adjuncts · blacklivesmatter · gradschool · phdchat · solidarity · structural solutions · unions

On the Recent NLRB Ruling in Favour of Grad Student Unions

Definitions matter. It’s a lesson I teach my Composition students every year: define your terms. Redefine old terms. Assert your intimate understanding of the topic and sculpt out the contours of your study at the outset. Writing a paper on gentrification? Identify and describe what that term means right away, so you can prove you’re in control and the reader can trust you as guide her through the paper.

In Canada, graduate students employed by the university have been allowed to unionize since a 1975 decision by the Ontario Labour Relations Board in the case of a graduate association at York University. Most major Canadian universities contain at least one student union, though it is important to note these unions are not the same as legally recognized collective bargaining units (*thanks for this important correction by the anonymous commenter below). These are not all affiliated with a larger national union, but as often funded and subsidized by the government, they retain autonomous power over their working conditions and ability to speak and act as a collective. The Canadian Federation of Students exists in order to represent the graduate employee needs of publicly funded universities. I’m not always on-board with the idealization of Canada that happens down here in the States, but this is one issue where I’m like – omg, yes.

In the US, public universities function under state law, and most of the major ones were unionized by the end of the twentieth century. Prior to 2000, and between 2004 and 2016, graduate students at American private universities were defined primarily as students rather than employees, blocking their ability to unionize on the basis that any labour conducted for the university serves as mere apprenticeship, training students for our future jobs. But, in this precarious academic climate, students are no longer satisfied with treating graduate school as a holding period for a future that may never come. In 2015, the super awesome graduate workers at New York University (many of whom I’m proud to count as friends) set the precedent for altering the NLRB’s ruling, and Columbia’s appeal for official recognition for private universities has just, in late August, been approved, reversing the Brown University ruling from 2004, and dispensing of an Amicus Brief submitted by a number of leading Ivy League universities voicing their opposition to the proposed ruling (using the dubious reasoning that collective bargaining would detract from the educational experience).

The Board Decision, found here, states in no uncertain terms that “student assistants who have a common-law employment relationship with their university are statutory employees under the Act,” countering the Brown University Board claim that graduate assistants are “primarily students and have a primarily educational, not economic, relationship with their university.” This is a victory of definitions–of better defining who is and isn’t an employee, who is and isn’t an employer, and what it means to be both a student studying to enhance the mind and a labourer working to enhance the university. It is both/and, not either/or. Already, in response to this decision, universities like Columbia have crafted subtly anti-union websites to try to dissuade students from acting on this decision (not linking, for obvious reasons). The campaign against graduate student workers has moved from a national to a local level.

Many grad students, especially those in the first years of the program, are beset by an innate sense of gratitude and obsequiousness toward their superiors; I remember this. Just the other day an anxious facebook status popped up in my Timehop wherein I bewailed the accidental sending of an email about graduate student business to a number of faculty members as well. I remember being afraid to speak up about conditions that seemed latently unfair, because hey – I’m tough, we’re all in this together, that person seems worse off than I am, I can handle being asked to work a few extra hours a week beyond my contract, right? Wouldn’t want to stir the pot and risk creating enemies.

But unions can give collective voice to these individual grievances, rendering instances of injustice both less personal and more urgent. And faculty should be on our side too–happier working conditions for us means happier working conditions for faculty.

Some believe that we should be grateful for the luxury of engaging in ideas of the mind, that this work is inherently fulfilling, and besides: we are not coal miners, whose working conditions are objectively worse than ours. According to such positions, by barely making above minimum wage, we are participating in a centuries-old tradition of the suffering monk, bent over his poorly lit desk and scratching away at parchment until the wee hours of the morning. There is a beauty and a nobility in that. But as a medievalist, I know that even these monks sometimes scribbled exasperated comments in the margins; they probably deserved and desired better working conditions, too! And as for the coal miner: true, we don’t experience the physical and mental duress and possible health risks of working long hours in a dingy mine. But we do face rampant mental health issues that we can’t even talk about for fear of demonstrating unfitness for the very conditions that have made us this way, and some of us confuse self care with actual care, neglecting to look after our basic needs. The presence of extreme suffering in the world does not negate the hardship we might also face, but on a relatively smaller scale.

A quick read through any of the extant graduate union contracts shows that graduate student unions empower the graduate community, giving them some control and autonomy over the precarious working conditions that enable institutional exploitation of cheap labour. But they also do more than this. Grad student unions can help us reach outside the bounds of the academy and partner with existing social movements in order to advocate for broader social change, examples of which are the grad union votes around the BDS movement, or actions against police unions inspired by #blacklivesmatter. Hillary Clinton, to her credit, praised the NLRB decision on Twitter, but elsewhere condemned BDS. The conversation is becoming more heated and more urgent, and as the new school year rolls into full swing, and election day draws (looms?) ever closer, I’m eager to see how the conversations will shift.

