An Uphill Battle: grad students at UNL trying to unionize

Graduate students at UNL and across the country are facing poverty-level wages at the hand’s of their universities. Mark Honey caught up with Unionize UNL member Levi about what their organization is doing to combat this issue.

Mark Honey: When and why did you start this campaign?

Levi: It started last spring/late winter, if not a little bit before. It came out of a couple of things, obviously the TPUSA dust up was a catalyst for people having conversations about the precarity of graduate assistants and lecturer positions on campus. There were already conversations about stipends and health insurance, and so on. I think another event was the proposal to change the tax law so that tuition waivers would be counted as income. For example, that would have been something like a 30% reduction in my income.

MH: Oh, so they’d count that you could go to school there as wages?

L: Yeah, they’d count the waiver. It’s $20k or something on paper, it’s not actually money. Of course, that was all happening as they made it easier to form pass-through corporations (in other words for rich people to pay less income tax). So, there was some scattered organization by the Graduate Student’s Association – which was actually formed to prevent unionization about 20 years ago. Or so that’s the story I’ve been told. They gave a venue for complaints to hold off actual unionizing.

One of the things they were doing was organizing petitions, letter writing campaigns, and phone calls to congressmen. Out of that, little groups started forming and people got serious about unionizing as a solid campaign. So, it began in earnest very early last spring. This iteration [of the association], anyway. Unionizing drives have happened before… It’s obviously an uphill battle.

MH: Why is that?

L: I think it’s a logistical thing, a spatial issue. There are a large number of grad students with disparate issues and functions; it’s hard to get people together. They’re pretty isolated and motivated by different things. As well as this strange stratum where they’re sometimes treated as students and sometimes as administrative employees, it’s kind of whatever’s convenient.

It’s hard. People know their program, department, and college, but getting a broad effort together is fairly difficult just logistically. The other big thing is that people are pretty strapped in terms of time and effort. The academic job market being what it is, there’s a lot of anxiety already. Doing anything that would be disruptive, if you can find the time to do it, [brings] very real risks. Grad students are single moms, undocumented [immigrants], people who don’t have any room for any additional problems.

Some people don’t see the value right off the bat, some people just don’t see the benefit of labor organizing. There’s a sort of generational lack of consciousness around solidarity and being part of a union. That said, there’s a ton of interest. The big thing is getting people together and figuring out what to do, concretely.

MH: So what made you decide grad students were the group to unionize?

L: First off, everyone should be in a union if you’re a worker. In terms of this campus in particular, grad students are poorly paid. The stories we hear about graduate students who are making far below the poverty wage. There are plenty of people on campus who get a nominal stipend of about $9k a year, and then they pay 2-3k back in fees to the university. So you’ve got people who before taxes are taking home maybe $6k.

MH: Is that full time work?

L: Yeah, so people are teaching “two-twos” which means teaching two sections a semester. They’ll be teaching 130 students a year and making $6k. We have [grad] students relying on food pantries and having to make decisions when their health insurance changes. One colleague told me they had to choose between groceries and medical supplies. If you have any kind of chronic medical need, this is pretty real. We can compare [UNL pay] to other universities, but it doesn’t make it as clear as comparing it to the poverty line.

MH: Or even the minimum wage.

L: Then we have international students who are making these wages. One of the most devastating parts of this is what ends up happening to working class and middle class kids who want to go on and research, learn, and do exactly what we’ve all been told to do; they’re the ones who can’t. With that kind of stipend you have to have some kind of support, or borrow money. And as we all know, even to get an undergraduate degree at this point people are borrowing pretty large sums of money. If you’re the first person in your family to get an undergraduate degree, you want to be the first person in your family to get a graduate degree. These are dreams that people have, but the facts are it’s just structurally not workable. Or you have to deal with the kind of hardship that most families can’t countenance.

You’re also staring down the reality that you may never make enough money to make it worth it. I want to be clear, too; there are lots of conversations on the effects on graduate students as individuals and as a class of people. But in every one of them, even the most strapped, they always bring up – as a primary concern – what’s happening to the institution [and] what this means for the quality of teaching.

So, in the same way for a lot of public and service employees, nurses, etc., organizing is not just about salaries and benefits. It’s also about, “Can we deliver the kind of care we feel that we’re obligated to deliver?” It’s very much the same in this case. The people that we talk to love and are proud of the University of Nebraska, and think Nebraskans should be proud of them too. I mean, this is a people’s institution. These people aren’t just grousing. They care a lot about the institution and its future. And when you’re so strapped that you’re going to food pantries, it’s difficult to be the kind of mentor, teacher and researcher you want to be.

There are all these ways the efficacy of the institution is being eroded; like, contingent faculty, adjuncts, and so on. There’s so much turnover, we have undergrads who don’t even know how to get a letter of recommendation. These sound like small things, but they end up really eroding the degree to which the institution can fulfill its stated mission.

MH: When you’re telling me this, I’m hearing a lot of similarities between you and the public school teachers in LA, Oakland, West Virginia. Do you see yourself within that same wave?

