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For a Grad Workers’ Strike

Against Cops and University Austerity

June 6, 2020

With a few notable exceptions, organized labor has overwhelmingly refrained from offering concrete support for the present uprising against anti-Black police terror. Statements of solidarity have trickled in, but such statements fall short of labor leveraging its full power at this crucial moment. While there is a growing chorus within the labor movement to kick cop unions out of the AFL-CIO, even this important step would be insufficient for getting cops off our streets once and for all.

Police abolition will instead require a massive mobilization to break not only “the institutional power of police unions… and the capitalist city planners that support expanded policing,” but also the broader racial capitalist logics that pose prisons (and police) as “catchall solutions” to the social problems they generate. We don’t yet know what this massive mobilization will look like. But it is difficult to imagine its success in the absence not just of labor, but of the decision by unions to strike.

While much of the labor movement has stayed on the sidelines, graduate worker unions have nonetheless been quick to respond to the uprising. At universities across the country, grad unions have launched local campaigns to cut ties with local police departments and to disband campus police altogether, and have signed on to national campaigns to the same end. These efforts should be seen in connection to much longer campaigns by Black-led community organizations and (often undergraduate) campus groups to abolish police on campus and in the cities in which universities are located. What is distinct about grad labor joining the struggle is that it brings with it a distinct weapon—that of withdrawing our labor.

Yet we’re arguably already living through a grad worker strike wave. One could date the start of this wave to the UC Santa Cruz wildcat strike for a Cost of Living Adjustment, which began in December 2019 and quickly spread to numerous other UC schools before the coronavirus pandemic broke its momentum. Or one could start even earlier, with strikes for union recognition and improved contract provisions at Columbia University, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the University of Illinois at Chicago, Harvard University, and other universities taking place in 2018 and 2019.

Either way, the pandemic has only intensified the strike wave. In addition to the ongoing Columbia work and rent strike, the last weeks have seen work-stoppages, “sick-outs,” and grade-withholding actions at numerous other universities, including NYU, Northwestern, Oregon State, and UMass Amherst. These actions take aim at administrators’ nearly universal refusal to provide adequate protections and remuneration for teaching and research during the pandemic. Not just grads have been impacted, however. Contingent faculty have been fired en masse, while service workers have been particularly hard hit, typically laid off or else forced to work in dangerous conditions without hazard pay or PPE. That the university sides with capital over life is abundantly clear. The recognition of this fact has no doubt fueled the current uptick in grad worker militancy.

Grad school, once a disciplining manufacturer of academic mandarins, now offers merely fixed term, poorly remunerated employment for proletarianized and otherwise downwardly mobile academic workers.

Yet grads are also aware that their years in grad school increasingly look like the last years they’ll be in academia. Major endowment losses, precipitous drops in tuition revenue, and accelerating college closures—on top of indefinite hiring freezes announced months ago—translate to the literal nonexistence of jobs for us. If the pandemic has been called an “extinction event” for universities, so it is also an extinction event for the current generation of graduate scholars and teachers. Grad school, once a disciplining manufacturer of academic mandarins, now offers merely fixed term, poorly remunerated employment for proletarianized and otherwise downwardly mobile academic workers. That our many years overworked as both students and workers will never be followed by the comforts of tenure and job security—this no doubt fuels the current militancy, too.

An even darker cloud hangs on the horizon: university reopenings. Across the country, university after university has rushed to announce the return to in-person classes in the fall, in a cynical attempt to keep students from withholding tuition that they would not pay for Zoom university. Yet the intimate nature of college life, combined with the fact that colleges gather students from across the country, make campuses prime spots for new outbreaks, and turns them into death traps for students, staff, and faculty. Plans to allow professors greater physical distance from students have been followed by rumors that it will fall upon TAs to meet directly with students, thus shifting risk from academia’s tenured faculty to grad student underservants. To maintain revenue flows, universities gamble with death.

Police violence, the looming threat of illness, economic precarity, the absence of all job prospects: together these elements create the incendiary mix required to motivate strike action. We’ve tried everything else: petitions, rallies, short-term work stoppages.  Now it’s time to strike. How else can grads add their full weight as organized labor to the fight for the safety of Black and Brown students and community members? And what else can stop universities from sacrificing life to endowment returns?

That grads are ready to strike not just for pay and protections, but also to kick cops off campus, isn’t only evidenced by the speed with which divestment demands have been issued from grad unions across the country. At my own institution, Northwestern University, grads have already taken industrial action to do so. Just days before a scheduled three day sick out against austerity, our membership voted overwhelmingly in an emergency referendum to add a call for police divestment to our list of demands. Literally overnight, the rank and file—having not received from leadership any formal political education, having not been organized around issues of policing—pushed our union in a decidedly abolitionist direction, and repurposed our action into one against racist cops.

“There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.” If Lenin’s famous extrapolation from the Russian Revolution appears generally applicable to a moment in which fifty-four percent of Americans approve of the burning of a police precinct, it appears specifically applicable to grad labor, and marks perhaps the emergence of a new recognition among grads of the inextricability of the fights for racial and economic justice. The vote at Northwestern signals that grads may be ready to build on the fight in the streets and to incorporate it into our own unionism. And it signals that grads may be ready to strike against police violence across the entire industry, in universities throughout the country.

