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STRIKE! The Labor Theory of Graduate School

There's no question that graduate school is hard work. Graduate students spend time in classes, reading up on their respective subjects, trying to put together an original program of research -- and often, they are employees of the universities where they study.
Jonathan Sterne

Issue #29, November 1996

Conjunction, Junction, What's Your Function?

There's no question that graduate school is hard work. Graduate students spend time in classes, reading up on their respective subjects, trying to put together an original program of research — and often, they are employees of the universities where they study. There's also no question that graduate students benefit from being employees: as with any job, we are paid, some of us are lucky enough to be employed doing work that also dovetails with our own research and scholarly interests, and we may derive other unexpected benefits from our employment.

But 'graduate employment,' as we've come to call it, is not a requirement for an advanced degree. The job descriptions vary, but we know the roles: teaching courses, assisting professors in teaching courses, working in laboratories, carrying out research in other areas, doing office or clerical work, and so forth. These are jobs that graduate students take on in order to have the money to complete their degrees. Like the University's Operations and Maintenance staff, the clerical workers in the Library, or even the fire fighters in the University Fire Department, our employment is a means to an end. It provides us with the economic means for sustaining ourselves as students.

We have another thing in common with other University employees: the University Works Because We Do. At the University of Illinois, graduate employees teach more than 40% of all lower division undergraduate courses, and run the majority of research laboratories on campus. A widely recognized professor in the College of Engineering recently commented that he would attribute 95% of his scholarly publications to the work of his graduate employees. Similarly, Professor Cary Nelson estimated that to have the University of Illinois English department replace its graduate composition instructors with professors would cost the department about $3.5 million annually. While employment is not a requirement for a graduate degree, there is no question that graduate employee labor is integral to the University's mission of teaching and research.

What does it mean that for graduate students, the University is both a place of learning and a workplace? Among other things, it means that like all employees, graduate employees should have a voice in their terms and conditions of work, wages, hours, and benefits. In short, we should have workplace democracy.

That's why thousands of graduate employees across the United States are unionizing. Having a graduate employee union and a contract guarantees that graduate employees will have a say in decisions that affect their working lives. No other form of organization can offer the legal weight and the collective strength that a union offers.

At the University of Illinois, our union is called the Graduate Employees' Organization (GEO). We have hundreds of members from departments all over the University, and we've found tremendous support among graduate employees, staff, faculty, and undergraduates.

Unionization: For a Truly Democratic Workplace

Still, many people have questions about why we must unionize. Here are responses to five common objections to unionization we've heard at the University of Illinois:

1. Apprenticeship. For a long time now, University administrators and opponents of unionization have argued that graduate students aren't your usual kind of employee — they're apprentices learning a trade. Like all employees, graduate employees could theoretically learn from their employment. But the conditions under which we 'apprentice' vary greatly. Some of us have had the pleasure of doing teaching and research that matches up nicely with our own research interests. But this is not always, or even usually, the case. More often, graduate employees do the work that serves the needs of the department more than the educational needs of the graduate instructor or researcher. Furthermore, it's no longer a foregone conclusion that graduate students will be able to find jobs in their chosen fields upon finishing their degrees. In that case, graduate employment is simply work experience — nothing more, and nothing less. Even if all graduate employees were working under ideal apprenticeship conditions, they still should have basic rights in the workplace. The promise of a better job in the future is a poor excuse for exploitation in the present.

2. Efficiency. The University of Illinois administration worries that a graduate union will decrease efficiency in administrative decision-making. This is a strange way to characterize the inclusion of employees in decision-making processes. Noam Chomsky once pointed out that Americans, despite all their rhetoric about democracy, are very tolerant of authoritarianism in the workplace — all in the name of "efficiency." While a union will restrict the abilities of administrators to unilaterally decide matters that affect graduate employees' working lives, this does not mean that the system will become less efficient. It does mean, however, that the system will become much more democratic.

3. Alternative Representation. University of Illinois administrators point to alternative means for graduate employees to have input into their working conditions. For instance, the Graduate Students' Advisory Council (GSAC) is a program of the Graduate College whereby graduate students have "input" into administrative decisions. But GSAC is not a union, and it is not democratic. Their members are not elected, and their decisions have no legal weight: they are simply recommendations. Moreover, the GSAC charter specifically prohibits it from discussing major employment issues like insurance benefits. Last year, when University of Illinois administrators unveiled an ill-considered plan to tamper with graduate employee tuition waivers, GSAC was only consulted after the GEO had raised hell and caused the administration to retreat from some of their more outrageous proposals. Even a graduate student senate would have no legal power. At the University of Minnesota, the faculty senate could only object when the Board of Regents tried to destroy the tenure system. Only a court injunction held off the assault initially; and that injunction only came after the faculty petitioned for a union election.

