Hell no! We won't grade!

Will the upcoming strike by University of California graduate teaching assistants raise them from their serflike status -- or spell their eventual doom?


Sean McMeekin
November 30, 1998 11:48PM (UTC)

This week, graduate students employed as teaching assistants in the massive University of California system plan to kick off the holiday season by going on strike. California's graduate TAs have clashed with university administrators frequently in the past decade over such matters as health insurance benefits and tuition fee remissions, but this will be the first time they have walked out simultaneously on all eight U.C. campuses. Never before have the graduate student teachers of U.C. been so well organized, or so unanimously focused on one goal: collective bargaining rights. Union recognition of TAs is the bête noire of the U.C. Regents, the university's conservative governing board, and of the individual chancellors who carry out their policies. So far, the Regents have stubbornly resisted the drive for TA recognition in the courts, and university administrators have survived brief, largely uncoordinated strikes for union recognition staged at individual U.C. campuses each of the last three years.

But the December action promises to be different. Rather than try, somewhat quixotically, to shut down enormous public research universities, TA strikers will deploy a "porous" picket line and even encourage their undergraduate students to continue attending classes. Having learned from the notorious public relations failure of a semester-end strike at Yale three years ago -- when TAs graded assignments but refused to release their grades, thus incurring the wrath of undergraduate students and their parents -- California's striking TAs will simply withdraw their labor for the month of December, in effect daring their universities to hire scabs to grade finals. The December walkout, which is organized and underwritten by the United Auto Workers (which has branched out deeply into the clerical and educational fields), may turn out to be, in the words of Christian Sweeney, a leading TA organizer at UC-Berkeley, "the largest graduate student labor action ever."

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Although it has carried a lower media profile than the curriculum wars and the ongoing struggle over affirmative action, the ever-tightening academic labor crunch is unquestionably the central issue facing higher education in America. The underemployed Ph.D. has become a cliché in a job market that has seen the number of annual tenure-track job openings decline for most of this decade, even as undergraduate enrollments boom and class sizes inexorably rise. As universities have struggled to scale back budget outlays in response to decreasing public investment in higher education, they have increasingly filled classrooms with cheap, temporary labor. Large state schools such as the University of California have primarily done this by using a surplus pool of graduate students, whose numbers have exploded in the 1990s despite diminishing prospects in the academic job market. Smaller universities and community colleges, lacking extensive graduate programs, have largely relied on non-tenure-track "adjunct" professors, who now make up well over 40 percent of the academic labor force nationally, and are expected to outnumber full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty by 2001.

The lot of the adjuncts is not a happy one. Spin magazine recently published an exposé by ex-doctoral student Eric Weisband on "Sucker Ph.D.s," who were gulled by a now infamous 1989 Mellon Foundation report into believing "that an expected wave of faculty retirements beginning in the mid-'90s would threaten the health of higher education unless more college students could be persuaded to apply for doctoral degrees." Professors have, as expected, retired in great numbers in the 1990s, but their tenured positions have been retired along with them. Because they constitute an amorphous, transient and migratory work force, adjuncts have no unions and are consequently even more poorly compensated, on an hourly basis, than most of the unionized clerical and custodial employees of the schools where they work. Even graduate TAs, such as the U.C. strikers, make a better wage than adjuncts -- although adjuncts have Ph.D.s and graduate students do not. Alarmed that once-full-time faculty positions have been downsized into cheaper, part-time teaching junkets, the Higher Education Department of the American Federation of Teachers has issued a special report on "The Vanishing Professor."

A labor conference held at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York in April 1998 has raised limited hopes that adjuncts in the nation's largest urban college system might win recognition through CUNY's faculty union, the Professional Staff Congress. But adjuncts are still outnumbered 9-1 by full-timers on the Staff Congress -- although they make up nearly 60 percent of the CUNY faculty. The prospect of collective bargaining rights for adjunct professors remains, for most, a laughable pipe dream.