L: Absolutely. We know that with the erosion of the professional stature of public school teachers, there’s a concomitant degradation in the quality of teaching. There was a teacher in Texas recently who couldn’t go get her flu medication, some kind of problem with insurance. She had two or three children. She ended up dying of complications because the copay was too high. Say in Oklahoma, where they went to the four day school week, you have people working at Walmart on their days off. These are people with bachelor’s degrees who could be doing something else, but have chosen to serve their communities.

In that sense, when you hobble the professionals with this sort of neoliberalization… it’s happening at the university too. It gets really competitive, and it almost looks like fighting over leaving sometimes. That’s similar to what’s happening in K-12. The fight is very similar.

The ability to organize has been constrained in both contexts, so the wildcat strikes in WV and places demonstrate the circumstances exist, and teachers are aware nobody is representing them well, even the unions.

MH: I was wondering about that. I figure the professors and teachers at UNL are able to join an existing union. Is that not the case?

L: No. At UNO, academic professional staff do have a contract that’s negotiated through the American Association of University Professors.

That does exist [at UNL] but not as a union. Here it’s a professional association and advocacy group. They don’t negotiate contracts. At UNL none of the academic staff are unionized.

MH: Are the professors supportive of Unionize UNL?

L: I believe that the tenure track and contingent faculty are very interested in the idea of organizing. I can’t speak to specific efforts, but is there interest? Yes.

MH: Have you had any push back from the university?

L: Um, no. Only rumors that perhaps they’re aware. I personally haven’t had any conversations with administrators or anything. But again, I don’t see this as something that’s antagonistic to the admin in this regard. Their interests are our interests as far as wanting to keep the university functioning well and to do our jobs well. Clearly, some are antagonistic to the idea or hostile. But I haven’t experienced that. Doesn’t mean it’s out of the question.

As a note, at least the perception is that universities are getting really top-heavy in administration. You have administrators making half a million a year, with large staff [members] making well over six figures. Some of that looks difficult to justify when you’ve got grad students eating out of food pantries doing the teaching. Carrying a LOT of the teaching. In fact the university doesn’t exist without graduate students; it can’t function without graduate students.

MH: But it probably could function without some of these administrators.

L: I think there’s an argument to be made. [chuckles]

MH: What are some of the successes and what are some of the challenges?

L: I think success is just the degree to which people are looking for solidarity and for ways to concretely work towards power. To be heard together, to bring democracy to the workplace, and that’s the thing that I hear over and over.

Americans love democracy. We love democracy in our political system, talk about electoral politics constantly and set up our schools along democratic lines. The PTAs, churches, everything. But then when we go to work… We don’t. The expectation [in the workplace] is it just isn’t [democratic].

There’s a lot of questioning of that arrangement, particularly in universities. They are “liberal bulwarks” on some levels. They serve as a conscience for the society, a place where we sometimes ask difficult questions. They’re a place where young educated people can become what they want to become. Part of that is that questioning. That’s an instrumental value in universities. I think they’re under attack because of that. But I think one of the successes is just by getting people together and trying to grow the effort people feel really empowered.

I think the challenges are just like standard challenges of organizing anything. It’s hard to organize and hard to get people together. Grad students are super busy, like so many of us, and it’s just hard fought to find time and energy. That said, the number of people who have given so much to this effort already is pretty high and mind-blowing. That’s heartening for me. People who have so much going on and so many things to worry about still find time to care for and support one another in concrete ways. Childcare is a lift here and there.

Success for me here is obviously getting a contract, but there are stages. We just want to get a good organizing committee, do a petition, and then move on to the ballot. Get the ballot and then get the contract. We have clear steps, but it’s important to just count the work itself as a success. It’s a cliche, but it’s true! Just working with people in solidarity is a success.

MH: Do you think you’re gonna win?

L: Yeah, I think we will. I may not be around, but it’ll happen. There are a lot of smart people, smarter than me, better than me at this who have committed. Everyday talking to people, bringing in people. Every time someone tries and doesn’t quite get it, other people come in behind them and are better at it. There’s an evolutionary element and that’s why it’s so important not to stop, even if you’re not sure if you’ll get to see it. I think it’ll be good for everyone.

MH: Do you have any thoughts about how that could play in or does it remain to be seen?

L: I think what a lot of people hope for is a resurgence of the labor movement in general. We’ve seen this happen with teachers strikes, seen solidarity strikes. I believe WV is where the initial deal was proffered by the government and by the union which would leave out the bus drivers and the support staff. And the teachers said “No, we’re in this together.”

I think that kind of solidarity can go even broader than that. In a university say contingent faculty, adjuncts for example. These are people with doctoral degrees and heavy loads. They don’t always get the same benefits. Some of them end up living in their cars. They don’t even have an office in many cases. Once you start organizing, I think you have infrastructure to help one another, and it’s not just about one class of people. This kinda gets back to industrial unionism, which I think is a resurgent principle in American political life right now. It isn’t just about one profession or part of a profession. It’s about pulling together to make the communities more equitable, more democratic.

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