Worcester State University Graduate Workers Fight for Their Pay: Interview with WSU Union Professor

Bryant Sculos is a union professor at Worcester State University. Because of the coronavirus crisis, many students, educators, and staff members are facing attacks on their jobs, benefits, and education. The graduate workers at Worcester State University circulated a petition to defend their stipends. Can you tell us about the conditions at Worcester State and fight back that evolved?

Budgets are tight due to the failure of the federal government and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to do what is necessary to fully-fund our public colleges and universities. And while this is part of a longer-term austerity program supported by both major parties nationally and within the state, the COVID-19 pandemic has made conditions far worse, as institutions of higher education have had to pivot to largely online learning—while also appearing to make campuses safe enough to justify limited physically-distanced in-person classes. This has primarily been accomplished by as-yet unpaid labor done over the summer by faculty and staff. In their infinite wisdom, which is apparently equivalent to callous disregard, the University administration also decided, on the day their paychecks should have arrived, to completely cut the contractually agreed upon stipends to the graduate assistants (GAs) at WSU. These student-workers are already wildly underpaid, but the University leadership completely cut their pay and notified everyone on the day the checks were supposed to go out—after these graduate student-workers had already done at least two weeks worth of work!

The GAs were justifiably outraged, as were their faculty supervisors—and other faculty like myself who don’t necessarily work closely with any GAs but see the complete heinousness of this decision in and of itself but also understand this decision as a manifestation of the broader austerity agenda that threatens higher ed and all public sector workers. The GAs came together very quickly and put together an awesome petition, calling out the administration, and demanding the reinstatement of their pay. The petition was circulated among the faculty and beyond. Within a few days, the Massachusetts State College Association (MSCA) unanimously voted to issue a statement of solidarity with the GAs, calling for the immediate reinstatement of GA stipends. The undergraduate Student Government Association (SGA) passed a similar vote within an hour. The pushback was well-organized and fierce—and as we know when workers and students get organized and fight back, they win. Within not even twenty-four hours of those votes and the petition being delivered, the WSU administration magically found the money (which they had previously claimed did not exist) to pay the GAs their full, guaranteed pay for at least the fall semester. They didn’t even pretend to have trouble finding the money. It was already there. This is the constant lie of austerity: the corporate bosses when motivated can cough up money to fund the services they wanted to cut. The corporate-capitalist worldview that defines contemporary politics translates to consistently undervaluing and underpaying the people that make our society, and our universities, run.

In this situation, it was really inspiring to see the grad student workers, undergrads, and faculty come together to push back, but we can and must do more. We need more unionized workers on our campuses, and we need those unions to be more democratic, organizing internally to empower reformers and socialists.

So, you’re a unionized visiting professor in the MSCA which is part of the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA) and the National Education Association (NEA). Earlier in the semester, you had to struggle for contracts for temporary faculty. What connections do you see between these struggles? What kind of solidarity has developed on campus?

This is similar to a previous issue in the late spring and early summer where the University was not offering contract extensions to full-time visiting faculty and adjuncts, due to perceived potential budget shortfalls, despite the substantial (though, yes, deeply inadequate) federal money the University received. These workers without long-term contracts such as tenure are the foundation of the modern academic workforce and teach far more classes than most of the general public realize. The MSCA came together and wrote a letter in support of visiting faculty like myself, as well as the adjuncts (which I have also been—and may be again!). The University basically ignored the letters and did what they wanted to on their own schedule—leaving these precarious workers in a lurch. Most, but not all, of these professors were given contracts—eventually. The stress of not knowing what work you’ll be doing or whether you’ll have any work at all—when already wildly underpaid, is difficult to say the least.

This earlier struggle is connected to the more recent GA struggle in two important ways I think. First, the motivation. The University, motivated by the austerity politics of the Democratic Party dominated state legislature, is not spending money to meet the needs of its students and workers. And then they wonder why enrollments were largely stagnant, even before COVID-19. But I digress. The second connection is the response by the workers and students. The GAs came together and linked up with the MSCA and SGA and we all pushed back as a united force. While the earlier struggle didn’t quite get that far, the MSCA in particular still took a strong stance and seemed increasingly ready to fight back.

Okay, I lied, there are three connections. The third connection is how both instances capture the need for greater organization among workers and students at WSU—and campuses across the country, which I mentioned a bit earlier. We need it. Though things worked out generally okay in these cases, the fact that we’re fighting for scraps still points to the need for stronger, more aggressive organizing on campus, including but not necessarily limited to unionizing more workers, to fight for more—not merely defending what little we have—fighting for what we all deserve and which the six-figure salary-earning administrators will not provide without a fight. This also means we need our already existing unions to be better organized, prepared, and ready to take action collectively.

This agreement has guaranteed funding for this semester but has left the spring semester open for attacks. As a socialist and union member, what way forward do you see for the struggle? 

Simply put, the answer is in your question. The answer is more struggle—and more organized struggle. People across campus, and across the world, are waking up to the underlying structural issues that are making their lives less than what they should be, whether it is capitalist austerity and budget cuts, racial inequalities, and injustices, or anti-LGBTQ+ biases that permeate our social institutions—and higher ed is no exception. People are waking up to the relationships among all of these issues and climate change and public health as well, especially in this pandemic.

We know it is cliche, but it is cliche for a reason, it is true: when we fight we win. We might not lose everything every time we don’t fight—but we always lose an opportunity to become stronger for the long-term when we don’t fight. We leave ourselves vulnerable to the ongoing injustices that are only going to get worse if we don’t fight. This struggle will involve unions and strong solidarity, or it won’t win.  And this will be a democratic, socialist struggle or it won’t win. We need to not be afraid to say that, while capitalism’s gross tentacles reach into every aspect of life and manifest in apparently non-economic ways, this struggle is, at its core, a struggle of socialism versus capitalism. We can’t let capitalism win. Capitalism has won for two centuries at least. To paraphrase the President, I am personally pretty damn tired of all that winning. It is time for the workers to win.

Read our solidarity statement here.

Image Credit: Wikipedia // CC BY-SA 3.0