Capitalism’s Response to COVID Infects Higher Ed: Graduate Student Workers Fight Back!

By B.W. Sculos

Graduate students, especially doctoral students, who more often than not are employed at extremely low wages by the university where they are studying, are getting active in labor struggles. Many were organizing for better pay, job security, and benefits (including childcare, paid sick and family leave, and health insurance) well before the COVID-19 pandemic. And now despite the extreme difficulties of organizing while social distancing, graduate student workers have stepped up through the pandemic. With most universities expecting graduate students to work extra hours without extra pay to move the classes they were teaching or assisting with online, an increasing number of these low-wage workers have gotten organized to demand what they deserve.

The most prominent example of pre-COVID-19 organizing in 2019 and 2020 was the wildcat strike of graduate student workers at University of California (UC) Santa Cruz demanding a cost-of-living adjustment. Largely without the support of their union (United Auto Workers [UAW], which is the largest union representing graduate student workers in the U.S.), after failing to come to an agreement with the university administration, graduate students decided to withhold final grades for Fall 2019. Despite the difficulties not receiving final grades can cause for some undergraduates, many openly supported the graduate students, including joining them on the picket lines!

Eventually the strike spread to UC Santa Barbara and UC Davis, among others. The UC administration engaged in endless efforts to pressure these workers to submit their grades, including threatening to cancel guaranteed contracts for future semesters and attempting to negotiate individually with the students. This last tactic, called direct dealing, is used to undercut collective bargaining and attempts to “divide and conquer” workers. Ultimately UC fired many of the strikers at Santa Cruz and Santa Barbara. Most of these workers continued their strike, raising thousands of dollars from supporters across the country, into the early weeks of the pandemic.

However, due to the limitations imposed by the lockdowns and UC’s decision to give all undergraduate students with outstanding grades (the grades being withheld by the graduate student instructors) “Passes,” the strikers lost their remaining leverage and eventually turned in the grades. Though most held out through late March and some into April, these workers eventually ended their strike without a positive resolution.

Graduate students throughout the UC system are currently in the process of working through the UAW to gain support for a formal strike in the near future. If successful, this approach would escalate the labor action to the whole of the UC system, instead of limiting the strikes to wildcat actions on individual campuses. Additionally, since the grades were submitted, the graduate student organizers have issued a new set of demands. These demands include calling on the UC system to use federal pandemic relief funds to pay graduate students what they need to live a humane life and continue to do their crucial academic work. These workers, despite the setbacks, are not giving up—withstanding the administration’s best efforts to undermine their organizing.

Across the Country

Since the pandemic, two of the most active groups of graduate student workers have been at Columbia University and the University of Massachusetts (UMass) Amherst. At Columbia, the recently unionized workers went on strike and, at the time of writing, are still engaged in a wildcat strike, refusing to teach or provide any service to the university. At UMass Amherst, the graduate students are currently involved in a well-organized effort to win summer pay during the pandemic (most graduate student workers are only paid nine months per year), protection from pandemic-induced job cuts, and payouts for unused vacation time. Since most were expected or required to work over Spring Break in order to adapt their in-person courses to remote delivery, many graduate student workers therefore did not have their contractually-guaranteed time off.

The university administration has refused to negotiate in good faith and has even attempted to pressure academic departments to undermine the workers individually, through direct dealing, largely without success. The Graduate Employee Organization (GEO-UAW Local 2322), which represents graduate student workers at UMass Amherst has done an incredible job maintaining their position, including emphasizing the need to provide special assistance to international students who have been particularly harmed by the COVID-19 travel restrictions and inability to access federal aid. On May 1st, International Workers’ Day, GEO organized a socially-distanced car protest of the chancellor’s mansion that had nearly 100 cars participating.

Beyond Columbia and UMass Amherst, graduate student workers at Oregon State, NYU, the University of Arizona, Brown University, and the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill are all making demands for appropriate wages and benefits in response to the exacerbation of their precarious circumstances by the pandemic.

We are Workers!”

Graduate student workers, whose super-exploitation allows universities to run (and offer higher wages to senior faculty and, as is more often the case, exorbitant pay for upper-level administrators, deans, and vice presidents), are often discouraged from even seeing themselves as workers. This perspective has intermittently been the policy of the National Labor Relations Board, which makes organizing all the more difficult. If workers are viewed as only students, they do not have the legal right to unionize. However, as the Board has ruled in the past, and which has always been true, these graduate students are both students and workers. They are teaching assistants, instructors for undergraduate classes, and research assistants on faculty grants. And their bosses, university administrations across the country, and the world, have been engaged in increasingly aggressive efforts to limit pay, benefits, and other contractual obligations to these graduate students.

The undermining of graduate student workers’ organizing is part of the much longer pattern of privatization and austerity within the broader economy and within higher education in particular. The efforts include a massive increase in the use of part-time and temporary instructional staff. Most of these instructors are well-qualified PhD-holding scholar-teachers who have been “unlucky” on an increasingly narrow and hyper-competitive academic job market, which has still not recovered from the budget cuts to higher education made in response to the 2007/2008 financial crisis.

Budget cuts, privatization, and increased reliance on precarious workers also undermine the educational goals of universities. Despite their best efforts, it is simply impossible for overworked and underpaid adjuncts—many of whom teach twice as many courses as their tenure-track and tenured colleagues, in some cases for less than a quarter of the pay (and without benefits usually)—to provide as good an educational experience for students who are expected to pay more and more (taking out more and more debt) for their college degrees. Graduate student workers are hindered not just in their teaching roles by universities refusing cost of living adjustments and benefit guarantees, but their progress on their own degrees is made all the more difficult. When we’re talking about educational workers, we must never forget that teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions. Undermining these vital workers undermines our students!

Amid the global COVID-19 pandemic, there has been increased attention to so-called “essential workers” and “front-line employees” including healthcare, grocery, transit, and warehouse workers. And while these workers were always essential, their valorization is a sign that more and more people (including many of these workers) are, for the very first time, realizing that workers in general are what make society run. More and more people are seeing with their own eyes that companies simply cannot produce anything or make money without the labor of their workers. In the same vein, universities cannot function without the work that graduate students and adjuncts provide.

As socialists, we demand that all graduate student workers are protected for the duration of their degree programs and are treated like the essential workers they are! The same goes for all temporary academic workers. Adjuncts, lecturers, and visiting professors deserve guaranteed contracts for future courses, and all educational workers deserve the same benefits offered to full-time faculty, year-round pay at or above a living wage (with automatic yearly increases to account for increases in the cost of living), and childcare and immigration support wherever it is needed. Undergraduate students, families of graduate students, and the labor movement as a whole need to support organizing and striking graduate student workers. Many of these organizing and striking education workers are getting active in the labor movement for the very first time and they can play a crucial role in expanding the quality and accessibility of higher education and provide new forces in workers’ struggles against corporate rule.

Before you go, check out our interview with a graduate student worker at UMass Amherst about the current struggle between GEO-UAW Local 2322 and the UMass administration here.

Image credit: Alex Chis / Flickr