[Marxism] Graduate workers at Harvard are striking. Here’s what they want, and how they plan to get it.
lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Dec 17 06:14:37 MST 2019
Chronicle of Higher Education, Dec. 17, 2019
Graduate workers at Harvard are striking. Here’s what they want, and how
they plan to get it.
By MAXIMILIAN ALVAREZ
Harvard graduate students are on strike. On December 3, more than 4,000
members of Harvard Graduate Students Union-UAW hit the picket line after
negotiations with the university hit an impasse. The union, which the
university formally recognized in May 2018, has been negotiating with
Harvard officials for over a year. HGSU-UAW is demanding better pay and
more benefits to address what graduate workers have reported as
unmanageable costs of living — covering basic necessities like housing,
child care, and mental-health care — in one of the most expensive areas
of the country.
Also at issue are the university's procedures for handling harassment
and discrimination charges. As reported by James S. Bikales and Ruoqi
Zhang at The Harvard Crimson, “The union has proposed that student
workers be given an option to raise sexual harassment and discrimination
complaints through a union grievance procedure — a dispute resolution
mechanism outside of current internal Harvard channels, and one that
could eventually lead to third-party arbitration in some cases.” For
graduate workers, the importance of ensuring the availability of such
mechanisms was made apparent with the university’s handling of
allegations brought against former professor Jorge Domínguez. The
administration also raised eyebrows for graduate workers and many
faculty by asking departments to monitor graduate workers’ participation
in the strike.
Striking graduate workers include Shom Mazumder, a Ph.D. student in
government, and Erik Baker, a Ph.D. student in the history of science.
Joined by Kirsten Weld, a history professor, they spoke to The
Chronicle’s Maximilian Alvarez about the strike, the vexed question of
whether faculty are management, and the actions of the Harvard
Why are you striking?
Mazumder: There was a tenured professor in the government department,
Jorge Domínguez, against whom charges of sexual harassment and assault
were made, which led to a Title IX investigation. It was discovered that
he had done this first a long time ago. Even after the administration
nominally admonished him, he still rose to pretty high positions in the
A big part of this fight — in addition to the basic demands around
health care, dental, parental-leave policies — is protecting student
workers in the future from professors like Jorge Domínguez.
One of the key bargaining issues has been this third-party grievance
procedure. That’s a standard type of contract that Harvard has with its
other unionized employees. But the administration has not budged at all
on allowing for a third-party arbitration mechanism. So we’re stuck on that.
Baker: The other issues that we’re fighting for have been about the cost
and access to health care, as well as basic compensation for teaching
and research work. This is one of the most expensive areas to live in
the entire United States. And graduate students are receiving
compensation that makes it challenging just to afford the cost of
housing. We heard from members who are regularly spending 70 to 80
percent of their entire paycheck on housing alone.
These issues are familiar from the workers’ movement, whether that’s
workers at McDonald’s, or hotel workers who have been fighting for
protections from sexual harassment and discrimination on the basis of
race or nationality.
A lot of the rhetoric that opponents of our strike have used to try to
delegitimize our action has emphasized the differences between
grad-student workers and other kinds of workers. It makes sense that
this is the kind of tactic that would be deployed on this campus, where
so many members of the faculty, and members of the local community, are
politically progressive, and may even do research themselves into the
benefits of unions. In order to turn them against the strike, it’s
necessary to argue that what’s going on right now is fundamentally
different from what’s going on in the rest of the labor movement. But at
the end of the day, we are workers who come into work, do work that
makes this university a ton of money, and we’re fighting for exactly the
same issues that unionized workers are fighting for all around the country.
Weld: One thing that’s notable about what the Harvard Grad Students
Union has been able to accomplish is that it’s a relatively new
formation in the higher-ed landscape in the U.S. If you look at the
Ivies and other big private universities like NYU, there have been
organizing drives ongoing for, in some cases, decades. At Yale, where I
went to grad school, that dates back to the early 1990s. What I think
has been impressive about what’s happened at Harvard is how quickly the
bargaining unit has gone from nonexistence to full-on, no-time-limit
strike. From an organizing perspective, that’s very impressive.
