to call the legislation “obscene,” since it forces students into the role of revenue generators for the government (and indirectly for the multinational corporate and financial institutions coercively pressuring politicians).

Sadly, students now appear caught in an inescapable double-bind.

Should the economy improve – and many students hope that it will so standards of living increase along with prospects for meaningful work – then the rates they pay on their loans will likely rise. True, the bill lowers interest rates temporarily, but those rate will be hiked in a few years.

Adding further irony and insult to the situation, if the rates do substantially increase as predicted, a large segment of the new workforce will have further reduced purchasing power.  That will likely hurt the overall economy down the road – and place disproportionate burden on indebted students and graduates.

Granted there was compromise, the consequences of which could have been far worse. The Senate deal capped loans at 8.25 percent for undergraduates, 9.5 for graduate students and 10.5 for parents and students with loans through the PLUS program.

But is this compromise problematic?

“The problem with the compromise that the Obama administration and the Republicans struck over student loan rates is that it compromises students,” Valerie Strauss wrote for the Washington Post, answering our rhetorical question and candidly summing up the situation.

Lest we forget, students – graduate students in particular – are already struggling. Accelerating trends in educational policy intensify that struggle.

Interest rates on student loans have nearly quadrupled in the last decade.  They now total about $1 trillion dollars, exceeding the sum of all credit card debt.

Equally troubling is the larger situation we find ourselves in as these policies take effect.

According to the Project for Student Debt report from The Institute for College Access & Success, college seniors had an average student loan debt of $26,000 in 2011. We suspect many graduate students owe much more.

Indeed, escalating costs of tuition and fees make it all but impossible not to accumulate debt.

The Institutional Research and Studies Factbook for Southern Illinois University Carbondale found that resident tuition for graduate students has more than doubled in the last ten years, rising from $4,296 in the 2003-04 academic year to $9,004.80 in 2012-13. Graduate student tuition has increased more than 2.5 times in that period, going from $1,270.30 to $3,352.68.

For graduate assistants, this is tantamount to paying employment fees to work at the university. Those employment fees are about two months pay for many of us. If you have a fifty percent fall and spring semester GA position only, approximately 20 percent of your pay goes back to the university in fees.

These higher costs of education have consequences. Increasing tuition and fees – together with exorbitant debt and potentially volatile loan interest rates – amount to a covert form of privatization that imperils people and public education writ large.

The process degrades education as a public good. Learning becomes commodified, turning a fundamental human right into a mere market-driven product exacerbated by the corporatization of higher education.

These practices work to sever social bonds and reinforce reductive, top-down business-model approaches to education that negates participatory decision-making. Top-down control, profit-oriented policy and questionable “less is more” approaches to education impede critical inquiry while impoverishing us intellectually and economically.

Undeniably, commitment to quality public education still pervades our campus. But, the “less is more” mentality applied disproportionately with respect to graduate students poses a serious problem.

If we truly value education in our democracy – and democracy in our education – then clearly student loan interest rates should not exceed the rates that the big banks largely responsible for the protracted financial crisis now pay, and they should not be attached to precarious markets.  Further, tuition for public education should be free for all, or at least it should be based on a student’s ability to pay. And for goodness sake, freeze the always increasing fees.

These are issues we care deeply about. We are also serious about trying to make education affordable. In the same vein, we want to make working conditions just, just as we assume all of you do. Please join us in working to create a better university right now while planting the seeds of a better world for the future.

In solidarity,

James Anderson, Steward
College of Mass Communication and Media Arts
Matt Ryg, GAU President
Department of Philosophy

The Next Target (Graduate Students)

August 22, 2013; By Colleen Flaherty

As the new academic year begins, adjuncts at dozens of institutions across the country will be returning to campus with lighter course loads and smaller paychecks. That’s because some colleges and universities are trying to keep their hours below the threshold at which they become benefits-eligible employees under the Affordable Care Act.

And at least one university, graduate students, too, will be subject to lighter workloads for the same reasons.

Read on at Inside Higher Ed.

Ripping Off Young America: The College-Loan Scandal

By ; August 15, 2013 10:45 AM ET
The federal government has made it easier than ever to borrow money for higher education – saddling a generation with crushing debts and inflating a bubble that could bring down the economy.  Click here to read more from Rolling Stone.

Come out to the Union Family Picnic!

Union Family & Friends,

GAU invites all Graduate Students and their families, friends, and irreverent colleagues to  the 1st Union Family Picnic on Friday, August 23rd from 3-6pm at Turley Park in Carbondale.

No membership is required.  The Science Center is graciously hosting The Bubble Project for kids, so bring  them out!  We will be grilling burgers & brats, and a vegetarian option.  There will be chips, buns, soda, and juice.  Bring something to share, or not.

We’d love to see you!  Let us know if you have any questions or dietary restrictions.

In Solidarity,

Matt Ryg, President
Graduate Assistants United