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Graduate Student Strikes (#1217)

Topics/tags: Academia

Graduate student union strikes have been in the news of late, from the system-wide strike for living wages at the University of California [1,2] to Temple’s union-busting tactics [3]. I find myself asking what my responsibility would or should be to strikes at other schools or what I’d do if I were at one of these schools.

I was raised in what I’d call a union-positive household. My mother grew up in union housing [4]. My father grew up in a socialist commune [5]. Although they became professionals, both remained pro-union and pro-worker. Mom taught at BU, which undoubtedly needed a faculty union under Silber’s reign [6]. I’m told that dad, in his leadership role at Polaroid, convinced Land not to lay off workers during a downturn [7].

Mom used to tell me a story about going somewhere with a friend and encountering a picket line. Her friend, who I think came from wealth, was inclined to cross it. Mom’s inclination was to join in. Isn’t it amazing that there was a time when people on opposite sides could remain friends?

Two of my cousins spent their careers as union workers. Two of my offspring are at schools with graduate unions. One benefits from a strong union. One does not. My father-in-law was in a union; I saw the negative effects he experienced when his employer successfully busted that union.

While I admit that there are flaws in some unions, I firmly believe that unions provide workers with necessary protections from a system that treats them as disposable cogs. And I know that most important modern workers’ rights, such as a forty-hour work week and workplace safety rules, stem from union work. So I support unions.

The recent news has me asking what I would do if I were at a place like Temple. Given the threats to grad students [8], I assume that schools make other threats to faculty who intend to honor the strike line—perhaps threats of dismissal, almost certainly threats of lost salary.

Some decisions seem easy—for example, no scabbing. I wouldn’t pick up the work of a teaching assistant on strike. No teaching their classes. No doing their grading.

What about research? In some labs with ongoing experiments, it’s essential to keep the experiments running; it feels like there’s too much at stake not to [9]. But the goal should be to do the least possible to get by. At least, I think it would be. Fortunately, I don’t run the kind of lab that requires experiments to stay running, so that wouldn’t be an issue I’d encounter. However, were I in, say, biology, I’d see no alternative than crossing the line to keep my research subjects alive, whatever alive means to each subject.

What about crossing a picket line to teach? My initial inclination would be to honor the line [10]. But I don’t know how I’d react to the threat of losing my job. Perhaps more importantly, I would feel an obligation to serve the undergraduates in my classes. Most of them have already lost so much learning with the effects of the pandemic; they shouldn’t lose more [11]. Am I a chickenshit for vacillating on the question?

Fortunately, we don’t have graduate students at Grinnell, so this exercise is primarily conceptual. Yay! I can avoid deep introspection [12].

Nonetheless, I have concluded that academic strikes are much more complicated than industrial strikes; the latter primarily affect shareholders and executives (as they should); the former have broader indirect effects.

In any case, I send good thoughts to the students and faculty at institutions in which students (and, sometimes, faculty) must strike to get appropriate wages, benefits, and protections. I wish administrators didn’t force things to reach breaking points.

[1] Universities of California?

[2] Are living wages for graduate students possible in California?

[3] I’d like to add an impolite adjective before union-busting, but I can’t come op with one.

[4] The Amalgamated Housing Cooperative.

[5] In Stelton, New Jersey.

[6] I’d forgotten that the BU faculty strike was the same year dad died. How did mom manage to deal with both?

[7] As I recall the story, the plan was to loan excess workers to the city for extra support; by the time the details could be ironed out, the downturn was over.

[8] Temple has cut off medical benefits and is billing them for tuition.

[9] For example, dead cell lines could set back work for many years.

[10] As I said, my mom would likely have joined the line.

[11] Damn. Does that also complicate the don’t scab policy.).

[12] Shallow introspection suffices.

Version 1.0 of 2023-02-27.