What’s the foundational conflict between the grad-student workers and
the Harvard administration when it comes to things like third-party
arbitration for grievances as an alternative to Title IX procedures?
Mazumder: At the end of the day, Title IX is a liability-mitigation
institution. It does obviously provide some forum, but it’s failed many
of the people who have either tried to go through the system and were
encouraged not to escalate, or who were deterred from going into the
system at all.
We believe that this type of arbitration system would allow for a
different kind of mechanism for people to make a claim about gender
discrimination or sexual harassment. From the perspective of the
government-department student workers, this has motivated a lot of the
pressure. There’s a deep lack of confidence and trust.
Baker: Whatever the inadequacies of the existing Title IX system may be
— and there are many inadequacies — there isn’t even a comparably
inadequate system to deal with cases of racial discrimination,
discrimination on the basis of national origin, and a variety of other
categories of discrimination, which occur with some regularity on
campus. This is a problem that’s pervasive, and, currently, the way that
it’s supposed to be dealt with (through various kinds of ad hoc and
informal mechanisms), exacerbates the power differentials that exist
between faculty and students, exacerbates the uncertainties surrounding
the position of graduate students, who are simultaneously doing work for
their advisers on a very short-term, semester-by-semester, week-by-week
basis, but who are also dependent on advisers and other faculty members
on a much longer time scale for their career advancement and their
status within the profession.
There’s a profound irony with regard to that ambiguity in the
faculty-student relationship. Harvard, throughout the negotiations, and
especially during our strike, has been trying to have it both ways here:
On the one hand, during the strike, Harvard has attempted to impose
novel obligations of surveillance and discipline on faculty, arguing
that faculty are management and have distinctive management obligations
and, therefore, are obliged to report on students who are striking, to
keep track of students’ striking behavior, and ultimately to help the
administration dock pay of students who may be striking. But at the same
time, when students are attempting to argue for these contract
provisions that would help provide a safeguard against abusive behavior
from faculty supervisors, the university wants to argue that the
faculty-student relationship is primarily one of collegiality, that it
is a kind of level playing field where pervasive power differentials are
exaggerated by student activists, and that retaining a purely informal
process of resolution is necessary to preserve the intellectual
relationship between students and faculty.
We’re seeing the pervasive ambiguity in the relationship between faculty
and students be exploited by Harvard right now, in real time. And that’s
why we think that a contract that precisely delineates what these
obligations may be, and that provides mechanisms of recourse for
students who are victimized by professors in a position of much greater
power than them, is so significant for student workers on campus.
Weld: The issue of faculty being management is an interesting one, and
kind of a funny exception in U.S. labor law. The Yeshiva decision from
1980 ruled that faculty at private institutions do count as management,
whereas their counterparts at public institutions do not (and therefore
may, for example, organize in their own unions).
The administration has behaved in this strike based on the assumption
that faculty will act as management, and that they will simply do the
things that they are told by the university. Most relevant to this
discussion is the question of gathering information on which graduate
teachers are participating in the strike and which ones are not.
I think that was a real wake-up call for a number of faculty. There is a
real sense of shock among my colleagues at the ease with which the
administration is assuming that we are going to do their dirty work. For
the record, there are some departments that have made the decision not
to comply with these informational requests from the administration.
It’s bad pedagogy and bad advising, too, for us to assume the authority
of policing the labor activities of graduate teachers. There’s more
discontent among the faculty than you think.
Mazumder: The chair [of the government department] sent out emails to
current Teaching Fellows, asking them about their strike participation.
If they didn’t email back, then they would be assumed to be
participating in the strike.
Our position in organizing against this in real time is that faculty are
not necessarily management. And, moreover, this is not necessarily a
task that a department chair should be having to deal with. Monitoring
students’ hours and wages is not something that department chairs have
traditionally done, nor should they be doing. We view the decision to
outsource this type of activity as intimidation.
