Working for Racial Equity Is Work, Say Michigan Graduate Workers in Contract Fight

Rachel Miller and Robert Ramaswamy April 4, 2017

GEO is one of the nation’s oldest graduate student unions, but in this year’s contract negotiations, it is asking for something new: dedicated positions and fair compensation for “diversity workers.” (Photo credit: Sam Shuman)

Sev­er­al weeks ago, as a March bliz­zard descend­ed on Ann Arbor, we were two of some 150 grad­u­ate stu­dent work­ers at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan who ral­lied togeth­er to walk their bar­gain­ing team to its fifth month of con­tract cam­paign nego­ti­a­tions. Their spir­its lift­ed by chants and signs, the vol­un­teer nego­tia­tors con­tin­ued to argue a plat­form gen­er­at­ed by the mem­bers of the Grad­u­ate Employ­ees’ Orga­ni­za­tion (GEO), Local 3550 of the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers, which is the union that rep­re­sents grad­u­ate stu­dent instruc­tors and staff assis­tants at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan (UM). GEO is one of the nation’s old­est grad­u­ate stu­dent unions, but in this year’s con­tract nego­ti­a­tions, we are ask­ing for some­thing new: ded­i­cat­ed posi­tions and fair com­pen­sa­tion for diver­si­ty work­ers” that will bring struc­tur­al change to the university.

If the phrase grad­u­ate stu­dent union” makes you think of melo­dra­mat­ic sob sto­ries from a bunch of whiny kids, we ask that you recon­sid­er what you think you know about grad­u­ate stu­dents. Many of us began our cur­rent pro­grams sev­er­al years after receiv­ing col­lege degrees, often tak­ing a sig­nif­i­cant pay cut as we tran­si­tioned back to school from careers in the work­force. We are not only 22-year-old stu­dents with no real world expe­ri­ence,” but pro­fes­sion­als in our 30s and beyond. We are par­ents and spous­es, teach­ers and colleagues.

Accord­ing to the most recent NSF Sur­vey of Earned Doc­tor­ates, more than 55 per­cent of Ph.D. recip­i­ents are over 31 when they receive their degrees; this num­ber is sig­nif­i­cant­ly high­er for African Amer­i­can (63 per­cent), His­pan­ic (63 per­cent) and Amer­i­can Indi­an (83 per­cent) degree-hold­ers, and for those with degrees in the human­i­ties and the arts (71 per­cent), social sci­ences (63 per­cent) and edu­ca­tion (73 per­cent). Too many of us are sad­dled with stu­dent debt that we may nev­er be able to repay: In 2015, more than 17 per­cent of Ph.D. recip­i­ents in the social sci­ences and psy­chol­o­gy had at least $90,000 in debt. Too often we are com­pelled to stay on the clock into our evenings and through our week­ends, fill­ing our brief moments between course­work, research, and teach­ing with vol­un­teer work, advis­ing and part-time jobs. On the one hand, we get paid to read”—just what we love”—but on the oth­er hand, our salaries here at UM are almost 20 per­cent below the liv­ing wage in Ann Arbor. We who pro­vide 23 per­cent of stu­dent con­tact hours at UM are com­pen­sat­ed with less than1 per­cent of the uni­ver­si­ty’s budget.

And giv­en the prospects on the aca­d­e­m­ic job mar­ket, we’re not look­ing for­ward to a bright light at the end of the tun­nel. As Emory Uni­ver­si­ty pro­fes­sor Marc Bous­quet has put it, For many grad­u­ate employ­ees, the receipt of the Ph.D. sig­ni­fies the end — and not the begin­ning — of a long teach­ing career.” Today’s uni­ver­si­ties increas­ing­ly favor pre­car­i­ous and con­tin­gent teach­ers (read: grad­u­ate stu­dents and adjunct fac­ul­ty) over tenured pro­fes­sors. Over half of all fac­ul­ty appoint­ments in the Unit­ed States are part-time and non-tenure-track.

