Monday, November 30, 2009
GEO members at the University of Illinois march down the quad.
Written by Feisal Mohamed (English)
I am a reluctant veteran of two teaching-assistant strikes: one in 2000 as a graduate student at the University of Toronto, and one as a faculty member in 2009 at the University of Illinois. The two are closely parallel in several respects: both took aim at free-spending administrations who cry broke when it comes time to pay graduate employees a living wage, both took place against a backdrop of government divestment from higher education and ballooning tuition costs, and both set themselves against the corporatization of the university.
The Toronto strike went badly by any measure. Buoyed by a relatively quick and favorable settlement with the university’s service workers, by the success of a TA work stoppage at York University across town—which had secured an hourly wage roughly twenty percent greater than ours—and with the inexhaustible strike fund of the Canadian Union of Public Employees behind us, we thought that we had a strong hand to play. In what felt like an especially cold Toronto January we walked our picket lines with strong numbers, anticipating a breakthrough inevitably to come. One morning we were warmed by a letter of support from an alumna excoriating the university administration for inadequately funding graduate studies while financing with alumni dollars one building project after the next, and which closed, ‘Yours in shock, horror, and dismay, Margaret Atwood’ (we were warmed, though we also lamented that we could no longer ridicule the melodramatics of Atwood’s prose with a clear conscience).
After two weeks, the university indicated that it would ‘restructure’ courses in a way that did not include teaching assistants should the strike continue into February, essentially dismissing us for the remainder of the term. As it unveiled that plan, it also made a bargaining offer inferior to the one that prompted the strike and threatened to decertify the union. Exacting revenge for a protest that proved personally embarrassing for President Paul Pritchard, the university threatened the academic expulsion of three prominent union members. In this climate of intimidation and union busting, and on the eve of the university’s restructuring deadline, a divided membership reluctantly and angrily accepted an offer much the same as the one on the table at the beginning of our work stoppage. As a condition of the settlement, the union dropped grievances related to sixty-two teaching assistants whose jobs were eliminated for the term by a preliminary wave of restructuring.
The tense negotiations between the University of Illinois and the GEO thus awoke for me some painful memories and a good deal of anxiety. I feared that a university already claiming financial distress, already freezing wages and threatening furloughs, would engage in all the dirty tactics of my alma mater, and that the experience would be as dispiriting for graduate students here as it was for me. And then—Behold a wonder!—the university actually bargained with the union. It made some concessions on wages. And on parental leave. And on ‘payment-in-kind,’ and furloughs, and benefits. And after a day-long festival that here goes by the name of ‘strike,’ the university agreed that the union should be able to file grievances on any changes to tuition waivers. One would still wish to see wages that truly reflect the cost of living, and to see the university recognize that the human right to health care does not take summers off, but no round of bargaining works miracles. The GEO rightly declared on its website that it had achieved a ‘major victory for labor’ in Illinois, and for graduate employees’ unions nationwide.
But that major victory for labor is also a symptom of a larger problem in significant ways. Toronto’s recalcitrance and bullying are the tactics of a medieval guild disciplining unruly apprentices. Illinois administrators seem more inclined to treat graduate employees like employees, and are conscious of the need to secure the most qualified applicants in a competitive marketplace. These facts produced better administrative behavior and more satisfying results in this particular strike; they also reflect a deeply engrained corporate logic that aims to maximize the teaching hours of those workers with the lowest pay, in what Marc Bousquet has called the ‘radically multitiered workforce’ of the current university. Ossification of those tiers replaces the inequity of apprenticeship with the inequity of terminal low-wage labor, where graduate students cannot expect employment after graduation and non-tenure-track faculty cannot expect promotion or job security.
If, as we all seem to agree, such stratification among the teaching ranks is unjust, those tenure stream faculty who enjoy the greatest share of its security should feel the deepest moral pressure to effect change. That moral pressure has not yet turned into solidarity, despite the solidarity of other campus groups: graduate students have organized, adjunct faculty in the Chicago area have recently organized, and, as Bousquet observes, perhaps the most organized group of all are university administrators, who have become a ‘tightly knit’ ‘managerial caste.’ Tenured and tenurable faculty, by contrast, have by and large become cringing middle managers hiding under their desks and hoping that their modest and precarious perquisites are not taken away—or accepting the demise of the professorate in the way of Frank Donoghue.
We should see such a situation for what it is: when we who enjoy the (relatively) ambrosial air of the tenure stream urge those with insecure futures to fight, we are contributing to a climate of exploitation, not remedying it. The Toronto lesson is that a graduate employee union can be extremely vulnerable when exposed to an unethical administration. If faculty respond aright to the inspiring efforts of the GEO, it will be by strengthening their own organizations so that they can play a leading role in making higher education affordable once more, in assuring that neoliberal principles do not govern curricular decision-making, and in reversing the downsizing of the highest paid group of teaching professionals—who, at the end of the day, are not paid so very much. Indeed, the coming years will likely make such organization a necessity for faculty, for everywhere can be heard the grinding of budgetary axes.
Organizing may bring its own discomforts. Reviewing Bousquet’s How the University Works, Jeffrey J. Williams observes that faculty organization requires more forthright recognition of faculty as laborers, which recognition may place greater emphasis on teaching. This country’s Research 1 professorate might not enjoy as much time to churn out publications as it has done in the past fifty years, coming to resemble its counterparts in Canada and the UK. So much the better, if such an eventuality reduces the amount of slapdash scholarship that now finds its way into print. If there is truth in our teaching philosophy statements—a protasis about which I am profoundly uncertain—we should be willing to learn from the smart and successful efforts of our students. Solidarity in the tenure stream, and only solidarity in the tenure stream, can make real gains in improving quality of life in the profession as a whole.