Baker: One thing that’s been really striking (no pun intended) and
energizing has been the solidarity displayed with us from other local
and campus unions. The drivers and Teamsters, Local 25, which represents
a lot of the UPS drivers and other drivers who make deliveries to
Harvard, have respected our picket lines. And that has led to a lot of
disruption. As well as unionized workers who do garbage collection on
campus. As well as, of course, the workers in the Harvard Union of
Clerical and Technical Workers and the Harvard dining workers, Local 26.
They have been extremely supportive, speaking at our picket lines,
categorically making clear their refusal to substitute for the work
that’s being withdrawn by striking students. That has really been
powerful — to show students, who may not be used to thinking of
themselves as part of a broader labor movement, that there are people on
this campus, in this city, in this country, around the world who have
their backs, who will show up to respect our picket lines, who are
committing to help us win this thing, because they know that the
benefits that we win here will be victories for the broader labor movement.
Weld: Periodically, faculty members will say, with reference, for
instance, to the wage increases that the union is asking for, “That
would make the grad students’ salaries increase faster than ours!
Hahaha.” And, of course, it would, because then one of the major bodies
of unorganized folks on campus would be faculty, who have no mechanism
by which to ask for regular wage increases.
So you do get a kind of funny situation where graduate teachers are
standing up and asserting themselves as a group of workers in a way that
the faculty never have. There are all kinds of funny ironies nested in
there. But, to agree with Shom, of course, there’s no reason why faculty
need to comply with instructions from the university administration
about gathering information on student participation. I’m pretty sure
that all of those kinds of directives are just boilerplate purchased by
the university from whatever expensive labor-busting law firm it has
contracted to help it manage this strike.
There is a kind of umbrella of legal organizations and lawyers that
helps private universities bust their grad unions. And they work with
each other across institutions, and they share information, and they
share tactics, and language, and that kind of thing. Of course, Harvard
doesn’t like to think of itself as being like Target, but in this
respect, it is.
What does this strike tell us about the broader political economy of
higher education today?
Baker: It’s easy to tell the declensionist story where this conflict
shows how corrupted higher education has gotten. And now we have
students fighting back. Certainly there have been all sorts of negative
structural changes implemented across the landscape of American higher
ed in the last couple of decades.
But I am a U.S. intellectual historian. I spend a lot of time reading
the letters and diaries of people who taught in American universities in
the first two-thirds of the 20th century. Something like this would have
been inconceivable then, because at the time, the way that American
higher education was formalized was as a profoundly feudal and intensely
circumscribed apprentice system, where people from a very particular
kind of social background were admitted into the hallowed territory of
postgraduate education. They did their time and understood that if they
went along with the process, they would get what was coming to them.
What we’re seeing now is the heightening or the emergence of new
contradictions as there have been attempts to expand the ranks of the
professoriate to include people who have not been able to be rest
assured that if they submitted to discipline now, they would rise to the
top of the hierarchy in due time.
That sort of diversification — or expansion, or however you want to
characterize it — has not just been resisted from more revanchist or
reactionary elements in the academy; it has also produced a fundamental
tension at the heart of this extremely hierarchical apprenticeship
model. To me, to the extent that [this strike] speaks to the
contemporary landscape of higher education, it shows that there are
people who are now in the academy who aren’t in a position to just wait
and see. They’re certainly not guaranteed any sort of cushy position.
They’re coming in with novel levels of debt from their undergrad
education; they’re subjected not just to ordinary kinds of labor
exploitation in the academy, but to forms of discrimination and
disparagement and victimization on the basis of race or gender, sexual
orientation, national origin. And the calculation has changed for a lot
of students. All of a sudden, there isn’t this traditional sequence that
unfolds before you and you just have to climb up the ladder. It’s a lot
harder to see whether there is a ladder, to believe that that ladder was
made for you and for people like you. So people are more willing to
demand that their graduate education be one of dignity and respect, free
from exploitation and victimization, because there’s no guarantee that
this is all just part of the game.
Weld: I think 2008 and the financial crisis was a huge watershed in this
Old-timers — my own advisers — would have said, “Oh, well, it wasn’t
that easy for us to get jobs either back in the late 1970s and early
1980s.” But I think the statistics are very, very clear. If you look at
my discipline, history, the American Historical Association maintains
numbers of Ph.D.s produced in U.S. universities per year, and the number
of job postings for historians per year. There is a cliff that the
discipline falls off after the financial crisis that it’s never been
able to scale again.
