What's at Stake in the UC Grad Strike

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tags: University of California, labor, graduate students, academic labor

For much of the public, organized labor has an image that’s rooted in nostalgia: hands getting dirtied, faces smudged with soot, lives at risk from one piece of heavy machinery or another. This is an outdated vision of work and union organizing in a country whose industrial and manufacturing core is evaporating. But the fantasy that all labor is blue-collar persists, in large part, because organized labor itself has become much less of a daily presence in the lives of most Americans. People in leftist circles constantly circulate two facts that, at first glance, seem to be contradictory. The first is that only around ten per cent of employed Americans are part of a labor union. The second is that, despite the decline in participation, more than seventy per cent of Americans, according to a recent Gallup poll, support labor unions—the highest favorability since 1965.

The mismatch between public opinion and reality comes from a host of external pressures, whether globalization and the shipping of former union jobs to foreign countries; the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which restricted union activity; or the aggressive, increasingly creative, and legally and societally condoned manner in which corporations break up organizing efforts. But there also seems to be a lag between the public conception of who participates in organized labor, and what jobs actually look like today.

A few days before students filed out of town for Thanksgiving break, I spent some time walking around the campus of the University of California, Berkeley. Some forty-eight thousand unionized graduate-student and postdoctoral workers, who are represented by the United Auto Workers, across the ten campuses of the University of California (U.C.) system had recently gone out on strike. At first, many of the striking workers had gathered near Sproul Hall, the traditional protest space in town and the site where, in 1964, Mario Savio famously told his fellow-participants in the Free Speech Movement to “put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels.” But, on the day of my visit, that site had been largely abandoned because the conservative provocateur Matt Walsh had arrived on campus for his “What Is a Woman?” tour. The workers didn’t want to get dragged into what many saw as a stunt.

Some graduate workers assembled, instead, in a small plaza near the law school. I followed a group who split off to form a picket line in front of the International House, where there was a planned furniture drop-off that day. An organizer said the goal was to block this to create as much disruption as possible. The vast majority of drivers passing by honked their horns, drawing cheers from the crowd.

The graduate workers’ list of demands is long, and has included child-care subsidies and better health care, but the main concern comes from the tension between the traditionally low stipends that graduate students receive and the high cost of living in California. A survey conducted by the U.A.W. found that ninety-two per cent of graduate-student workers spend more than thirty per cent of their salaries on rent, which qualifies them as “rent burdened” by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development.

That rent is too high and pay is too low is the biggest unifying concern for the forty-eight thousand on strike, but many also have grave concerns about their lives after graduate school. In the line, I met Joel Auerbach, a third-year Ph.D. candidate in the rhetoric department with the swarthy good looks and muted yet fidgety mannerisms of a young Mark Ruffalo. Like many doctoral students in the humanities, Auerbach faces a shrinking academic job market and great uncertainty about the employment value of his degree.

The graduate-student-worker arrangement, Auerbach told me, is premised on a kind of apprenticeship model. “You don’t make very much as a grad student, and you’re expected to do menial tasks for your professors. And eventually, you replace them and you have that job security at the end of the line,” Auerbach said. “That’s increasingly not the case today. Those tenure-track jobs have really dried up. So for many of us, that same deal that made the whole thing function is really no longer on the table, which means that the way that we’re paid in the meantime is much more significant.”

Read entire article at The New Yorker

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