With adjuncts largely powerless, the only effective resistance offered to the forces transforming the academic labor market has come from graduate students at large state research universities, where their numbers have reached critical mass. The universities of Oregon, Wisconsin and Michigan, long heavily dependent on graduate teaching assistants, have already been forced to recognize TA unions. Trends in the teaching demographics of the University of California seem to point in a similar direction. After a decade-long boom in doctoral program enrollments, graduate students now make up nearly 60 percent of U.C.'s instructional staff; full-time tenured or tenure-track professors account for 20 percent; the remaining fifth are adjuncts. And these TAs do not merely lead discussion sections of large lecture classes. Graduate students teach first-year foreign language classes, freshman English seminars and even many advanced colloquia devoted to undergraduate honors research. In light of these facts, it is hard to argue with the motto of U.C.'s TA unions: "The University Works Because We Do." By refusing to work this December, TAs are putting their slogan to the test: Will the university work without them?

After being flooded with e-mails from undergraduates concerned that their university will, indeed, not "work" without the services of its graduate TAs, UC-Berkeley Chancellor Robert Berdahl called a special meeting with TAs from Berkeley's top-ranked history department to discuss the upcoming strike. Himself a history Ph.D., Berdahl hoped to defuse pre-strike tensions by exchanging views with graduate students he regarded as future colleagues, in their own department, in a setting geared toward the "collegiality" of academic discourse.

Berdahl, a Midwesterner of imposing size but extremely congenial temperament, is only in his second year at Berkeley, and is still anxious to make a good impression on students who feel they barely known him. His gesture of solidarity with history doctoral students was not, however, received cordially. E-mails flew among history grads after his Oct. 28 invitation, accusing Berdahl of "scare-tactics and intimidation" among other things. But Sweeney, a second-year American history grad and TA union leader, convinced his colleagues that meeting with the chancellor of U.C.'s "flagship campus" offered an "opportunity to communicate why we want a union with collective bargaining rights and what we're willing to do to achieve that goal." Two brainstorming sessions followed, in which the graduate students worked out a strategy of rhetorical attack.

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When Berdahl arrived in the conference room of the history department on Nov. 12, the stage was set for an ambush. Although more than half of Berkeley's current history TAs have declined, for one reason or another, to walk out in December, not a single TA spoke out against the strike in front of Berdahl. Galvanized by Sweeney's strategic bull sessions, graduate students attending the meeting spoke as one, letting forth an eloquent cascade of grievances against Berkeley's academic labor practices. Unlike unionized employees of the University of California, TAs do not receive regular cost-of-living increases in their wages; they bore the brunt of state budget cuts on higher education enacted under Gov. Pete Wilson.

Berkeley's graduate students, Monica Rico pointed out, won limited health coverage and tuition-fee remissions in previous strike actions, but these gains were granted by the university "on an ad-hoc basis," and could easily be revoked in the absence of permanent, union-negotiated contracts. Without collective bargaining recognition for TAs, the university could, in Rico's view, continue to take advantage of graduate students with impunity. After all, she complained, as a TA, her "$13,000-a-year voice [doesn't] have much chance of being heard." Only a union would give Rico and other TAs a fair chance for "redress of grievances." Graduate students with children, Vera Candiani explained to the chancellor, desperately needed a certain level of "predictability": They must be able to plan for future expenses without worrying about a possible revocation of health benefits or a reinstitution of fees. It was in order to lock in guaranteed compensation levels, Candiani declared, that "we have chosen a union to represent us, [and] that is our right."

Against a chorus of hostile voices committed to TA unionization, Chancellor Berdahl struggled to uphold an idealistic view of the university as a haven of "collegial" discourse where the adversarial model of the shop floor had no place. Citing his prior experience as a member of the American Federation of Teachers union, and as a negotiator with TA unions at the University of Oregon, where he had been associate dean of undergraduate education, Berdahl argued that "collective bargaining isn't a dialogue." Because each group involved employs agents, "professional negotiators ... whose purpose is to win a point," the upshot of unionization was, in Berdahl's estimation, "to utterly destroy hope ... of collective conversations on either side of the table." Because of their devotion to "collegiality" and constructive "dialogue," universities were in the chancellor's view "not factories ... not like any other industry." And yet, when pressed by one graduate student to explain the ongoing "outsourcing" of academic labor in the 1990s -- the employment of adjuncts -- Berdahl tacitly admitted that in this instance, the factory model may have invaded the academy. This did not mean, however, that unionization was the answer.

