February 5, 2023

What’s at Stake in the University of California Graduate-Worker Strike

For much of the public, organized labor has an image that’s rooted in nostalgia: hands getting dirtied, faces smudged with soot, lives at risk from one piece of heavy machinery or another. This is an outdated vision of work and union organizing in a country whose industrial and manufacturing core is evaporating. But the fantasy that all labor is blue-collar persists, in large part, because organized labor itself has become much less of a daily presence in the lives of most Americans. People in leftist circles constantly circulate two facts that, at first glance, seem to be contradictory. The first is that only around ten per cent of employed Americans are part of a labor union. The second is that, despite the decline in participation, more than seventy per cent of Americans, according to a recent Gallup poll, support labor unions—the highest favorability since 1965.

The mismatch between public opinion and reality comes from a host of external pressures, whether globalization and the shipping of former union jobs to foreign countries; the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which restricted union activity; or the aggressive, increasingly creative, and legally and societally condoned manner in which corporations break up organizing efforts. But there also seems to be a lag between the public conception of who participates in organized labor, and what jobs actually look like today.

A few days before students filed out of town for Thanksgiving break, I spent some time walking around the campus of the University of California, Berkeley. Some forty-eight thousand unionized graduate-student and postdoctoral workers, who are represented by the United Auto Workers, across the ten campuses of the University of California (U.C.) system had recently gone out on strike. At first, many of the striking workers had gathered near Sproul Hall, the traditional protest space in town and the site where, in 1964, Mario Savio famously told his fellow-participants in the Free Speech Movement to “put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels.” But, on the day of my visit, that site had been largely abandoned because the conservative provocateur Matt Walsh had arrived on campus for his “What Is a Woman?” tour. The workers didn’t want to get dragged into what many saw as a stunt.

Some graduate workers assembled, instead, in a small plaza near the law school. I followed a group who split off to form a picket line in front of the International House, where there was a planned furniture drop-off that day. An organizer said the goal was to block this to create as much disruption as possible. The vast majority of drivers passing by honked their horns, drawing cheers from the crowd.

The graduate workers’ list of demands is long, and has included child-care subsidies and better health care, but the main concern comes from the tension between the traditionally low stipends that graduate students receive and the high cost of living in California. A survey conducted by the U.A.W. found that ninety-two per cent of graduate-student workers spend more than thirty per cent of their salaries on rent, which qualifies them as “rent burdened” by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development.

That rent is too high and pay is too low is the biggest unifying concern for the forty-eight thousand on strike, but many also have grave concerns about their lives after graduate school. In the line, I met Joel Auerbach, a third-year Ph.D. candidate in the rhetoric department with the swarthy good looks and muted yet fidgety mannerisms of a young Mark Ruffalo. Like many doctoral students in the humanities, Auerbach faces a shrinking academic job market and great uncertainty about the employment value of his degree.

The graduate-student-worker arrangement, Auerbach told me, is premised on a kind of apprenticeship model. “You don’t make very much as a grad student, and you’re expected to do menial tasks for your professors. And eventually, you replace them and you have that job security at the end of the line,” Auerbach said. “That’s increasingly not the case today. Those tenure-track jobs have really dried up. So for many of us, that same deal that made the whole thing function is really no longer on the table, which means that the way that we’re paid in the meantime is much more significant.”

Some strikers expressed a worry about a potential divide between science and math workers, and their colleagues in the humanities. This, at least to me, seems like the most concerning potential breaking point for the strikes. The difference is less ideological, and more a reflection of the state of job markets. STEM graduate workers are not beholden to the academy to pursue a career in their fields; in fact, many have little interest in staying in the academy after they receive their degrees when they can instead use their credentials to enter high-paying careers in tech, pharma, aerospace, or finance. The system still works, in large part, for them.

This is not true for humanities workers. Their degrees will likely help them find employment, but the connections between their studies and their labor will be far more tenuous, or, in many cases, more or less nonexistent. Right now, the great point of leverage that the strikers seem to have is the simple fact that finals are coming up, and it’s difficult to see how undergraduates and faculty will be able to finish up their semester without the mass of graduate students who do everything from proctoring exams to grading papers. But, once that passes and the new year begins, how many STEM graduate students who have six-figure jobs waiting for them will grow tired of delaying their research and their dissertations? How long will solidarity last between people who, for the most part, have entirely different incentives for their graduate work?

One would think that, in a country where people are overwhelmingly in favor of unions, there would be broad support of the U.C. graduate-student strike. The comparison of average salaries and rent should be enough. But although there hasn’t been much outward public resistance, there’s still an undercurrent of head-scratching about what, exactly, a strike of graduate students actually means. Auerbach and his fellow humanities graduate workers, of course, signed up for this arrangement; the precarity of the academic job market isn’t exactly new or something that has materialized over the past three years. If there simply aren’t enough jobs for humanities doctorates, should it follow that universities should enroll fewer humanities doctorates, over all, and that the ones remaining might receive better pay and benefits as a result? There are also questions about how seriously we should take claims of precarity from the academic élite—perhaps a doctoral student might not be able to find a job as a tenure-track professor, but their educational background would set them up for any number of stable positions in other fields.

These questions, whether fair or not, linger at the edges of the strike. I have heard them around campus, and in private conversations with friends and colleagues. They bring up the central contradiction at the heart of the country’s perception of labor: people want to support unions, but their sympathies are limited by their ideas of what unions should be.

But the surplus of humanities doctorates, of course, is not an accident. Around the turn of the millennium, the number of students pursuing undergraduate degrees was exploding, and, as Kevin Carey wrote in a thorough breakdown for the Times, the proportion of stable teaching jobs wasn’t keeping up. Adjunct faculty and graduate students were employed to make up for the shortage. If universities cannot function without a fleet of low-wage workers who are exploited under a false promise of better future employment, the solution seems relatively simple: abandon the apprenticeship model and all its sentimental trappings, and simply treat and pay graduate workers as professionals first, students second.

As I was leaving the strike, I saw a woman on stilts wearing a Rosie the Riveter dress and singing Woody Guthrie’s “Union Burying Ground” into a megaphone. After she was finished, there was some discussion among her group about whether the lyrics might have been a bit macabre, or perhaps too obscure. This scene, I admit, was the sort of funny observation that reporters collect in their notebooks and seed throughout their pieces in place of pure editorializing about how they feel about their reportage. The image of graduate students at one of the most prestigious universities in the world draping themselves in the images of home-front workers who built ships during the Second World War might carry a tinge of irony or, perhaps, misaligned nostalgia. Even so, the seventy per cent of Americans who support unions should understand that the future of organized labor won’t be in coal mines or steel mills but in places that might cut against the stereotypes, in spaces that might be hard to recognize. The Rosie the Riveter museum is situated ten miles north of campus, on the waterfront of Richmond, California. One can honor all that it stands for—the ships, the labor, the camaraderie—while still recognizing that it is a museum for a reason. ♦

Share your thoughts and questions about this column by e-mailing the author at jaykangnewsletter@newyorker.com.

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