Welcome to Interviews for Resistance. We’re now several months into the Trump administration, and activists have scored some important victories in those months. Yet there is always more to be done, and for many people, the question of where to focus and how to help remains. In this series, we talk with organizers, agitators and educators, not only about how to resist, but how to build a better world.
Tom DePaola: I am a third year PhD student graduate worker at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education. I study urban education policy and mostly academic labor in universities.
Sarah Jaffe: So, you are an expert in your own working conditions.
Tom: It is an odd position to be in, because — as someone who studies academic labor — you sort of know how the sausage is made. The more that you know, the less appealing a career path in academia actually starts to look.
Sarah: We are talking today because you were one of several people who was protesting in Paul Ryan’s office yesterday over the tax bill and what it would do to graduate student workers like yourself. First of all, tell us about the action yesterday. Any reaction from Paul Ryan?
Tom: We were hoping against hope that Paul Ryan would actually sit down with us and hear our quite reasonable concerns. He didn’t, and that was no surprise, but we decided to do everything we could to elevate this issue and make our voices heard anyway. For several of us, that included taking arrests, and that was something that we were happy to do.
We came together really quickly and with a lot of support from SEIU. We felt very protected. They had really fantastic lawyers standing by who were ready to pounce if anything went awry. We had hoped that there would be more time to tell some of our stories using the people’s mic and to get some more said before they started hauling us off. Unfortunately, it didn’t pan out that way. I think I was basically one of the only persons who got to do that.
We showed up, and there was some press. We did some interviews. We were a little thrown off at first, because it was clear there were two cops for every one of us in the hallway. They were quite an intimidating presence. For many of us, this is definitely the first action of this gravity that we were undertaking — and the first time many of us were taking arrest. There was a lot of nerves and jitters. Several of us flew 3,000 miles to get arrested, essentially. [Laughs] But I think it was worth it.
Sarah: How long were you in the office before they began carting people off?
Tom: I would say it was less than five minutes. We walked up to the door. It was closed. We knocked several times, stood there sort of awkwardly, and no one answered. That was no surprise. At that point we were like, “I guess we are going to circle up and say what we need to say and hope that those things are heard.” I think they were. The cops stepped in immediately. They rattled off three warnings very quickly. Then, I was among the first tapped for arrest. We complied immediately.
They put us in the back of a police van with the bracelets on and carted us off to some kind of processing center. It seemed like they had set up a large processing center — I think they were expecting to have to do quite a few of those that day. That was relatively efficient, but we were well-trained for what to do once that process started. Of course, we didn’t resist in any way at that point because we had already gotten what we needed out of that action.
Sarah: I believe the Senate version that they passed did not actually have the grad student tax, but the House version did. Is that correct?
Tom: That is right, but who knows what is going to come out of reconciliation. I am sure a lot of the Senators who voted on the Senate version had no idea what was in it. The final draft had hand-written notes in the margins, many of which were illegible, just hours before the vote. I am sure that the talk was, “Don’t worry. We will fix it once we go back to the House.” There were contradicting measures in both bills. Some of those things bought us some time. They were clearly in a hurry and for good reason.
The more that people look into either version of the bill, the scarier it starts to look. The tuition waiver was a big issue for me and for many of my colleagues, because you can’t tax money as income that one never sees. We make barely enough to get by in an expensive city like L.A. where those of us from USC were coming from. We get enough to pay rent and try to eat regularly. That is about all we can hope for. If we are getting taxed as though we make close to six figures then that is going to be a way of just forcing us out of school altogether.
Many of us are incredibly dedicated researchers who come from backgrounds of public service. I worked at community college. I taught at Bronx Community College. We are all sitting on lots of student debt already. We are certainly not going to take out additional loans that are literally going into the pockets of donors to people like Paul Ryan to pay taxes. That feels just outrageous. If we have to go down there and get arrested to make that point, then we will and we did. I feel pretty good about that.
Sarah: Let’s contextualize this for people who haven’t had the grad school experience and don’t really know how this works. Talk about the kind of people who are really going to be hurt by this.
