Grad Students Should Expand the Spectrum of Debate

By James Anderson

In his contribution to the New York Times “Room for Debate” roundtable commentary addressing the question of whether unions are the best way for graduate-student workers and adjunct faculty to improve compensation and conditions, one debater cautioned against “generalizing.”

In his May 14 article, Peter McDonough, the interim general counsel at the American Council on Education, admitted unions “do play an important role at many colleges and universities,” but qualified because “generalizing about their place in education is impossible. Unions are not per se ‘bad’ or ‘good.’ Context matters. Educating students matters most.”

McDonough’s framing of the question matters too. In suggesting that generalizing about “the place of unions in education is impossible,” he neglects the shared institutional features that enable one to even reference “education” or “colleges and universities” to begin with.

“Context,” he also underscored, “matters,” to be sure. But what is the larger context within which universities are situated? Are there characteristics common across most – if not all –universities that impact graduate student employees?

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GAU visits Mizzou: Grads seek union protection

As you may know, GAU is not the only Graduate Assistant union in Illinois: GAs at all three University of Illinois campuses also enjoy union protection for their employment rights.  And now GAs in other states are looking to get protections as well.

Shortly before the start of this semester, Mizzou’s GAs received an email from the administration telling them that Mizzou would no longer be providing health insurance for GAs – and their insurance would end in THIRTEEN hours leaving GAs to scramble to find coverage.  As a result, GAs quickly organized and rallied against the administration and University President Tim Wolfe (who was later forced out following student protests against his failure to respond to increasing incidents of racial harassment on campus), demanding that the university reinstate their health care. Under the pressure of the united GAs, Mizzou quickly backed down.

The success of this united front of GAs against the administration led to a realization of the strength of collective action by the GAs to improve their working conditions. As a result, graduate students have formed the Coalition of Graduate Workers (CGW) to create a GA union for Mizzou grads.

To broaden their understanding of the benefits of unionization GAU President John Flowers, Grievance Officer Joon Kang and IEA staff member Bret Seferian were invited to Columbia Missouri to talk with Mizzou grads about their experiences with GA unions as the grads at Mizzou begin the process of forming their own union.  Joining them on the panel was the Vice-President of GAU at Florida State Martin Breme.

c36dfa7a-4f35-4f17-b74a-09f154227f69Roughly thirty curious GAs came out Thursday evening to attend the panel
which covered the legal authority of unions, the ability for unions to represent graduate students through the grievance process, and the way in which unions allow graduate students to engage the administration on a variety of issues without fear of intimidation.  Other topics included the way in which GAU’s contract guarantees GA representation on the hiring committees for administrators and GAU’s work in obtaining our new ACA compliant health insurance.

940db6b9-9d22-41b9-8f1f-86bcc642cbf4More specifically, the GAU panelists spoke on the ability to press the administration to give contracts to GAs during the current state budget crisis, especially for international GAs who might otherwise lose their visa status. Further, we explained how we are currently bargaining for increased vacation time for GAs on 12 month contracts, which would enable many international students to travel home.  Of particular interest to the grads at  was GAU’s success in slowing down increases in fees – which would cost us over $1,000 a year, or higher, without the contract

GAU’s representatives were not the only ones doing all the talking: the other panelists described some of the protections their unions offered them. For example, before Florida State’s union existed, GAs could apply for a LOTTERY to get a $500 per year subsidy for health insurance – a lottery where unlucky GAs received NO FUNDING.

While the benefits provided by GAU may all be familiar to you, they were eye opening to Mizzou grads, all of whom do not experience the same kinds of protections we enjoy.  When the panel opened for questions, one student asked whether having a union would give the administration cause to fire all GAs and replace them with adjuncts or prevent GAs from being instructor of record. Neither of these are the case, as GAs provide the overwhelming majority of in-class instruction on our campus and campuses around the world.

We also engaged questions concerning the confusion that comes with trying to organize with multiple groups working at cross purposes and GAs feeling that they did not have a voice in the direction of events.  We explained that the presence of a GA union would not cause any of these issues, and that the direction of a union was determined by its member body.

As the graduate students at Mizzou continue to push forwards their campaign for unionization, and demand the protections and rights that they deserve, GAU has agreed to remain in contact with them, and to stand in solidarity with the graduate students at Mizzou when they successfully form their union.

From the desk of the president

Happy Thanksgiving,

It is ironic that my inaugural column begins as the semester is ending for many of us, and for that I apologize. As president, it is critical that I maintain open lines of communication with our member body, not just through periodic e-mails, but in a more specific capacity. To that end, I intend for this column to be a regular feature of your GAU newsletter wherein I share updates, report our successes, our failures, and keep the member body informed of the many ways that your union is active in fighting for your rights as students and workers.

