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?

The shift toward a privatized model of higher education funded by tuition and fees, with greater reliance on grad student labor and low-wage adjunct faculty throughout universities in the US – not to mention increased administrator positions and pay witnessed across the board – constitutes a context demanding generalization. Generalizing “matters” because the context defining institutions of “education” is general. Similar relations, hierarchies, differential economic distributions and discrepancies in social power prevail within many – again, if not all – US universities. Higher education has by and large conformed to the broader trends seen throughout society over the past few decades.

One of those trends is a drop in unionization across the US, from 20.1 percent of all wage and salary workers in 1983 to just 11.1 percent as of last year. Tuition and fees have increased exponentially since the 1970s and even more so since the 1980s.

To move from the general to the particular, at Southern Illinois University for example, tuition and fees have continued to increase in the last 10 years. Graduate Assistants United negotiated a cap on fees for graduate assistants in the last round of collective bargaining. As a result, fees could not be increased more than five percent per year without the possibility for re-opening contract negotiations, but fees still amount to about two months pay for most grads.

Any debate on higher education and graduate student-worker unionization that does not factor this phenomenon into its register is as illegitimate and inexcusable as the low wages graduate assistants receive alongside Bursar bills for ever-rising fees.

Coeval with aforestated egregious changes in higher education, however, has also been the growth of grad student unionism. In their rebuttal to the Times’ “Room for Debate” feature – a forum about grad student unionism that incredulously included no grad students – Anna Waltman, Natasha Raheja and Shannon Ikebe noted graduate student-workers at UC Berkeley unionized back in 1964. Graduate student-workers at CUNY and Rutgers entered the union movement a few years later.

Unmoved by past unionization efforts, McDonough, in his piece for the Times, appealed to time-tested “principles” that have historically undergirded debates about unions in the academy. He claimed notions of “academic freedom” and precepts of shared governance “framed the discussion of union organizing on campuses differently than at other institutions and industries.” He called it “complicated” to “endanger, or perhaps extinguish” that “system of shared-governance with faculty, and to concede that students aren’t students,” presumably because to do so would impinge upon “academic freedom,” as it has historically been understood.

That understanding, however, reinforces an impoverished idea of what freedom means, even when freedom is relegated to just the academy. The freedom to pursue research and teach what one wants without censorship means little to contingent faculty and graduate assistants who receive below-living-wage remuneration or are burdened by insane workloads that make serious scholarly work – not to mention life – exceedingly difficult. Putting “academic freedom” in the context of the pervasive super-exploitation and precarious labor they are subject to within the academy reframes the debate in ways that undermine arguments constructed in the context of ideologically-blinding relative privilege.

“Context matters,” as McDonough confirmed.

“But what is clear,” he clarified, “is that graduate students are not simply employees.”

He is right. Graduate students are not “simply employees.” They are systematically under-paid and increasingly disposable workers, especially when there is no collectively self-organized movement through which they can defend themselves and their labor.

In some contexts, going-against-and-beyond the classification institutions impose – like being labelled “employees” or “workers,” for example – can be both liberating and transformative. Transcending freedom-narrowing identities formed by the class stratifications in society and inside institutions, like higher education, can be facilitated by critical thought. In contrast, identitarian classification never adequately encapsulates what is being classified. Anti-identitarian thinking and doing is essential for greater freedom. A doctoral candidate in anthropology is a student, yes. But she is always more than that. She is a teaching assistant and thus an employee, true. But she is also more than that, irreducible to the intensified abstract labor determined by her supervisors and administrators.

Downplaying how graduate students are “employees,” however, justifies intolerable working conditions and insufficient stipends. If they are not really workers they do not have workers’ rights, the logic goes. Claiming they “are not simply employees,” as McDonough did, deflects from the real and all-too-often harsh conditions of employment graduate student workers are subjected to.

