Grad Students Take Tax Bill Fight to Paul Ryan’s Office

Sarah Jaffe December 8, 2017

(SEIU Faculty Forward)

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 for­mer staff writer at In These Times and author of 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.
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