Opinion
Noah Berger/AP

Graduate students of the world, unite!

University of California unionized grad-student instructors lead higher-ed fight for fair treatment

April 14, 2014 5:00AM ET

At the beginning of April, one of the most important labor unions in U.S. higher education staged an unexpected two-day strike. It wasn’t the American Association of University Professors — the left-leaning professors’ union — or a chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, representing service workers; it was United Auto Workers Local 2865. Auto workers might appear to be an odd group to strike across American university campuses, but Local 2865 represents 12,000 teaching assistants, associate instructors and undergraduate tutors at University of California campuses. These nonprofessors are responsible for an incredible amount of teaching and grading work at the country’s largest public university system, and their union is one of the nation’s orneriest. With the help of their supporters on campus, they’ve taken a stand against the exploitation of low-wage academic labor.

The strike comes after months of contract negotiation — the previous agreement lapsed at the end of September 2013 — and growing discontent about wages and working conditions. The union has struggled to win raises that merely keep up with inflation, and the U.C. system has refused to address concerns about workload and classroom size. Labor stoppages in the U.S. have declined dramatically in both number and size over the past 40 years, in what journalist Doug Henwood accurately described as a disarming of the American working class. One of the major causes is the standard imposition of no-strike contract clauses, which keep workers at work during negotiations.

Without a contract, though, UAW 2865 is free to strike whenever it can muster the numbers. In November, it staged a sympathy strike with campus service workers — virtually unheard of in today’s labor environment. In March a planned grievance strike was averted when management capitulated on Local 2865’s two demands: hundreds of thousands of dollars in back pay for 28 undergraduate tutors who were unjustly excluded from collective bargaining and a cut in classroom hours for some teaching assistants. If the bosses were counting on protracted contract negotiations to slowly dissolve the workers’ willingness to fight, they miscalculated. How has UAW 2865 succeeded in an industry in which many nonfaculty instructors struggle to unionize in the first place?

Organizers and activists I talked to were quick to credit undergraduate allies — particularly a group called Autonomous Students, whose members showed up and put their bodies on the line to support their instructors. At U.C. Santa Cruz, 22 strikers were arrested for attempting a blockade of the campus, whose few entrances are easy to shut in the event of insurrection, and most of them were undergrads. The U.C. Police Department made national news when a U.C. Davis cop pepper-sprayed seated and unresisting students participating in the national Occupy protests, but the bad publicity and heavy settlement payouts haven’t eased administrator trigger fingers. A squad of riot cops made the arrests at Santa Cruz; they were ready and waiting, called in advance. And you can’t blame instructors for reading into the appointment of Janet Napolitano, a former head of the Department of Homeland Security, as U.C. president. She took office on Sept. 30, 2013, the same day Local 2865’s contract expired.

‘Radical’ U.C. professors preach Marx during the day and return to their houses in the Berkeley Hills at night to sip merlot and complain about their gardeners.

Constant struggle with riot police over tuition increases has emboldened U.C. students, and the active involvement of even a comparatively small number of graduate students has helped forge bonds of solidarity between the two groups. Meanwhile, organizers report being singled out, threatened and disciplined by administrators, without support from supervising professors. When it comes to TA-faculty relations, “there is an increasing sense of betrayal,” U.C. Santa Cruz teaching assistant Madeline Lane-McKinley told me. “Since 2009, faculty participation in student-worker organizing has dwindled significantly. Now there are two to three usual suspects from the Faculty Organizing Group, but we feel pretty much left to fight this on our own.” Judging from the disappointed Facebook posts, most professors did not respect the picket. I don’t know how they look their assistants in the eye.

The U.C. system is known for housing some of the most radical professors in the business, but when push has come to police-baton shove, they’ve been hard to find. In 2009, when students were engaged in a bitter fight against a 32 percent fee increase, famed scholar of neoliberalism and U.C. Berkeley professor Wendy Brown sent an email complaining that protesters were insufficiently invested in the school’s preservation, “I feel like we’re dealing with 10-year-olds,” the author of “Regulating Aversion: Tolerance in the Age of Identity and Empire” wrote. “It’s tedious, it’s infuriating, and it’s wasting a lot of valuable time and energy while the greatest public university in the world is slipping away from us.”

This attitude is symptomatic of faculty members who are too cowardly to stand in solidarity with the people who make their work possible. It’s easier to whine that demonstrators aren’t doing it right — or to propose resolutions about police brutality from the safety of the Academic Senate — than risk anything of their own. Such people clearly have nothing to teach about labor struggle; they have more in common with the right-wing cartoon of “radical” professors who preach Marx during the day and return to their houses in the Berkeley Hills at night to sip merlot and complain about their gardeners.

The 12,000 instructors represented by Local 2865 are a crucial part of America’s academic workforce. They’re responsible for up to hundreds of students at a time, and I haven’t talked to a single person who believes the 20-hour weekly cap on student instructor work is anything but a cruel joke. They do this work for about $1,700 a month, an amount, the U.C. Academic Council found, that not only was uncompetitively low but even necessitated the creation of an on-campus food bank at U.C. Santa Barbara. Local 2865’s demands are reasonable. Its members want dignity, respect and enough money to care for themselves. But ever-rational U.C. administrators are measuring the demands against what it will cost in police brutality settlements to make sure management wins. That’s their standard operating procedure, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. If student workers and their supporters can remain resilient and triumph, they’ll provide a model for teaching assistants around the country; if Napolitano and the complicit faculty succeed in beating them into submission, then there’s nothing left to save.

Malcolm Harris is an editor at The New Inquiry and a writer based in Brooklyn.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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