Tom: My background is from the Rust Belt. My family lives mostly in the spaces between Youngstown, Oh. and Pittsburgh, Penn. We are very working class. As I went away to school and took on all this debt, there was not a lot of understanding of why I was doing this. I signed away so much of what meager income I made after college, of course graduating directly into the Great Recession. I went to a state school, to SUNY Purchase in Westchester, N.Y., which I don’t regret for a second. But I left with close to $90,000 in debt because that was the height of that kind of exploitative wave of student loan issues.
Then, I graduated in 2010, and there was very little work. I worked at Starbucks, which actually was a saving grace because I am diabetic and when I first got hired at Starbucks there was no pre-existing condition guarantees on health insurance. That was actually the one retailer that provided one. I was holding on to my retail job that paid a poverty wage just to keep that insurance.
I met someone through Starbucks, a customer, who ended up getting me a job in the CUNY system, and that really opened my eyes in a lot of ways. I started thinking really heavily about educational inequality and also about urban political economy and how all of these things work as one. Once my contract was up there, I knew that I wanted to go to graduate school and try to study more of how these systems interact with other urban systems to either ameliorate or accelerate inequality.
I have basically spent the last two and a half years working 12-15 hours a day, every day, weekends included on this work. It is incredibly fulfilling. It is also incredibly isolating, because I used to be an educator, and I used to work directly with students in a context where you can see the impact that you are having in a day to day way and you are building relationships. Being a PhD student is the complete opposite in so many ways. You are isolated, and that is by design. They need to be squeezing every ounce of productivity out of us that they can.
Sarah: Talk a little bit more about the union organizing campaign, because one of the big challenges that graduate student workers have in organizing is that the university tries to claim that you are not working.
Tom: The last time that graduate workers had the right to unionize was the short window from 2000 to 2004. During that time, there was obviously a lot of energy around the country. Many schools found that graduate workers were unionizing and then once their status as workers was revoked, many schools tore up those agreements.
There was this question of primary status. What they had argued over for forever was, “Are we primarily students to earn educational benefits from our work at the university?” or, “Are we primarily employees being paid a wage to perform a service?” That is why there has been all of this flip flopping depending on what administration was in power at the national level and who they were appointing to the National Labor Relations Board.
Even if we are getting educational benefits from this work, we are still paid employees and have a right to a structural voice in our workplace. That was a really key distinction in the most recent turn. It remains to be seen what difference it will make in the event that Donald Trump’s NLRB decides to come in and mess with our status again. We know that universities like Duke and Harvard and Yale and all of the major private institutions around the country, they are waiting and hoping for this administration to swoop in and save them from the horrors of having to negotiate with their own workforce over working conditions.
Sarah: How have the universities reacted to the fact that this tax bill would potentially tax grad student tuition waivers as income?
Tom: I think that they are nervous. This is not because of necessarily a lot of overt sympathy toward their workers. It is because we are, relatively speaking, cheap labor for them, and if they remove the ability to have this cheap labor force doing a lot of their instructional labor, doing a lot of their research labor, we know it’s likely to get much more expensive for them to fulfill these needs.
Ultimately, we have to try to democratize these institutions. I read so many op-eds about universities and how we need this return to the university of the past that had respect for academic freedom and all of these things. I see tenured professors lamenting the loss of academic freedom, and I want to just shake them and be like, “Where do you think it came from? If you want academic freedom, if you want those threats to go away, then you should be aggressively trying to organize your colleagues and advocating for your students who are also employees to have a voice.”
We can only protect that sort of thing together. As long as there is an army of disposable labor running the university, you are never going to be safe.
Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.
Sarah Jaffe is a Type Media Center Fellow, co-host (with Michelle Chen) of Dissent magazine’s Belabored podcast, and a columnist at The New Republic and New Labor Forum. She was formerly a staff writer at In These Times and the labor editor at AlterNet. Her previous book is Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt, which Robin D.G. Kelley called “The most compelling social and political portrait of our age.” You can follow her on Twitter @sarahljaffe.