Definitions matter. I speak the voice of “we” and of “us” here, but technically I’m not part of the student body anymore – definitionally speaking. Like now Doctor Melissa (yay!!!!), it has been 25 consecutive years since I’ve entered the Fall semester not as a student, having successfully defended my dissertation in late August. But I still care about students’ rights, and I care about social movements that can mutually thrive and grow together, like the fight for graduate employee representation at private universities, the fight for more fair and equitable treatment of adjunct workers and other contingent faculty, and even the fight for just treatment of permanent faculty, who at Long Island University in Brooklyn have recently been locked out alongside their sessional brethren (ousted from their positions the day before the semester, deprived access to their university emails and health insurance, and replaced by temporary workers of dubious origin). Graduate employee, adjunct professor, and tenure-track professor alike, we’re all in this together.

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js Other works cited: 
Zinni, Deborah M., Parbudyal Singh, and Anne F. MacLennan. “An Exploratory Study of Graduate Student Unions in Canada.” Relations Industrielles / Industrial Relations 60.1 (2005): 145-176. JSTOR.  

blacklivesmatter · righteous feminist anger · student engagement · systemic violence · women and violence

I am scared, and angry, and here is a scared and angry rant.

I know I probably shouldn’t be, but I am scared. When I crossed the border into Canada over American Thanksgiving last week to spend a weekend on the lake with my family, I knew my chances of not dying in a sudden mass shooting motivated by systemic racism and/or sexism increased dramatically. According to the Mass Shooting Tracker, so far in 2015 there have been 351 mass shootings in the U.S., already up from 2014’s total of 336, and numbering more than one a day. Many of these have been on university campuses, and gun watches and threats are becoming more ubiquitous: some of my Facebook friends have experienced gun threats on their campuses, causing campus closures or the horrible experience of holding class anyway, knowing you shouldn’t let domestic terrorism get to you but not quite sure how to unthink those thoughts. As I’m writing this on Mon. Nov. 30, the University of Chicago is shut down due to a gun threat. Grade schools now include mandatory emergency procedure training to prepare for the event of a mass shooting.

The most recent domestic terrorist attack has targeted Planned Parenthood, an essential health care service for low-income women who don’t have many options or choices when dealing with their own bodies within an otherwise corrupt, inadequate, and unjust health care system. While this attack stands as the natural extension of right-wing conservative pro-gun and pro-life rhetoric (as this brilliant Facebook post summarizes), tweets like this one still emerge, from Gov. Mike Huckabee, twisting the event around inside itself and somehow positioning the pro-lifers as the victims.

Meanwhile, since the Paris Attacks, Muslims all around the world have been forced to dissociate themselves from the extremist group some are arguing (to little effect, it seems) should be called Daesh, in order to further distance them from the peaceful Islamic majority. Yet as this satirical article observes, Christians are never called upon to account for or divorce their practices from terrorists like Robert Lewis Dear, who regardless of his personal convictions is part of a predominantly white Christian power structure which makes it possible to view women’s exercise of agency over their own bodies (sometimes after becoming victimized and raped) as an evil that should be squelched out from the world, perhaps with guns. American white men can be trusted with guns, the reasoning goes, but Muslims cannot, which is one of the reasons we should not let Syrian refugees into the country–because ammunition is too freely available here, and most Muslims are probably terrorists, unlike white Americans who are peaceful and never commit senseless acts of violence. We may as well follow the suggestion of the current frontrunner for Republican presidential candidate, recently featured as the host on America’s most popular and longstanding weekly comedy show, and create a database of all Muslims in the country, tracking their movements and banning them from access to guns. There was another time in history when a people-group was tagged and tracked.

To add to all of this domestic terrorism, violent misogyny, and downright fascism by prominent political leaders in the States, student protesters demanding equality and respect for people of all colours on university campuses after a series of overtly bigoted and racist acts–including at my home institution of Fordham University–are being shot at during peaceful protests, again by white supremicists who are most certainly the same kind of people who would vote Trump for President, who laugh when he mocks those with disabilities and shrug off accusations of racism with xenophobic comments about how bad the economic conditions are in this country. Because they are, that is true. And after the Paris attacks, in response to #blacklivesmatter actions continuing to grow around the countries, other high-profile bigots say stuff like this–
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–and receive 900 likes and over 700 RTs for an idea that completely obliterates the legitimacy of those who are always already disadvantaged before they step foot on campus, let alone enter the work force. And, back on my home turf, white-power chants are heard in Fordham dormitory housing situated in the low-income, black and Latino neighborhood of the Bronx. And female students whose cab drivers attempt to rape them are denigrated as ungrateful liars and subjected to interrogation about the state of their mental health.

I care so much about all these issues, and I want my students to care too, to be active and step outside the classroom to voice their dissatisfaction within an increasingly terrifying political climate. But I know my students won’t all be on the same page as I am (let’s not forget those white power chants), and I’ve witnessed what happens to leftist feminist professors in student evaluations, upon which the future of my academic career depends.

And last week, when I attended a protest at Washington Square Park expressing solidarity with the protestor shootings in Minneapolis and the police killing of unarmed 24-yo Jamar Clark, I couldn’t help but feel a tinge of fear for my own safety. Perhaps this is an irrational response, perhaps my chances of being shot in this city of eight million people is infinitesimal, but as we were chanting and waving flags, I was keeping watch over my shoulder, I was jittery.

Photo by author from Nov. 25 Wash Sq Park protest

Terrorism in the United States is working, and while I in no way mean to belittle analogous problems faced by Canada, still sometimes I find myself gazing longingly north…

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