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Wednesday, April 02, 2014

UC Student-Workers Union #HoldTheLine Against Unfair Labor Practices

Today and tomorrow, student-workers are going on strike to protest unfair labor practices (ULPs) by the University of California after its administrators refused to meet their (very reasonable) bargaining demands and threatened union members who might participate in a strike. The UC Student-Workers Union, UAW Local 2865, represents over 12,000 graduate and undergraduate Academic Student Employees-- all of them Tutors, Readers and/or Teaching Assistants-- across the nine campuses of the University of California. Since last year, UAW2865 has been attempting to negotiate better, more democratic and fair, working conditions for its members.  Their demands fall chiefly into five categories, listed in the image to your left: (1) equal access for all undocumented workers, (2) all-gender bathrooms, (3) disability justice, (4) support for student families and (5) living wages and smaller class sizes.

Yesterday, in advance of the strike, UAW2865 members released a document entitled "Why We Are Striking" that includes what is perhaps one of the most succinct and compelling diagnoses of higher education's labor problems that I've ever read.  I strongly encourage you to read the entire letter.  Among its many virtues, the letter's straightforward demystification of what are widely-held to be "meritocratic" standards for academic employment is as honest and descriptively accurate as it is condemnatory. Special kudos to UAW2865 for not pulling any punches in their letter.  Their critical blows are hard, but fair, and they point to the Emperor's nakedness as both a revelation and a solicitation.  After teeing-up their argument with a scathing analysis of the widespread  investment, on the part of college and university administrations, in a narrative of exemplarity and exclusivity, UAW2965 delivers their coup de grĂ¢ce in the following: "the university offers a foretaste of the total domination of workers by management."

Again, you really should read the whole of the  "Why We Are Striking Letter" (it's really not long, you REALLY should read it!), but allow me a couple of particularly impressive pull-quotes here:
To exist, universities depend on the extraction of un- and underpaid labor from students and faculty, exploiting a population convinced of its special intelligence and competitive edge. Fear of imposture, of mere adequacy, is the coin of the academic realm. As minter of this coin, the university holds its subjects in a state of blind dependency...

The university profits by our atomization, our disunity; it encourages our delusions of specialness, our faith in anointment and meritocratic providence; it thrives on our belief, against every shred of evidence, that we are not workers. We are striking because we are workers. We are striking, not to withdraw our labor arbitrarily, but so that we can find each other outside the walls of the academy. We are striking so that we do not to end up like the fortunate ones.

There are no fair labor practices in the academy or anywhere else; there are only gains the we win for ourselves, together, fighting.
To those outside of academia who might (reasonably) protest that academic working conditions, however problematic, are a VERY FAR cry from sweatshop labor: let me be the first to concede that point.  But I'll also point out that the reason most people think that is because when we think of academic workers, we tend to think of the exceptions and not (what is quickly becoming) the vast majority of academic workers.  That tenured Professor who you've seen in the movies, or who teaches (though likely doesn't grade or even interact with) your college-aged kid, or who is your neighbor, or who in some other way fills whatever imaginative space that you've carved out for academics, IS NOT the norm. Yes, those guys exist, but they do so on the backs of thousands and thousands of un- or insufficiently-paid undergraduate, graduate, adjunct and fixed-term laborers, all of whom are the workers who keep the Academic Country Club in business.  

It's way past time for everyone to reckon with THIS (increasing and unfortunate) reality: the administration of academia is now a business. Like any business that aims to stay in business, universities and colleges are making decisions with an eye toward maximizing profit/prestige and minimizing loss of the same.  So it should come as no surprise to anyone with any capacity for basic utilitarian calculus that the cheaper labor can be bought, the more profitable one's margins become, and exponentially so if "free" (un- or underpaid) laborers can be employedin one's service. AND/YET/BUT... we also should note that still, in some version of what I would consider bad faith, we take academia to be a business unlike any other business. It is not.

As much as I hate this particular formulation of academia's telos, it is nevertheless widely presumed that our vocation is (and is manifestly being administrated/managed as) THE business that produces presumably profit-generating workers and, by virtue of that presumption, academia justifies itself in meta-designating itself as immune to the charges that might be leveled against other businesses' unfair labor practices. UAW2865's letter is, not to put too fine a point on it, calling bullshit on those presumptions. To wit, I don't think it matters where you stand in re the "purity" of the goals of education.  Even if you're entirely in favor of academia being run-like-a-business, you ought object to it's demonstrably documented inability to do so.  This is at least one point in the immensely complex grid of power, virtue, wealth, privilege, truth AND merit that may join together people of otherwise-irreconcilable difference.

Academia, as it is currently configured and being re-configured, is not good "education."  It's not even good "business."

Full disclosure: I don't care that academia is not "good business."  In fact, I'm more than happy to see that it isn't.  For those reasons, I urge readers of this blog to #holdtheline with the strikers of UAW285.