"Unions," Berdahl reminded the history TAs ominously, "have not prevented [corporate] downsizing." Nor would recognition of TAs' right to bargain collectively, he warned, necessarily "lead to different decisions by the university" on employment practices than would otherwise be made. Even while declaring allegiance to the lofty ideals of academia, Berdahl hinted, none too subtly, that he was willing to bow to the bottom line if necessary.

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The hidden subtext of Berdahl's warning was this: Graduate students are expendable. At an elite university like Berkeley especially, TAs are an expensive commodity. Permanent faculty members may love to have graduate students around who share a passion for scholarship, who provide cheap research assistance and who are, almost by definition, eager to please professor-mentors who act as all-powerful gatekeepers to academic success.

But from the standpoint of university administration, graduate students are a luxury. They are not merely paid more than adjuncts when they teach; they also drain university resources with their fellowships, research and travel grants, and by tying up significant quantities of professors' own teaching time and office hours. Compared to the undergraduates whose tuition underwrites their paychecks, graduate students are indeed a privileged lot. Even the opportunity enjoyed by graduate students to teach undergrads, in many cases with little or no prior experience -- and of course, without the Ph.D. degree that ostensibly qualifies them for such teaching -- could arguably be considered a privilege, a valuable apprenticeship. TAs receive a salary, which currently includes health coverage, for what is, in effect, on-the-job training. Not everyone outside the academy is so lucky.

Of course, the chance afforded graduate students to teach is not merely a privilege, but also a serious responsibility. And many TAs, unwilling to abdicate their duties to their students at a critical time of year, have opted out of the December strike, regardless of their personal views on unionization. Graduate students were, after all, once undergraduates themselves, and most of them do not take lightly the prospect of walking out on their students.

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Lisa Swartout, the head TA of Berkeley's core European history survey course this fall, was herself an undergraduate at Berkeley, and knows how crucial a role graduate TAs play in large lecture courses. As an undergrad, Swartout recalls, "I really had to fight for any attention that I got"; as a graduate TA, she now feels a reciprocal obligation to her undergraduate students, recognizing that she represents "one of their lifelines to the university." To cut off this lifeline is not an easy decision to make, and even many dues-paying TA union members are hesitating before making it.

When the University of California reinforces the ranks of these non-striking TAs with recruits from the vast statewide pool of underemployed Ph.D.s -- all potential scabs, on the cheap -- the expendability of graduate teaching assistants may be rudely exposed. If graduate students continue the national trend of striking for union recognition, Chancellor Berdahl admonished Berkeley's history TAs in a barely veiled threat, "universities will shift resources towards [adjuncts]." After all, doing so would be both "cheaper" and "easier" than dealing with militant union representatives. What's more, Berdahl concluded, the inevitable result of more adjunct hiring would be a "shrinking of graduate programs." By demanding to be treated as union labor, strikers may indeed win the right to be treated as union labor, and see most of their jobs taken over by non-union adjuncts -- who will actually be more qualified and more experienced than the unionized employees they are replacing. Those few TAs still hired each semester may enjoy "predictability," with full knowledge of their rights and benefits; but the mushrooming ranks of graduate students turned down for teaching positions would enjoy no benefits, no compensation, at all. The strikers may, in short, be punished by their success.

By diverting attention away from the desperate plight of the adjuncts, graduate student strikers may also have unwittingly played right into the hands of the cost-cutting university administrators who are their true adversaries. In California, the TA strikes have mobilized the university's legal department in a concerted, and very expensive, effort to block unionization. After their battles with striking graduate students, U.C. administrators are not likely to suffer kindly any future unionization drives by adjuncts; and without the eventual organization of adjuncts, it is hard to imagine that the tenured academic labor squeeze -- the vanishing professor problem -- will disappear. The frustrating experience with TA unions may instead teach universities that exploiting adjuncts is the ideal way to toe the bottom line and accelerate the process of academic corporatization already under way. Graduate students are, ideally, future professors in the making, but in practice most of them will end up, sooner or later, as adjuncts. Many of these unlucky adjuncts may come to regret the way they abused the privileges they once enjoyed as graduate students, when they bit the hand that was still feeding them generously even while those less fortunate fought desperately for any scraps thrown their way.

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Sean McMeekin

Sean McMeekin is a Ph.D. candidate in history at UC-Berkeley and a freelance writer.

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