These are the rea­sons we are fight­ing for a con­tract that cen­ters around equi­ty and access. This prin­ci­ple is at the heart of our plat­form pro­pos­als, whether they are artic­u­lat­ed as cost of liv­ing rais­es, pro­tec­tions for inter­na­tion­al stu­dent work­ers, afford­able health­care, or improved bereave­ment and parental leave for stu­dent work­ers and their fam­i­lies. We have also pro­posed cre­at­ing a team of paid grad­u­ate stu­dent staff assis­tant posi­tions that will imple­ment UM’s recent­ly launched Diver­si­ty, Equi­ty and Inclu­sion” plan. Despite hazy rhetoric that asks us all to pitch in equal­ly, diver­si­ty work” tends to fall on the shoul­ders of those it is meant to sup­port. We believe that the only way to make sure that diver­si­ty work does not repli­cate sys­tems of inequal­i­ty is to com­pen­sate it on par with research, teach­ing and oth­er services.

Accord­ing­ly, we see our con­tract cam­paign at the cen­ter of a coali­tion­al pol­i­tics con­nect­ing cam­pus and com­mu­ni­ty activists. South­east Michi­gan has a remark­able his­to­ry of both rev­o­lu­tion­ary labor and stu­dent move­ments, and this his­to­ry has taught us that stu­dent work­er” is nei­ther a con­tra­dic­tion nor an acci­dent but a pow­er­ful lega­cy. We build pow­er and share tac­tics with allies in high­er edu­ca­tion unions and the Huron Val­ley Area Labor Fed­er­a­tion, as well as cam­pus groups focused on racial jus­tice like the Mul­ti­cul­tur­al Lead­er­ship Coun­cil and Students4Justice at UM.

Our paid diver­si­ty labor pro­pos­al was devel­oped by stu­dent work­ers across cam­pus with first-hand expe­ri­ence in UM’s diver­si­ty ini­tia­tives. A peti­tion in favor of this pro­pos­al was signed by more than 1,000 indi­vid­u­als and at least 40 cam­pus groups orga­nized by grad­u­ate, under­grad­u­ate and pro­fes­sion­al stu­dents across dis­ci­pli­nary, social iden­ti­ty and advo­ca­cy lines. We under­stand this sup­port as a man­date to con­tin­ue the fight for a just and equi­table uni­ver­si­ty for all stu­dents and work­ers, even after the con­tract is rat­i­fied. In estab­lish­ing a prece­dent for paid diver­si­ty work, we aim to make unavoid­ably clear the cen­tral sig­nif­i­cance of stu­dent labor, and to lever­age the par­tic­u­lar pow­er of the sec­ond term in stu­dent work­er.” This requires ded­i­cat­ed resources — such as salaries, health­care, and real estate — not sim­ply advi­so­ry com­mit­tees and small stipends that will not fun­da­men­tal­ly alter how the uni­ver­si­ty functions.

At the moment, 77 per­cent of the eli­gi­ble 1,773 employed grad­u­ate stu­dents have opt­ed for mem­ber­ship in GEO, and togeth­er have vot­ed on, researched, and writ­ten con­tract lan­guage that will make UM a more just and equi­table work­place. This is an incred­i­ble show of sol­i­dar­i­ty at a crit­i­cal moment because in the fall we become sub­ject to right to work” leg­is­la­tion, which allows grad­u­ate stu­dent work­ers to receive the ben­e­fits of union pro­tec­tion with­out paying.

Aca­d­e­m­ic suc­cess advice is to keep your head down and do your work; fight­ing for a grad­u­ate work­ers’ union is lift­ing your head up. Our con­tract cam­paign empha­sizes fair remu­ner­a­tion not only for the rec­og­nized work” of the acad­e­my — teach­ing — but for the sec­ond shift” of emo­tion­al labor and care work that ini­tia­tives like the Diver­si­ty, Equi­ty, and Inclu­sion” plan demand. This calls for an inter­sec­tion­al labor pol­i­tics that under­stands how race, gen­der and cit­i­zen­ship sta­tus are inex­tri­ca­ble from cap­i­tal­ist exploita­tion. In a moment when too many would-be labor advo­cates par­rot a nar­ra­tive of decline and dis­ar­ray, we see ris­ing strength and inno­va­tion in our union and oth­ers like it. 

Rachel Miller and Robert Ramaswamy are rank-and-file mem­bers of the Grad­u­ate Employ­ees’ Orga­ni­za­tion (GEO), Local 3550 of the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teachers.
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