Uniting Against Bullies and Injustice

Stories from years past can shed light on values that teach cooperation, inform activism and illustrate the work of Graduate Assistants United.

The childhood experience of author, activist, and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, for example, shaped his later outlook on economic justice.

“When I was a kid, the bigger boys would pick on me,” now-Professor Reich recently recounted. “That is what you did. That’s what is done. So I got an idea that I would make alliances with older boys. Just one or two who would be my protectors.

“The summer when I was about ten, one of the older boys who I depended on to kind of be a protector whose name was Michael Schwerner, in the summer of 1964, I learned that Mickey had been in Mississippi registering voters and he and two other people who had been with him registering voters were tortured and murdered. And when I heard that my protector had been murdered by the real bullies, I think it changed my life. I had to protect people from the bullies, the people who would beat them up economically or the people who would subject them and their families to real harm.

“Because if you don’t have a voice, if you don’t have power, if you’re vulnerable economically in society, you don’t have anybody to protect you.”  We agree.

Many students – and working people generally – continue to face conditions of economic vulnerability aggravated by class inequality.

Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel Laureate economist, said in a September 8 talk to organized labor that inequality hurts the economy, and it hits some harder than others.

“Young Americans face a mountain of student debt, and dismal job prospects,” Stiglitz said.

Linguist, activist and 84-year-old professor emeritus at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Noam Chomsky, addressed the issue when he gave a lecture at the University of Michigan in July.

“Student debt is exceptionally punishing,” Chomsky said.

Chomsky recognized the precarious situation of graduate students who accumulate debt while struggling to pay fees, often working under stressful conditions.

Increasingly, universities “resort to cheap labor without rights – what are called graduate students,” he said.

Like Reich, Chomsky has shared a memorable story from his youth that relates directly to the need for economic justice.

In the companion book to the documentary Manufacturing Consent, Chomsky recalls how he was in the schoolyard in first grade, and a bunch of kids were taunting one classmate who was picked on often.

Chomsky said one of the kids brought his older brother to beat up the kid they had been teasing.

“And I remember going up to stand next to him feeling somebody ought to help him and I did for a while,” Chomsky explained. “And then I got scared and went away and I was very much ashamed of it afterwards, and sort of felt – not going to do that again.”

Similarly, Graduate Assistants United will not leave Graduate Assistants alone when they need help.

GAs too often get bullied by economic hardship – demonstrated by the increasingly burdensome costs of higher education, costs of living and exorbitant fees. Too often GAs feel helpless in work situations, incapable of making ends-meet, resolving issues alone and speaking up for themselves.

Our union aims to protect all Graduate Assistants from having to either endure severe economic hardship or accept unfair labor practices, which occur all-too-often, regretfully.

Graduate Assistants United successfully negotiated raises in our last contract, and we successfully resolved grievances in our tenure. Yet we have much more work to do, and we will continue to pursue outstanding issues to better protect Graduate Students against economic injustice.

But unlike the boyhood experiences of Reich and Chomsky, which motivated them to become life-long activists and defenders of the underdog, our union empowers you to defend yourself with the mutual aid and support of others.

Educator Paulo Freire defined praxis as “reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it.”  Our praxis at GAU, infused with notions of collaborative action, love, and solidarity, are some of the greatest resources we have. Our Collective Bargaining Agreement, and the countless, nameless Graduate Assistants who have come before us and on whose shoulders we stand, are the sources of inspiration for practical action we need to create the university we want.

Matt Ryg, President
College of Liberal Arts

James Anderson, Steward
College of Mass Communication and Media Arts

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