Graduate Worker Organizing is Scholarly PraxisRoundup
tags: strikes, academia, graduate students, labor history, graduate labor, labor organizing
Hannah Borenstein is a PhD candidate in Cultural Anthropology at Duke University. Her dissertation research explores how Ethiopian women working to pursue careers in long-distance running navigate transnational networks of people, corporations, and capital. She is an active member in the Duke Graduate Students Union SEIU-Workers United Local 27.
Some graduate student workers and faculty share a remarkable willingness to rail against the neoliberal corporate university but never show up to a union rally. Some publish books and articles about the exploitative conditions of laborers throughout the world, but will not sign on to a pay-raise petition. Others issue scathing critiques of our union – from not being radical enough or for being too radical – but never come to a meeting to provide constructive input. This last and the year before, graduate students and faculty organized and attended fifty-year anniversary seminars about social movements born out of student unrest in 1968, but brush past information tables the same year about the $7,000 continuation fees already-indebted advanced graduate students are being forced to pay.
This seems to be common across, and beyond, universities. Journalist Emily Guendelsberger who recently published On the Clock: What Low-Wage Work Did to Me and How It Drives America Insane – a book about the lives of workers in Amazon fulfillment centers – found many poorly treated and highly monitored employees expressing discontent after a few drinks in to after-work interviews. Even though it has been widely documented that these workers forgo bathroom breaks to avoid being docked for “time off task” and receive pain medication from vending machines to avoid the stress of walking over 10 miles a day, Guendelsberger explained that most people would not initiate complaints about their jobs. With excessively lonely working conditions and quotidian exhaustion, many workers initially expressed gratitude for their jobs. However, after some sociality and probing they began to share stories of frustration and maltreatment. The notion that we should feel grateful for having the freedom to choose our places of work and be receiving wages at all seems to pervade a range of working environments. And indeed, for those enduring grueling slogs, being attuned to brutal working conditions may do more harm than good in getting through the day. In higher education, however, it feels more ironic because our jobs are precisely supposed to be conscious of these dynamics.
As powerful universities imperviously reproduce these spaces, some of the brightest and most inventive minds are kept out of academia, prevented from spearheading original research, and the possibilities for growth become progressively harder for the few who do manage to break in. The gate-keeping nature of higher education limits the praxis-oriented opportunities that should always accompany research. All this despite Duke’s mission statement claiming “to contribute in diverse ways to the local community, the state, the nation and the world.”
This is precisely why graduate student worker organizing is so important: when research becomes detached from its application, it reproduces and normalizes existing conditions. Perhaps by continuing to institute more praxis-oriented approaches to our research and making academic spaces more open and transparent, we indeed can shift the tides of not only higher ed – but the capital networks and political bureaucracies in which it is embedded.
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