Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation Exercise Pragmatic Power, Strike at UO

By James Anderson

Known for stimulating the “sociological imagination” and for analyzing the “power elite,” sociologist C. Wright Mills provided a framework for understanding the exercise of power.

Mills referred to “the powerful” as “those who are able to realize their will, even if others resist,” and he suggested no one could “be truly powerful” without “access to the command of major institutions, for it is over these institutional means of power that the truly powerful are, in the first instance, powerful.”

Jon LaRochelle, a doctoral student in philosophy at the University of Oregon, said there are potent “conceptions of power in the American tradition,” like those offered by Mills, and also by writers like W.E.B. Du Bois and Mary Parker Follett.

“But no one really talks about pragmatism as a resource for that,” he said. “So that’s what I’m looking at right now.”

Graduate Teaching Fellows Strike Back

LaRochelle has also observed how power functions outside the classroom at the university. As a member of the bargaining team for the Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation, the union for graduate employees at the University of Oregon, he witnessed the ways power was exercised throughout contract negotiations in Eugene.

They had been bargaining with the university since November 2013 and at the start of December the following year had yet to reach an agreement. The Graduate Teaching Fellows at Oregon had worked with an expired contract since last spring when an initial strike authorization vote took place.

As dialogue deteriorated and prospects for a fair contract faltered, the union went on strike December 2, just three days before the end of fall semester classes and right before finals week.

The strike, which lasted eight days, ended after a 22-hour negotiating session that went from 10 a.m. on Tuesday until the university and the GTFF reached an agreement around 8 a.m. the next morning.

“At the beginning we really had no way of anticipating that it would go until the following Wednesday,” LaRochelle said in a phone interview with Graduate Assistants United.

Although they had never been on strike before, the union and those atop the academic hierarchy at the University of Oregon have a contentious history. Following a year-long organizing drive in 1975, the GTFF became formally affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers the next year after the Oregon Employment Relations Board rejected the university’s argument that GTFs were more students than employees.

Overruled but undeterred, the university administration adhered to the same line of argument up to December 2014, when issues of wages and paid leave became sticking points in contract negotiations.

LaRochelle said the university and the union came close to an agreement on wage increases just prior to the strike, but the former refused to budge on the issue of paid parental and medical leave.

The administration did not want to set a precedent so that adjuncts might assert rights to similar benefits during forthcoming faculty negotiations, LaRochelle said. Another aspect, he added, “is a general unwillingness on the part of the administration to recognize the value of GTF work.”

The GTFF reaffirmed that value with a second strike authorization vote during the fall 2014 semester, following a summer of negotiations and the move in August to have a state mediator facilitate future bargaining.

After the second authorization vote, in which a majority of GTFs voted to strike, the university made a proposal for “flex time,” which would have permitted a graduate employee to take some time off for an emergency or for the birth of a child, provided the employee made up the time later.

But the problem is that most GTFs are employed on a term-by-term or 9-month appointment basis, LaRochelle said. Rather than receiving time off as an employee, “flex time” puts the burden on the individual GTF to do extra work because they had a baby or because they got sick and needed time away for extended medical treatment, he added.

In the mediation session before the strike, the university then proposed a “graduate student hardship fund” as an alternative to paid leave.

The hardship fund, as proposed by the administration, would have cost the university more money than the paid leave proposal advanced by the union, LaRochelle said.

“The problem was that they were making every effort to not recognize us as workers deserving this benefit,” he said about the administration’s efforts.

Pragmatist Philosophies of Power

William James, an oft-cited philosopher in the American pragmatist tradition and a thinker whose work LaRochelle has oft-engaged with, offered an anecdote in his 1907 book “Pragmatism” worth recalling when considering opposing temperaments at the bargaining table.

Outlining a relative theory of truth as a way to escape dead-end disputes, James suggested the trick is to ask what difference it would make in practice if a particular position were adopted instead of another. If it would make no difference, the position could be attributed to a party’s temperamental bias.

But James’ outline, in its simplest form, lacks a theory of power, especially regarding its concentration and exercise within institutional contexts.

As Mills wrote in “The Power Elite,” institutions, including perhaps education, “are the necessary basis of power, of wealth, and of prestige, and at the same time, the chief means of exercising power, of acquiring and retaining wealth, and of cashing in the higher claims of prestige.”

Class consciousness, Mills noted, does not equally characterize “all levels of American society,” but is rather “most apparent in the upper class” and throughout the upper strata of institutions.

What James failed to articulate in full is the extent to which institutional arrangements and power relations impact temperament and ultimately influence understanding of truth. As Mills might infer, the class conscious – or institutionally conditioned – position of the UO administration compelled attempts to exercise power-over. Following this theory, the university rejected the union proposal, even though it would have saved them money in the short run, because it threatened institutional power over the long-term.

But Mills’ notion that the powerful can “realize their will” even when “others resist” also fails to account for the fluidity of power and downplays the capacity of human agents to alter power structures.

Hardship Funds, Hard Compromises

For GTFs at Oregon, the hardship fund had two issues that made it an unacceptable offer, LaRochelle said. He said it was unclear there was any guarantee a GTF could be sure to get the funds in case of emergency or a child birth. It also would have been formalized only as a written letter between the president and the graduate school, he said, and would not have been written into the collective bargaining agreement except as a copy of the letter, making it difficult to grieve in the event a GTF was denied funds.

“It’s really our only form of power in the contract is to be able to grieve when things go wrong,” LaRochelle said.

What came out of the marathon negotiating session when the strike ended was a bit of a compromise, he said.

The GTFF secured guaranteed seats on the committee overseeing the fund allotting up to $1,500 for new parents and up to $1,000 for medical hardship.