“A strong, collectively-bargained graduate employee union contract protects the most vulnerable grad student-workers from abuse and makes an academic career possible for a wider range of people,” Waltman, Raheja and Ikebe wrote in their apropos response to the Times debate. “Academia can be a deeply discriminatory and precarious place for women (especially with families), LGBTQI people, people of color and people living with chronic illness and disabilities. (See the anthology Presumed Incompetent for some staggering examples.) ‘Just cause’ provisions are a hallmark of union contracts, and protect workers from arbitrary or capricious hiring and firing decisions; contracts also frequently offer protection from sexual harassment, retaliation and other forms of mistreatment in the workplace.”

The three pro-union academics added unions are the vehicles through which graduate student employees can “fight for wages and benefits that allow them to survive independently of their families without taking on debt,” which the authors considered “crucial for keeping graduate education accessible to people from all socioeconomic backgrounds.”

Context, as McDonough claimed, indeed matters – but so does class. McDonough occupies a very different class position than graduate assistants. It comes as no surprise his idea of freedom in the academy is filtered through mental conceptions reflecting his privileged status and the affluence it affords. At the risk of over-generalizing, the farther up the social ladder one climbs, the less their positions require them to empathize with or consider the lived hardships of those on rungs below.

“Educating students matters most,” however, McDonough stressed with a touch of class conceit.

Waltman, Raheja and Ikebe concurred. Yet, their points of emphasis differed from his. They argued the graduate student union movement serves a pedagogical function far more practical than the notion of academic freedom located in the conceptions of McDonough and his like-minded colleagues similarly disconnected from both real social struggles and from the challenging realities than give rise to them.

“Taking part in collective bargaining as graduate students teaches us how neoliberal-era colleges and universities actually work, and the key role contingent labor plays in supporting these institutions,” Waltman, Raheja and Ikebe explained. “Through engaging in graduate unions, we learn crucial skills for building effective organizing campaigns, negotiating strong contracts and standing together across disciplines.”

That kind of transformative education arguably matters most now.

In her 2014 article, “From a Language to a Theory of Resistance: Critical Pedagogy, the Limits of ‘Framing,’ and Social Change,” Rebecca Tarlau theorized “social movements as pedagogical spaces.” People learn a “language of resistance” through collective critical reflection and intervention in reality via collective action, she wrote. That combination of theory and action promotes awareness of the human capacity to act in the world to change the future. The “pedagogical processes,” Talrau offered, include movement activities, such as: organizing practices, cultivating different relations, recovering agency and identifying structural injustices so as to show the shared interest people have in acting together to alter those unjust structures.

There is reason to believe emerging “radical social movement unionism,” advanced by academic worker unions and spearheaded by graduate student employees, reflects a necessarily disruptive pedagogy akin to the type Tarlau described. Such a “radical social movement unionism” emphasizing militant direct action, internal direct democracy, anti-oppression and a degree of autonomy from party politics could provide a public pedagogy for expanding the narrow parameters of debate adhered to within both major media and higher education discourses. Graduate students and the growing numbers of contingent faculty teaching college courses on the cheap under precarious contracts should force the debate and expand its parameters in the process.


James Anderson is an adjunct professor at California State University San Marcos teaching classes in the Communication department during the Fall 2015 semester. To supplement his low-wage contingent faculty salary, he also works at a local Ralphs, part of the Kroger-affiliated grocery store chain along the West Coast, where he bags groceries, retrieves shopping carts in the store parking lot and performs general store upkeep. He is a member of three unions at present: the California Faculty Association representing educators at Cal State; UFCW local 135 representing Ralphs employees; and the Industrial Workers of the World. He remains a doctoral candidate in the college of Mass Communication and Media Arts at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. While a Graduate Assistant at SIUC, he served as steward for his college and as co-chair for the Legislative and Political Action Committee. He was a long-time member of the GAU Communications Committee. He regularly contributed to the GAU website and newsletter. His academic writing has appeared in journals like Critical Studies in Media Communication and the International Review of Information Ethics. His journalistic work and editorials have been featured in news outlets including Truthout, In These Times, Toward Freedom, ROAR Magazine, ZNet and Counterpunch.



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