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Revolutionary graduate worker unionism

Within and against the university, within and for each other

Graduate worker Steven Lazaroff considers what it means to be a revolutionary in graduate student unions on the basis of his experience at Illinois State University, where the ISU Graduate Workers Union won a significant victory.

Every little difference may become a big one if it is insisted on. –V.I. Lenin

Disobedience has to do more than disrupt—it has to enable publics to see problems in new ways (or see them as problems for the first time) –Erin R. Pineda

The struggle is always wherever we are, and I feel lucky my location put me in a position to be a part of the graduate union struggle. I’m a third-year Ph.D. student in English at Illinois State University, and a member of the ISU Graduate Workers Union Steering Committee. This writing will engage my location in the university, thinking through how we as revolutionaries might best situate and organize ourselves at the university, in the quad that acts also on the level of the system, to make the international mass movements we need to abolish capitalism and build socialism, to take democratic control of society and the economy, to stop the threat of climate collapse.

What does it mean to be a revolutionary today–anywhere in the US, not simply the university?

Fred Hampton’s “I am a revolutionary” tells us that, first and foremost, a revolutionary self-identifies as revolutionary. The utterance alone is not enough. A revolutionary commits to practice a life that lives up to revolutionary principles. Initially, this commitment might meet one discrete moment, but then again, again, again, again, the commitment is demanded. Essential to revolutionary practice, commitment is not a one-stop shop taken up in isolation. Instead, commitment is social among comrades in relationships of responsibility and accountability.

When I moved from Chicago to Bloomington-Normal, I looked to make new revolutionary commitments in and outside the university. In the first month, I organized with comrades against a Back the Blue rally and joined the union’s bargaining team. I’ve long thought the university needed to be taken more seriously, but working in the graduate system across a couple of schools since 2017, I saw and experienced the constant insecurity and anxiety, the poverty and debt of graduate work. This came to a natural climax as I took part in often degrading bargaining situations where the negotiator taunted us with statements like, “If you don’t like it here, then why don’t you leave—I’m not going to wait for your answer, I know the answer.” I saw graduate workers in line at a food bank made by graduate workers to deal with the rampant food insecurity. We shouldn’t need to provide mutual aid to ourselves, but we need to and so we do. This solidarity begins to point the way out.

Whenever we struggle together, we build the connective tissue that can transform the university, tapping into the capacity Walter Benjamin called an “emergency brake”: a site for speculating new worlds and for making them into reality. Speculation is not just dreaming of a different tomorrow; it is grounded in action today, wherever we make space together. Graduate worker unions should take that speculative work seriously. The contemporary graduate worker movement in the U.S. offers lessons that need to be discussed by revolutionaries, from the university to the broader labor movement.

Benjamin’s concept of the “emergency brake” helps us to imagine our power and role in the world differently, to develop what Michael Löwy calls material “political-ecological currency” that centers the people, the masses, as those who have the power to halt a path of annihilation and make a break for a different world.

We can build a movement and become capable of collectively pulling an emergency brake—laying our bodies on the gears of the machine—when we take up graduate worker organizing, becoming “within and against” the university. But this cannot be solely “negative,” there is a necessity to affirm, to be for something. In Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s The Undercommons, Harney writes,

When I say “with and for,” I mean studying with people, rather than teaching them, and when I say “for,” I mean studying with people in service of a project, which in this case I think we could just say is more study.

I’m asking us to consider clarifying this project of “more study” into a project that organizes towards replacing the undemocratic, capitalist, neoliberal university leadership structure with a democratic governing body composed of the workers—the students, staff, and faculty—who know best how the university should be run.

To say that work against the university, against the state, and against capitalism is unlikely is not to make a novel point. All of the work we take on is beyond difficult: It is impossible by current common sense and that is what makes it necessary.

Given the catastrophic ecological conditions we face and the university’s role in reproducing the relations of that catastrophe, it is incumbent upon revolutionaries on campuses to take up committed action. What kind of committed action? The victorious graduate student worker struggle at Illinois State University (ISU) illustrates that commitment. This article will draw out ten organizing principles from that experience.

The Illinois State University campaign

At ISU, the Graduate Workers Union’s campaign for a first contract demonstrated all of these principles.

We began bargaining in October 2019, so we’d been bargaining about a year when I joined the union in August 2020. ISU administrators had been weaponizing the pandemic, dragging their feet at every turn. By the end of November, we still hadn’t heard an economic proposal from them despite our appearing at the first bargaining session with a full slate of proposals. In December, finally, the employer brought forward a financial package that was beyond insulting and only served to give our workers raises we’d otherwise get with the minimum wage increase. We maintained that this was not an offer, but an attempt to get us to bargain against ourselves. We came back from caucus and told them that we would not be bargaining until a mediator was present.

In January 2021, we began mediation and a simultaneous escalation that saw us put on car caravans, informational pickets, a two-day teach-in, a free speech direct action, and a sit-in outside the president’s office. In March, our bargaining team announced a need for strike readiness followed by a strike authorization vote of 96 percent yes.