2008 is 11 years ago now. And I do think there has been a learning
curve. But not as quick or not as sharp a learning curve as we might
like. Very eminent senior faculty who’ve been at an institution for
several decades suddenly, now, are starting to see with their own eyes
that even their students aren’t getting jobs, even in top-ranked, very
As a result of changes to academic-labor relations over the past 40
years, faculty have become increasingly itinerant, and there is higher
turnover. You cannot be as assured that the faculty whom you may be
working with at one point are going to be there the following year. How
does this set the table for organizers on campuses today?
Baker: It is uniquely challenging to create in workplaces like ours a
culture of organizing. This is, in part, because of the extent to which
the career path of a lot of people who enter into the workplace is
extremely individualized. People very much perceive themselves to be on
an individualized trajectory that, for a particular moment, may
intersect with the career trajectory of others, that may intersect with
the HGSU-UAW bargaining unit, but there are challenges that people face
in terms of really conceptualizing themselves as members of an enduring
and substantial collective.
One example that I have been thinking about this week is that I
anticipate the next semester will be my last semester teaching and,
therefore, as a member of the bargaining unit. So the contract that I am
striking for now may actually not benefit me personally as much as it
will the first- and second-year students in my department who do not
actually have to teach right now, but who will benefit once they are
teaching in another year or two. And yet, it’s been a lot harder to get
first- and second-year students out demonstrating with us. And I think
that that’s, in part, because you’re encouraged in academia to have a
very week-by-week, semester-by-semester view of yourself and your
position. And this isn’t just a cultural thing. There are real pressures
to constantly be looking at the next step you’re going to take in order
to get out of the position that you are in right now and into a position
that is more stable or more prestigious or whatever.
So there’s that sense of constant and individualized movement that makes
it harder for a real culture of organizing to congeal. I was just
talking with a Teamster, Local 25 member this week, and he was
astonished that there were so many people in our unit who were not
joining the strike. And he said that, in his union, that was completely
inconceivable. But there are sympathetic people who are out of town and
unable to join the picket. And there are people who don’t even
necessarily understand what it might mean for them to strike in their
position right now. But what we’ve always tried to do is to build up
that culture of organizing.
Even if, as is the case in most humanities and soft-social-science
departments, you are not a member of the bargaining unit until your
second or third year on campus, the day that you show up, you’re hearing
about our union, you’re forming relationships with union organizers.
You’re learning about the issues that student workers face. You’re
hearing stories from your friends. People are open and honest about the
challenges, and that collective bargaining and collective action is seen
as an important solution for these problems. These problems aren’t just
the kinds of things that you have to go through as a sort of rite of
passage in graduate school. These are problems that are changeable, that
are political and that are collective, that it’s not just you who’s in
this boat. And that is often a realization that takes some time to dawn
on a lot of graduate students. But it is a realization that we try to
hurry along as much as possible through our organizing, just department
by department, community by community.
Weld: Andrew Ross and others have written about the mental-labor problem
— the idea that, if you’re doing something that’s a kind of intellectual
and creative vocation, then you’re not a “real worker.” And that’s the
entry-level hurdle for organizing grad students, whatever kind of
institution you’re at.
The challenge on the faculty end of things is to think about how we can
create the most supportive and nurturing environment for graduate
students to do their work. That’s not an environment we’re going to be
able to build without a much more robust sense of ourselves as a
collective, working together to try to hash out some basic ethical
principles for how to best be there for our students.
Baker: At the end of the day, it all boils down to a basic irony:
Harvard and many other university administrations are trying to have
their cake and eat it, too. They want to transform the university into a
sort of corporation — in many ways, much more like a conventional
business workplace — but they do not want the consequence of that, which
is ordinary worker mobilization of the kind that we see in workplaces
all across the country.
Maximilian Alvarez is an associate editor at The Chronicle Review.
More information about the Marxism