Learning from Our Students: the GEO Strike as Call for Faculty Solidarity

Monday, November 30, 2009

posted under , , by Unit for Criticism

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.


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Harriet Murav said...

Would you be interested in a teach-in run by faculty on a self-designated furlough day, for example?
What sort of platform would be effective?

Martha said...

I appreciate this post - enough to feel compelled to comment, if not to agree with it entirely. My intention is not to come off as flippant (perhaps subtly provoking?) but I'm sure I've already transgressed the lengths of the blog comment genre -

At base, I can't agree with you more: Faculty should organize - sure, to strengthen the profession as a whole - but especially to strengthen and protect what they have already if it's important to them. It is not only the new tenure lines that are disappearing - it is likely (and confirmed in some cases) universities will grant tenure to fewer assistant professors in the future (20% at some schools) and here, they will attempt to furlough U of I faculty in the near future.

As you mention, Williams suggests the difficulty in organizing faculty is that it requires "more forthright recognition of faculty as laborers." I agree with this - but would specify further that this recognition must begin with faculty themselves. The recalcitrance to organize - I suspect - also has to do with how faculty come to view themselves and the specialization of their work. I speak with direct knowledge only of the humanities, but how can people who are asked to distinguish themselves frequently - through field, awards, grants, committee work, journal editing, publishing, conferences - and asked to submit these distinctions to their university (on an annual basis for faculty, I think?) - how could they come to feel in solidarity with one another? What could make them think counter to the higher education paradigm we're in (where the CV - a document length with no limit but is likely 15-20 pages if you're an associate professor - is the exemplar document of that paradigm)?

Why have graduate employees and adjuncts been more adept at organizing? Perhaps not so much because of the exploitative "tenure stream urging" you express concern over (although I do recognize and appreciate the support faculty like Cary Nelson and Bob Meister at UCSC share with undergrads and grads), but because our CVs are shorter, less distinguished. More literally - perhaps because many of us feel less distinguished: less stable in our current place or future trajectory in higher education, less settled into or convinced of academic "distinguishing" practices. Do these tenuous positions we occupy make us more inclined to find solidarity with other laborers and students on campus?
A word on something else - coming from somehow who picketed the entirety of the recent GEO strike, your line, "after a day-long festival that here goes by the name of ‘strike,’" rankles. There were two days of picketing and the second was curtailed only after news of the tentative agreement: they were not especially comfortable or dry days but with your example from Toronto and the current horrors at the UC system, I'm not going to claim it was a strike just because I got a little soaked, hoarse, and blistery. While most picketers were grateful for the strike to end quickly, many of us faced and accepted the possibility we would have to continue striking indefinitely. We began to discuss the implications if it continued through finals or the next semester. A strike is to merely withhold labor - something many chose to do even if they couldn't physically picket - if those couple of days were a festival beyond that, then it was one celebrating the strength of collective action and a connection to people.

LMS Dunick said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
babaghanoug said...

Don't mind the login--it's Feisal writing.

Thanks to all three of you for your comments. I should say first in response to LMS Dunick that I claim no monopoly on thinking about these issues: others have devoted a great deal more thought, and action, to the issues I raise—Martha mentions Cary Nelson, who is worth mentioning again. I’ve never encountered a faculty member who is not deeply concerned about the future of the profession, and who does not feel personally invested in the placement of promising fresh graduates. With LMS Dunick many faculty feel that a shrinking tenure stream is a detriment to the intellectual vibrancy of all disciplines.

Given that state of concern, I’m not so sure that faculty reluctance to organize is attributable to the cultural issues that Martha raises. Unions are born of necessity. Those within the tenure stream may not yet have felt the kind of discomfort that prompts mobilization.

My amateur prognostication is that such discomfort is rapidly approaching, and that it will afflict broad sections of the public university system. My hope is that the hard times ahead might have the positive effect of producing the strong faculty organizations that have been needed for some time.

For that reason I support the kind of measure that Harriet suggests on two conditions: 1) that it take aim especially at the state government that is starving higher education (the administrators, much as they have their foibles, simply cannot do their jobs without reliable state funding); and 2) that a one-day demonstration be part of a larger mobilization toward a certified faculty union.

Martha said...


Here is something for faculty and staff to organize over now - a state legislator wants to take away the employee benefit of providing a 50% tuition reduction for dependents of eligible faculty/staff. After seven years of dedication to the university, some take advantage of this benefit if their dependent qualifies to enter a U of I school.

Oh and the funny thing? The same legislator doesn't seem concerned with getting rid of his employment "perk" of being allowed to grant eight years of free tuition each year, if my reading was correct, to any students in his district.

As an active member of the GEO I can say we have already been monitoring this issue (it broke a week or so ago, now finally in the News-Gazette) and we are ready to stand in solidarity with any staff or organization that wants to fight this insulting legislation.