In propaganda, we sought to show just how much money ISU was putting at the bargaining table against us: nearly $1,000,000 in administrative salaries on the clock were getting paid, while we did not have that same comfort. We were finding crevasses of time so we could attend bargaining meetings—time we otherwise would be researching, writing, grading, and taking care of ourselves. We took up these actions to try to pop the bubble of low expectations and naturalized exploitation that dominates the self-identification of grad students, who tend not to see ourselves as workers, especially when it comes to research.

In the fall, we hit the gas even harder to contest the narrative that the university is a good and virtuous place. At Festival ISU (with hundreds of student organizations on the quad), we dropped two banners announcing the ISU Pays Poverty Wages campaign, and then gave a teach-in that attracted a crowd.

Five people stand uniformly in a row in front of a university brick building with their mouths taped shut by black tape, facing straight ahead. Two people hold a sign that says ‘ISU WANTS TO SILENCE GRADUATE WORKERS!’ Two people stand with hands behind their backs, and the last person has their hands in their sweater’s pockets.
SU GWU students protest free speech infringement. Photo Credit: SEIU.

From there, we held a couple more guerilla teach-ins and some pickets, including one that involved over one hundred of us moving inside Hovey Hall to march through the administration’s offices. These events begin to show an arc of actions taken to expand folks’ consciousness of what we are capable of doing together, the kernel: how we win together.

But the big turn came when we showed up to President Terri Goss Kinzy’s first State of the University address with our ISU Pays Poverty Wages banner, and comrades stood silently on the side of the stage while Kinzy spoke for twenty minutes. At the end of her speech, there was a question period, so I raised my hand and asked how she could lament food banks for athletes, but not care about the food bank made by ISU grad workers to deal with the rampant food insecurity from inadequate wages. (Kinzy has since resigned as President of ISU under strange circumstances, prompting a call for transparency and accountability from the Board of Trustees.)

Shortly after this appearance, lead negotiator Mike Kruger came back to the table looking sick to his stomach and went item by item through our last proposal, and gave us everything we’d asked for: wages they said they couldn’t move on for six months, the elimination of student fees they said they couldn’t eliminate, and the withdrawal of a no-strike clause that would infringe on our right to free speech. They were so desperate for us to stop suffocating them with our messaging that they gave us everything we had left on the table.

Our bargaining team recommended the contract to the membership, knowing it wasn’t enough to fully confront the deep poverty of our unit, but also knowing that we’d won what we could win with the power we had. This first contract for over four hundred graduate workers at ISU raised the wages of half our unit by 25 percent. It also laid the foundation for our next contract campaign. One of our major wins was a two-year contract, putting us back at the negotiation table in Summer 2023.

Ten organizing principles for graduate workers

1. We need to make the university into a problem–or transform the problem so that folks see the chains of causation that actually determine our lives, e.g. that the university is a credential factory wanting to present itself as a vaunted location of knowledge production.

Through propaganda campaigns and direct actions, we should educate campuses on the various exploitative flows that enrich administrations and their massive endowments, a fraction of which could end poverty on campus.

We need to show just how highly paid university administrators are and what they choose to do with their billions of dollars.

On one hand, universities sit on their massive endowments and the gains made from their revenue streams. For instance, at ISU where I work and study in an English PhD program, the endowment is about $500 million. This is well below the 19 percent of universities who reported endowments above $1 billion.

But in order to find the money to pay graduate workers, we don’t even need to go into these massive endowments. We make more than enough annual tuition revenue for the university—and we desperately need to confront urgent financial insecurity. For example, at ISU, the average graduate worker makes about $12,000 for a nine-month contract. The stipend for PhD students in English is around $16,000. However, all graduate workers at ISU are well below the $33,575 baseline cost of living identified by the living wage calculator at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Unsurprisingly, our workers report very high rates of anxiety and depression related to financial difficulties in general and an everyday inability to pay for rent, food, or healthcare. It is hard to study and do our best work when we are put in such constant danger and fear. Backing this up, our undergraduate paper The Vidette published interviews with graduate students based on a study from Frontiers in Neuroscience that shows “68% displayed symptoms of anxiety and 50% displayed symptoms of depression.” Unsurprisingly, the graduate students interviewed also happened to be graduate workers and members of the ISU Graduate Workers Union. Even more damningly, our members clarified the sources of their hardships and psychological distress:

  • 70 percent student fees
  • 60 percent paying rent
  • 50 percent paying for/securing food
  • 48 percent obtaining healthcare
  • 45 percent paying for utilities

It is clear that President Terri Goss Kinzy’s ISU is one deeply entangled in the mental health epidemic.

Instead of paying graduate workers, universities prioritize spending on projects to attract prospective students and satisfy the insatiable need for enrollment and revenue growth, rather than meeting existing campus needs or confronting the crises of poverty and debt they create.

At ISU, this looks like building a $40 million College of Engineering when the highest body of shared governance did not pass it in solidarity with our union’s efforts for a first contract.