4. Collegiality and Professionalism. Administrators murmur that a union contract would hamper collegiality around the campus. It's not clear where they get this idea. The Chair of the History Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where there is a long-standing graduate employee union, commented that "the sense of professionalism encouraged by union organization has facilitated a positive working relationship and minimized misunderstanding" among faculty, administrators and graduate employees. Similarly, a visitor from the University of Michigan Ann Arbor testified before a Chancellor's meeting that their graduate union had improved the campus environment overall. In many cases, a union contract is simply a written version of already existing good faith among administrators, faculty and graduate employees. The GEO seeks to become a vehicle to promote positive working relationships in the University through clearly defined job descriptions, workloads, and a formal grievance procedure for when problems do arise.

5. "You've Already Got It Good." This objection is occasionally heard from outside the University community. Many of us enjoy our jobs, get on well with our faculty and administration supervisors, and love our undergraduate students (if we're teachers). But that doesn't invalidate our right to workplace democracy. Moreover, there are serious problems with graduate employee compensation at the University of Illinois. The average rate of pay for all graduate assistants is below the University's own estimates for the cost-of-living in Urbana- Champaign. Graduate employees have a health care plan that was designed for undergraduate students who could still be covered under their parents' plans. Spouses and children are particularly poorly covered under this plan. There are no consistent, University-wide rules for working conditions, hours, or vacation time.

Unionization will give graduate employees input into their work lives; it will also be an asset to the University community as a whole. The last quarter century has seen repeated calls for graduate employee unionization at the University of Illinois. Over the last three years, GEO has been working to realize that vision.

We Build Democracy The Old Fashioned Way: We Organize

The University of Illinois Graduate Employees' Organization is a broad based, democratic union seeking official recognition from the University of Illinois administration. Our ultimate goal is to negotiate a contract with the administration that would cover our terms of employment, wages, benefits, and conditions of work. We are committed to representing all graduate employees on campus: we seek to improve the working conditions for all, and will not accept any contract that reduces anyone's benefits.

The current incarnation of GEO formed in 1994 with the expressed intention of forming a graduate employee union. We affiliated with the Illinois Federation of Teachers (a division of the American Federation of Teachers) in the spring of 1995, and spent the 1995-1996 school year conducting a card drive to petition the Illinois Labor Relations Board (ILRB) for a union election. 3,226 graduate employees (55% of all graduate employees at the University of Illinois) signed cards last year requesting that the GEO be their legal representative and that a union election be held.

Since then, the University administration has kept us involved in a lengthy court case that has already cost Illinois citizens thousands of tax dollars. Even as the administration depends upon graduate employee labor to keep the institution running, they are arguing to the Illinois Labor Relations Board that we are not employees. Their ultimate goal is to prevent a union election, and failing that, to postpone a union election as long as possible.

While our legal team presents our case in the hearings, GEO looks to the future. Although the outcome of the hearings remains uncertain, we are planning to have a union election this spring. If the ILRB wants to endorse it, all the better. To that end, we are currently conducting voter assessment and a membership drive. We're also building a stewards council so that we can more effectively act as a union even before we're officially recognized.

Over the last three years, GEO has created a vibrant and active community of graduate employees across campus. Not only have we empowered ourselves through organizing, we've facilitated a truly transdisciplinary campus community — one that cuts across the boundaries of discipline, specialty or background. Graduate unionization has been a boon to the social and intellectual life on this campus. Even as we grow on our own campus, the nationwide movement of graduate unionization is starting to facilitate the same kind of ferment on a national level.

From the very beginning, GEO has been committed to solidarity with other unions at the University of Illinois and other graduate employee unions across the nation. We've learned from other unions' successes and failures, and we hope our experiences will be useful to others. Graduate unionization is a national phenomenon: in order to keep the movement alive and help it grow, we all need to work together. We should continue and expand our exchanges of ideas, people, strategies, materials, resources, information, and labor among graduate employee unions nationwide. Most importantly, we must never lose sight of the reason we exist in the first place: to bring democracy to the University community.

On Monday, 18 November 1996, the GEO membership passed a resolution of solidarity with the striking graduate employees of the University of California system. We wish you swift success. On a more personal level, I'd like to express my support for the striking graduate employees at York University in Toronto, Canada; and the striking University workers throughout the United Kingdom. Solidarity!


This article borrows freely from GEO literature, from an article by Cary Nelson in Social Text #44, and from the hundreds of conversations I've had about unionization. My union colleagues Toby Higbie, Carrie Rentschler, Dave Breeden and Steve Jahn also helped me put it together.

Jonathan Sterne is a doctoral candidate in Communications Research and Criticism and Interpretive Theory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is also the parliamentarian for the Graduate Employees Organization, the associate editor of GEO's newspaper The Organizer, and the bassist for the band Nastybake. His email address is GEO's home page is at GEO's office phone number is (217)344-8283.