Literally overnight, the rank and file—having not received any formal political education, having not been organized around issues of policing—pushed our union in a decidedly abolitionist direction, and repurposed our action into one against racist cops.

This is not to underestimate the difficulty of organizing a successful strike, or to consider that a couple hundred workers walking out from each of our universities—a goal we could attain tomorrow if we wanted—is itself an actual “strike.” As Jane McAlevey has underlined, such actions “aren’t strikes just because someone spelled them s-t-r-i-k-e-s.” Instead a “strike, to refresh our memory, means a majority of workers have walked off the job in a collective and defiant action and crippled production.”

Additionally, recent grad worker strikes have met with mixed success. While the strikes at UIC and UIUC scored major wins, grads at Columbia only managed to get their administration to come to the bargaining table at the cost of a concessionary bargaining framework—which included a no-strike clause—and they have still yet to sign a contract. At the University of Chicago, the administration still refuses to bargain, notwithstanding a powerful strike that paralyzed campus for three days last spring.

In addition, the recent UCSC COLA strike has itself been subject to controversy, with detractors pointing to apparently low participation rates and the firing of 82 workers as evidence of its failure.

But as Ellen David Friedman argues in her own defense of the strike, what the wildcat accomplished was a marked shift in the balance of power on UC campuses, and at universities across the country. She writes, “If workers can act collectively and force the boss to respond, force them to do something they wouldn’t otherwise do, expose them to pressure they would otherwise brush aside, and—in the course of this—broaden the base for the next struggle—then we have victory.”

In addition, Friedman draws attention to the rank-and-file nature of the strike, arguing that with it, “a form of organizing—always available but too long dormant in the US—was readmitted to our consciousness; that of decentralized rank & file self-empowerment.” An all too common experience amongst grad workers—and perhaps for many in organized labor—is the systematic suppression of rank and file militancy by parent union leadership. Like the similarly rank-and-file-led “Red State Revolt,” the COLA strike has indicated that the boldest action comes not from leadership but from an engaged and energized rank and file—while here, bold action means striking for racial justice.

Thus even if difficult, the growing militancy and involvement—and desperation—of the rank-and-file bode well for the prospects of a mass graduate workers’ strike come fall. Recent strikes have “broadened the base for the next struggle” and provided valuable lessons to organizers across the country. Add to that the momentum of the national (and global) strike wave already underway, and it seems clear that grads are poised to further contribute to the “return of the mass strike.”

What would such a strike at universities look like? It won’t be easy, and it probably won’t be quick. Instead of immediate victory, we might imagine a series of escalating actions. Grad workers might kick things off by refusing to teach and research with the start of fall classes. Undergrads, who have already gone on tuition strike this spring, might join with grads in withholding their tuition again—this time in opposition to the unsafe living and learning conditions into which they are being pushed. Tenured faculty may then eventually join the strike, out of solidarity with grads and adjuncts, and given their own worries over safety. And service workers, many having forgone pay and benefits for months, might decide to stop cooking, cleaning, and transporting.

But why stop there? Empowered by our success, the struggle might continue to generalize, as the fight for safety morphs into a broader fight to democratize the university.

No university administration could hold out against such actions. Buildings would go uncleaned and classes untaught. As revenue streams dried up, endowments would gradually be emptied to compensate, and university credit ratings would look out over an abyss. States with strikes at multiple public universities would see their entire higher education systems crippled. Private universities across the country would go dark. But no administration could hold out long against such conditions. Concessions would eventually be made. Administrators would perhaps take massive pay cuts to redistribute their salaries to university workers, and cops might just be kicked off campus.

But why stop there? Empowered by our success, the struggle might continue to generalize, as the fight for safety morphs into a broader fight to democratize the university. Calls to abolish boards of trustees—the lynchpins of capitalist control over universities—will be increasingly heard, as will calls to abolish tenure. In place of top-down directives, and two-tiered tenure versus adjunct wage systems, proposals will be put forward to run universities according to principles of democratic governance and mutual aid. We don’t know where a strike could lead us, but it might—out of sheer necessity—lead here.

But after such radical changes, could the university as such even be said to exist? Or would it be better to consider it abolished, replaced by an infrastructure of study and support that has very little to do with the “settler colonial and racial capitalist regimes of accumulation” that have conditioned universities in this country since their founding?

For a brief period in May 1968, French universities, occupied by students, became “red bases,” in which students collectively studied, conversed, and strategized for the further transformation of society along communist lines. Kicking cops off campuses would not end policing in this country. Yet it might allow universities to become “abolition bases,” or spaces free from police, in which students and workers could gather together in safety, to work together to overthrow the present racial capitalist order. Such spaces might then help to bring about abolition nationwide, where abolition is construed, as Stefano Harney and Fred Moten put it, not as “the abolition of prisons but of a society that could have prisons, that could have slavery, that could have the wage.”

Nothing, of course, is guaranteed. And while recent grad strikes have shifted the balance of forces, the ease with which administrators continue laying off scores of workers—and forcing scores more to work in life-threatening conditions—illustrates that this balance remains tilted against us. Yet if labor is to act forcefully against police terror in the present moment; if we are to escalate from statements and petitions to deploy our power as workers; if we are to refuse to work in universities that threaten illness and death for the most precarious, and instead effectively fight for egalitarian and democratic spaces of study, then we have no choice but to use one of labor’s oldest, and certainly its most powerful, weapons. We have no choice but to strike.



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