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.