If a new parent puts in an application to the graduate school to obtain money from the fund to reimburse three weeks of missed work and wages after the birth of a child, LaRochelle explained in an example case, there is recourse if the graduate school rejects the application. The GTF could appeal to the committee, which will have two graduate employee and two graduate student spots. If the committee then approves the request, the application goes to the provost. Should the provost deny the funds, the union can come in and grieve on behalf of the GTF.

Although the union cannot grieve the amount the GTF can receive, LaRochelle said, the GTFF, which since the strike boasts more than 50 percent membership of eligible graduate employees at UO, can hold university higher-ups accountable to the overall process.

“That was a win for us, and now the real test is just going to be implementation – so making sure that going forward the thing gets constituted appropriately and functions the way it should,” he said.

The union also sought wage increases. They wanted to attain a living wage over the course of four or five years.

During negotiations, the focus had been on minimum salaries. About 60 percent of graduate employees at UO make the minimum, LaRochelle said, and the previous minimum before the new contract was more than $200 short every month compared to what the university’s financial aid numbers suggest constitutes the cost of living in Eugene.

Before the strike concluded, the administration stipulated that if the union wanted a higher dollar amount available for the hardship fund, then they would have to accept lower wages.

Instead of getting a five percent wage increase for two years, as the GTFF proposed, the administration pushed a proviso of five percent one year and four percent the next.

Striking got the graduate employees closer to a living wage, securing them five percent for both years.

Administrative Power, Inadvertent Consequences 

But the union could not have done it by themselves, LaRochelle admits.

“We said throughout the process that the university has been our best organizing tool,” he said.

Early on, the university hired a lawyer who had a habit of making a mix of condescending, egregious and inane comments during the open bargaining sessions, he said. This prompted the entire room to erupt in laughter on occasion, and to march from the room and rally outside once in response to one comment.

LaRochelle said the university sent email blasts out to the campus community, making assertions many recognized as dubious. An entire department that did not initially support the strike changed its whole view on the situation in response to one email from the administration, he added.

The incident is similar to what happened at Southern Illinois University Carbondale when the Faculty Association went on strike in fall of 2011.

“Students are not directly involved in the labor negotiations between the University and the unions which bargain on behalf of the University employees, and they should not be used as unwilling pawns in the disagreement between the parties,” then-Chancellor Rita Cheng wrote in an October 7 email to the SIUC campus community as negotiations heated up that semester. “Please carefully read the following facts as you consider your individual decision and circumstances should the IEA represented groups put you in the position of having to choose between participating in a strike or continuing your work / education.”

In response, SIUC students wrote an open letter explaining how many of the rights and resources enjoyed by working people came from organizing and defending unions.

“We have not been threatened or coerced in anyway by our instructors—contrary to the Chancellor’s repeated assertions—however the tone of Rita Cheng’s almost daily emails seem increasingly threatening,” the letter stated.

Similar statements of support for the GTFF strike came from the Student Labor Action Project at the University of Oregon, an organization that supports labor and promotes economic justice on campus and beyond. LaRochelle said UO students also conducted a sit-in at the administrative building during the strike, and statements of solidarity poured in from the student government and both the faculty and staff unions.

Like at SIUC during 2011, administrative malfeasance left other marks, however.

“The administration created a contingency plan that basically gutted academic standards,” LaRochelle said about the university’s program, which was condemned by two motions on the faculty senate floor.

The administration tried to force department heads to take control of GTF-taught classes, which LaRochelle said would have been a disaster given the vast amount of graduate employee instruction on campus. Some students were also given the option to pass on their final if they had a GTF instructor who was striking, he said, and the dean reportedly artificially increased the grades of students in the philosophy department when they came to argue for better marks.

“We sort of inadvertently uncovered some very problematic positions on the part of the administration,” LaRochelle said.

He attributes this in part to the new Board of Trustees. Until recently, he said, Oregon had statewide Board of Trustees for all state universities. This summer all Oregon institutions got their own Boards. The contingency plan accepted by the Board “was a clear indication that they wanted first and foremost to break the strike, to undermine the power of the union,” LaRochelle said.

The Board of Trustees at UO had a motion scheduled for the day after the strike ended to supersede university constitution and gut the power of the faculty senate, he said.

“The extent to which they’re acting to institute a corporate model, top-down governing structure is worrisome to say the least,” LaRochelle said.

He said institutional hierarchies and institutionalized exploitation, especially of graduate employees, constitutes one mode of power. Another mode, LaRochelle suggested, moves through the disciplinary mechanism of student debt tied to “an outrageous tuition-based model that puts a burden on the very possibility of having a meaningful life.”

The UO GTFF strike was thus part of what LaRochelle said he would characterize as “a fight for the heart and soul of American higher education.”

The GTFF, having been in the fight for several decades, has accumulated many small wins, like the $61 per-term cap on fees the union procured for all UO teaching fellows in their previous contract.

Graduate Assistants at SIUC, in contrast, pay much more back to the university in employment fees.

Assuming full credit hour enrollment, student fees for the 2012-2013 academic year at SIUC totaled $3,352.68, according to the university’s Institutional Research and Studies Factbook. The average GA in a PhD program at SIUC on a 50 percent employment assignment earns $1,633.91 per month, or $14,705.19 for the academic year. Two months of that average GA’s salary go back to the university in fees.

LaRochelle said the traditional role of organized labor in fighting for a fair contract to eliminate those employment fees and to increase wages remains important. But another power dynamic is at play too, he added.

“It’s also about recognizing that the university is a politicized space, and that we can collectively develop an understanding of how that space is shaped and respond to it,” LaRochelle said. “I think that the grad union is absolutely key in looking forward and responding to the problematic trends in higher education.”


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.