15 Ways to Take Your Furlough/Voluntary Pay Cut
#7 "The Furloughs in our Future"

Tuesday, February 16, 2010


[The next in our series on higher education, 15 Ways to Take Your Furlough/Voluntary Pay Cut, features the reflections of five members of the Graduate Employee’s Organization (GEO)]

Written by Melinda Bernardo (Research Assistant and Ph.D. Student, Anthropology); Peter Odell Campbell (Teaching Assistant and Ph.D. Student, Communication); Christina Ceisel (Teaching Assistant and Ph.D. Student, Institute of Communications Research); Brian Dolber (Teaching Assistant and Ph.D. Student, Communication), and Natalie Uhl (Research Assistant and Ph.D. Student, Anthropology).

If anything positive is happening as a result of the current economic situation in the state of Illinois, it is an unprecedented level of activism and solidarity on the Urbana-Champaign campus of the University of Illinois. Faculty have responded to the announcement of furloughs with teach-ins and planned rallies. Some faculty, especially those in the Campus Faculty Association (CFA) see collective bargaining through a recognized union as the logical outcome of this activism–but this is not an uncontroversial position. We want to use our contribution to Kritik to call for faculty unionization as the primary response to the University administration’s unacceptable policy approaches to the budget crisis.

It is hard to think about faculty being furloughed because, as Dianne Harris wrote in an earlier post in this series, we who engage in academics often find it difficult to conceptualize ourselves as laborers—as workers who bring a "lunch pail" to work every day. The announcement of furloughs is thus an opportunity to call attention to the work of academia as labor: not only to reveal the nature of our work as academics to others, but also to make it visible to ourselves. Paradoxically, the administration’s decision to enact a furlough policy that includes faculty might be a step toward making faculty unionization conceivable.

The problem is that, as academics, it isn’t just difficult to think of ourselves as laborers, but also that doing so can seem detrimental to the unique nature of our work. Furloughs and unionization share a common assumption: that the intellectual life to which we are devoted can be segmented into hourly wage labor and defined as just another component of capitalist production in the United States. If faculty come together for the purpose of collective bargaining with the University, then teaching, research, advising, mentoring–the life of the mind in which academics invest– will be, in the view of some, defined and constrained by a contract.

As graduate students who are also employees and members of a large local in the Illinois Federation of Teachers – the Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO), AFT/IFT Local 6300, AFL-CIO – we face similar conceptual difficulties. Like faculty, it is hard to define when we are working and not, or to fit our labor into the space of an hourly work week. Unlike faculty, we simultaneously occupy two positions within the University: we are both students and workers. While it is often useful and necessary for the GEO to insist on drawing a bright line between these two roles, in practice, it is hard to see where this line really exists.

Take the tuition waivers that most graduate students rely on to make their years of education affordable. Tuition waivers enable us to perform our work as graduate employees. But a tuition waiver is only a necessary condition of our employment because of our simultaneous status as students (on this point see Harriet Murav's recent post). It is easier to think of graduate student unionization as appropriate if our employee and student status is separate, but in reality, our status as students is contingent on our status as workers, and vice-versa.

In our capacity as students, it is tempting to think of ourselves as apprentices – as young trainees being groomed for the life of the mind. The reality is that as soon as we arrive on campus, our status as employees puts the lie to this ideal. As teaching assistants, we function as cheap, efficient labor for the teaching and training of undergraduates, while as graduate assistants, we aid in the administrative functioning of the University. Our student and employee identities are inextricably connected–a reality that is also apparent in the dialogic relationship between our teaching and our research. As employees, we are subject to predictable attempts at exploitation and overwork by our employer.

Another bitter pill to swallow for faculty considering collective bargaining is the current lack of any real place in the shared governance of the University. If furloughs provide the impetus for faculty to unionize, this will mean that faculty—like graduate employees, staff, and service employees—are workers in the neoliberal university. The decision to unionize may require coming to grips with the reality of the faculty’s near total disenfranchisement from actual policymaking decisions at UIUC.

What we’ve learned through our activism in the GEO, and especially through our participation in the GEO's recent contract negotiation and strike, may seem like an irony or paradox. Collective bargaining–in requiring us to embrace our status as workers in the neoliberal model of the University – also grants us power to resist this very model. Faculty at UIUC must make the same decision. The only way to direct University policy away from privatization and corporatization is to recognize that they, like us, function in the current paradigm as workers in a factory or corporation.

Illinois faculty are framed as much as many kinds of workers in the University today. But unlike graduate employees and other unionized workers on campus, faculty do not yet have the power of collective bargaining. If faculty were to join graduate employees, academic professionals, and service workers in a collective of recognized unions at the University of Illinois, they would make a significant contribution to the effort to recover the University’s commitment to providing access to affordable high-quality education regardless of socioeconomic status, race, and ethnic background. They would also strengthen the University’s commitment to the research mission.

Despite lacking any real participation in the governance of the University, faculty still occupy a position of relative power and privilege. With this position comes significant responsibility–not only to resist furloughs, larger classes, and the diminution of research support in the here and now, but to resist these harmful tendencies also in, and for, the future.

As graduate students, we see the erosion of the University’s commitment to education and knowledge and the simultaneous preoccupation with production and profit. Ours is an urgent call: if furloughs can shine a light on the University as a factory churning out “instructional units,” then faculty must consider unionization as an urgent means of resistance and change.

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4 comments:

Lauren said...

One thing I think is worth keeping in mind is that unionization of faculty need not be adversarial. It's certainly not counter to the goals of anyone (students/administration) as I understand them--insofar as everyone wants the state to fulfill its existing obligations to the university and to minimize any reductions in the future that come courtesy of the bad economy. We can view this crisis as a temporary problem to be steered through as best we can together; or it can become the occasion for changing the existing structure of the UI in fundamental ways. Whichever direction we go it seems to me that an organized faculty is a good in itself. An organized faculty is better poised to make its case to the state than a passive and atomized faculty. And an organized faculty is better able to collaborate with administrators on any cuts and/or changes that need to be made. In both ways, it's a gain for shared governance which, at least in theory, is what everyone says they want.

Anonymous said...

I'd add one thing to this excellent post--I think that it's important that the unionization effort seek to recognize tenure-stream and non-tenure-stream faculty in a single bargaining unit. Rutgers AAUP/AFT represents both groups and got a successful contract that improved benefits for both.

Not many people defend the current two-tier system of academic employment. But while we work in the long term to challenge that system, in the short term unionization efforts can make the system more humane, by securing the rights and interests of non-tenure-stream faculty: better wages and benefits, job security, academic freedom, grievance protections, and a role in institutional governance. The CFA has been excellent in this regard as a voice for all faculty and aligning themselves with all the university's stakeholders.

Michael Verderame

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