STRIKE! Remembering 1992
Issue #29, November 1996
1992 was the year I went on strike. It was my first strike, my first picket line, and my first sense of solidarity with my fellow graduate student instructors. When our union lost its fight for recognition, it was also my first real encounter with the effects a strike has on the workplace. Some of my professors, whom I had looked up to with a mixture of awe and admiration, suddenly became the bosses who would not acknowledge and respect my labor as a teacher. Professors, staff, and graduate students whom I had barely known became friends and allies. We transformed our relationships with one another because we were all reinterpreting our social context. Remembering who you work for has a way of changing things.
After 1992, the university could never be a magical place of learning for me, if it ever really was. UC Berkeley is a profit-driven institution, just like Microsoft or Sony, and people associated with it are bound together in relations of production. Some of us produce research, some produce educated students, some produce what one staff worker described to me as "bureaucratic stuff," and some produce administrative structures which parcel out money and status to various individuals and departments. All of us work together to produce "UC Berkeley" as an idea and as a source of valuable resources and knowledge. But it takes a strike to remind us how much of what we do in the university is labor. This is especially true for graduate students, who are often — ironically enough — the most rabid about doing enormous amounts of work in the service of their departments and professors.
Graduate student instructors at UC Berkeley share with faculty the position of being the only non-unionized labor force on campus. Staff have their own union, as do librarians. Why can't we admit that graduate students who teach classes are performing labor? The official answer that we got in 1992 — which many "officials" and deans on campus will still give you — is that graduate instructors are "primarily students." The idea, I suppose, is that you cannot be both a student and a worker. One form of identity must always take precedence over the other. If you persist in asking about graduate student labor, the "officials" and deans will respond that even if graduate students appear to be teachers, they are actually in training, receiving teaching work as part of a stipend. So, our work becomes a reward, something special we get along with money, to make our graduate studies more relevant and complete. This logic would actually be rather utopian if it weren't for the fact that it allows for gross abuses of power. As long as our work is a reward, of course, departments are not obligated to advertise or regulate jobs. Some lucky students will get many prized jobs, while others will get few or none because they don't have the "right" connections or don't study the "proper" topics. Students who do manage to get jobs, moreover, may be asked to do outlandish and degrading work for their professors because there are no available job descriptions for the position of "primarily a student."
So in 1992 we struck to protest the results of these strange and contradictory definitions of our work. After a few weeks, the time came for our executive board (e-board) to decide whether we would withhold grades as a way of stopping production. Without grades from graduate student instructors, university production would be crippled. But the union membership was told by a variety of people (professors, administrators, other students) that withholding grades would "hurt" innocent undergraduates who had no part in our complaints against the university. Suddenly, we were not "primarily students" or "receiving a stipend." We became more than teachers, virtual parent figures to our undergraduates, capable of doling out a punishment so great it would corrupt their innocence and destroy their futures. If this sounds exaggerated, believe me, it isn't. Withholding grades, we were informed, might jeopardize undergraduates' abilities to get financial aid, keep them from graduating, and even consign them to unemployment.
These threats, and our potential guilt, were enough to convince many graduate student instructors to produce grades and effectively end the strike. Those of us who wished to take a stronger stand gave out "IP" (in progress) grades to students — doing this, we indicated we were postponing grades rather than refusing to produce them entirely. As I recall, the strike ended in disarray, with some instructors doing one thing, and some doing another. The e-board asked us to sing "protest Christmas carols" outside the chancellor's house to register our discontent. Meanwhile, our unrecognized union could not protect the graduate students who were kicked out of their departments and refused further work for their roles in the strike.
In the English department, where I was working at the time, we were asked to fill out "time sheets" indicating how many hours we'd been on strike so that the department could "figure out how much to pay us for the month." It was a pretty sneaky maneuver, actually. If you reported you hadn't been striking, your pay wouldn't be docked. Problem was, we suspected the English department used these "time sheets" to determine how many people had been striking. Those who fudged their "time sheets" for extra money would not be counted as strikers. It's easy to get skewed numbers if you're waving money in front of people who make less than $12,000 a year. Luckily, most people took the pay cut so that their participation in the strike would be acknowledged.
As I said, the strike taught me a lot about the social landscape at UC Berkeley, and just what role I was being asked to play in it as a graduate student. I am supposed to perform labor, to produce grades, but not to think of myself as a worker. I am supposed to be "primarily a student," and yet I am not to expect that faculty and administration will extend me the same concern they had for those poor "innocent" undergraduates whose futures we came close to destroying with our refusal to grade. But what about my innocence? What about that twenty-year-old woman who joined the English Ph.D. program at UC Berkeley in 1989 believing that literary beauty and humanistic knowledge would transform us all into better people? What do you think was taken away from me when I learned that teaching, the work I love and want to perform, is not even regarded as labor at all in the eyes of my esteemed high-ranking colleagues?
Had it not been for my friends at Bad Subjects, and for many members of my union, graduate school would have taught me something deeply sinister. I would have learned how to believe in contradictions — working yet not working, studying yet not studying, experiencing injustice yet telling myself I was free. Learning by example from my seniors at the university, I would have risen in the ranks and discovered that the best way to rationalize contradiction is to disseminate it. Soon, I would have my own graduate student instructors to teach. I would see how miserable and confused they felt, but could hardly recognize their labor after working so hard to justify why others had not recognized my own. "Graduate school is just like that," I would say to myself. "It's obvious. It's natural. It's the way things are."
I will never forget 1992, because it's the year I discovered that you don't have to learn what the university teaches you.
Annalee Newitz is a graduate student researcher in the English Department at UC Berkeley. Right now, she is simultaneously on strike with her fellow graduate students, and looking for a job as a (non-unionized) professor. You can reach her at email@example.com.