​So, in the interest of sharing our successes, I am pleased to report that many of you have begun to receive contracts for spring semester, ending weeks of uncertainty. This victory is the result of constant pressure placed on the administration by your union, both in public and behind closed doors, resulting in Interim Chancellor Colwell’s assurance that departments across the campus have been instructed to comply with the University’s “belt tightening” without resorting to the elimination of GA positions. For now, our contract and continued employment are relatively safe.

​Despite this victory, there still remain challenges on the horizon. Many RAs (research assistants) have contracts whose funding is based upon external grants. As such, some of these grants have been placed in jeopardy by the continuing budget impasse. In a normal budget year, the funds provided by these grants would “flow through” the university from the state, allowing contracts to be awarded to RAs. As the university is uncertain when, or if, the money from these grants will materialize, the university cannot commit to the projects that these grants would fund.
​The end result is not only the obstruction of projects vital to the university’s research mission, but an increasing uncertainty as to the continued livelihood of those graduate student affected by this situation.

In response, your union is actively seeking answers from the administration and Chancellor Colwell concerning as to when these contracts will be offered, as the administration is contractually obligated to inform all those covered by our collective bargaining agreement of their appointment for the next semester. This obligation is one of the many ways that your union helps maintain your livelihood here at SIUC.
​Rather than close on somewhat of a sour note, I would like to offer something hopeful. As you will no doubt read later in this newsletter, members of GAU’s executive committee travelled to the University of Missouri to meet with their Coalition of Graduate Workers and speak on a forum that provided insights into the benefits of unionization, benefits which we all enjoy. While I will leave the details of that meeting to the article later in this newsletter, I can say that the conversations I had with the graduate students at Mizzou give me hope that they will win their struggle for unionization and attain the rights that they deserve.

Finally, I would like to affirm that GAU will stand in solidarity with not only the struggle of our own members here at SIU, in whatever form it may take, but we will also stand in solidarity with the struggle of Mizzou’s GAs, and GAs across the country as they fight for their rights as workers, students, and members of our campus community. GAU will be here to protect your rights at the bargaining table, in arbitration, and whenever you need us.

In Solidarity,

Johnathan Flowers
President, Graduate Assistants United

Reframing Black Friday: An Imperative for Déclassé Intellectuals

By James Anderson

Black Friday discussions this year should focus less on the quickest route to get from the store aisle with the new Stars Wars Remote Control BB-8 Droid to the checkout stand. Likewise, endless debates about whether or not to boycott the Black Friday shopapalooza should be eschewed in favor of more fruitful discussion.

The sorts of deliberations noted above divert energy away from what should be the primary consideration for people concerned more with eliminating social iniquities than with giving thanks for the established order that sustains them. We need to return our attention to the wage labor and class divisions in society that grow increasingly abhorrent and pronounced in direct correlation with the degree to which they are omitted from public discussion.

There are efforts to address these omissions. International Food Workers Week, organized by the Food Chain Workers Alliance and allies, is held annually around this time to remind people of the struggles food and retail workers remain immersed in while society’s more affluent sectors help themselves to another piece of pumpkin pie. Additionally, a project to promote economic justice all through the food production and supply process, Voices of the Food Chain, shares the stories of the some 20 million food workers in the US and highlights challenges – and key successes – in struggles at the intersection of labor and food.

To be sure, the decline in manufacturing jobs and the shift to service-based industry in the US has altered the employment landscape and the nature of workplace struggles. While the three largest employers in the US circa 1970 were the manufacturing-based companies of General Motors, Ford and US Steel, as David Harvey points out, the largest employers today are the holding company of McDonalds, the holding company of KFC and the retail giant Walmart.

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Campus protests are a matter of when, not if, for the underrepresented

GAUnited President John Flowers recently submitted a letter to the editor with the SIU Daily Egyptian.

See the original post at the Daily Egyptian.


Campus protests are a matter of when, not if, for the underrepresented

Posted: Monday, November 16, 2015 5:06 pm | Updated: 8:05 pm, Mon Nov 16, 2015.

Letter to the editor from Johnathan Flowers, a doctoral candidate in philosophy.

Previously, I have written for the Daily Egyptian about race and diversity. In charging the university to consider issues of race beyond the confines of “history months,” the piece initiated a conversation that has been muted by the budget crisis in which the university finds itself. In light of the recent events at the University of Missouri, some four hours from our campus, I feel compelled to write again about the situation concerning race and diversity within our own campus community.

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