The university gets away with this exploitation because it is an institution of higher learning that hides behind the reputation of the people it exploits: researchers, faculty, food service workers, and students.

We should take steps to clarify what the problems are exactly—they aren’t just that we’re poor, in debt, struggling—there are people benefitting from our insecurity that could end our poverty tomorrow.

2. The university is a factory that produces the ultimate commodity of the degree via tuition revenues. Students stack up enough grades to convert into a bachelor’s degree. The degree then circulates profit and revenue for the university after the student has left the institution. Ideals of learning and knowledge are covers for misery and suffering, poverty, and debt.

In the service of enrolling the most undergraduate and graduate students possible and producing the highest possible tuition revenue, university administrations and boards pay poverty wages to undergraduates, graduates, and staff—the food service workers, the sanitation workers, the grounds workers, the clerical workers, and non-tenure-track (adjunct) faculty.

Graduate workers, specifically, are paid horrifically low wages. We are the lowest paid instructors on campus, primarily on the basis that we are separated from half of our labor via the student-worker distinction. The student-worker distinction allows the university to put a veil over our research so it doesn’t appear as a commodity that profits them in our presentations, books, and our research. As we circulate in the world, we build our universities’ reputations, which then attracts prospective students. They would do anything for those tuition dollars. Graduate research—our grants, our lab discoveries, our papers, our conferences, our books—before and after graduation produces the reputation of the university; they need us to attract the new students they prioritize over those already on campus.

At ISU, we’re paid stipends $20,000 below the cost of living for Bloomington-Normal, IL. Besides this fact, we’re also human beings who deserve to live in dignity without constant anxiety and depression. We produce more than enough to justify paying us more. For instance, as the instructor of record for four courses a year, I teach around one hundred undergraduates and bring in over $100,000 in revenue. In return, ISU pays me $16,000.

Bringing in even more receipts, ISU graduate workers make up thirty percent of instructors but only account for 2.3 percent of the $165 million instructional budget.

Ours is not a unique situation, nor is it the worst. This is why it is even more important to shine a light on places like ISU and not just focus on big-name and huge-money places like Columbia with its $8 billion endowment or the University of California system’s $152 billion reserve.

The ISU President Terri Goss Kinzy speaks at a podium to an audience in an auditorium. A large monitor stands to the President’s right, currently displaying a slide titled ‘Private support.’ On the side is a large white banner draped and in black text says, ‘ISU PAYS POVERTY WAGES.’
ISU GWU members hold a banner on the side of the stage during President Terri Goss Kinzy’s first State of the University Address. Photo Credit: Alex Gant.

3. Revolutionaries—abolitionists, socialists, communists, anarchists—need to commit ourselves to openly organizing against the university wherever we are, whoever we’re with, however long we’re together in our unions, our classrooms, our committees, senates, and boards of trustees.

“Professionalization” must go by the wayside unless we are doing work that takes on the University. This is a difficult point to communicate, but I think a necessary one: writing academic articles and books are, right now, pretty fucking meaningless, the adult academic equivalent of busy work, feeding our egos while asking us to ignore the rampant exploitation and oppression on university campuses.

It will likely be incumbent upon junior faculty, graduate workers, and undergraduates to persuade folks who are sometimes too entrenched in the compromises of tenure to engage in revolutionary practice. As Erin Bartram said at the 2023 meeting of the American Historical Association, there is a rapid but quiet destruction of humanities departments that is ignored among those who safely land a secure tenured position.

Instead of acting as an individual and acquiring job security for ourselves through the narrow path offered by universities, taking militant and collective action creates the potential for graduate workers to challenge our exploitation, win job security and end poverty wages, and develop broader movements across campus to transform the university.

4. We need to set huge goals, and the graduate worker movement is well-positioned to make these interventions. We should say what we want—the world we’re fighting for—even if the common sense is that it would be impossible.

If we want a democratic university run by the people who actually run the university day in and day out, let’s say that: Abolish the Board of Trustees, fire the presidents, provosts, and the other administrators who run the university for their own gain. Let’s work backwards from a micro-dictatorship of the proletariat as the transition to a worker’s council running the university when boards of trustees are abolished.

We need to give ourselves the space to imagine otherwise, to name our desires, but the folks we want to talk to are variously contained within what Ruth Wilson Gilmore might call “[the social determination of] the apparent range of available options.” If we don’t take action to burst the edges that keep the options of otherwise open, we will still be acting within the same logic the system interlocks itself so tightly to produce.

Confronting and contesting these edges that re-secure ruling class power means vocally taking up work that’s perceived and judged to be impossible, taking up ideas outside the hegemonic paradigm while still inside the institutions against which we struggle together.

5. In graduate worker unions, our target must be the student-worker distinction; it is the hinge that allows them to shut the door on our research labor and make it invisible, as if it isn’t a commodity they profit from.

When we go after the student-worker distinction, we put full-time employment on the table, rather than the half-time employment categories that university administrators use to justify the low stipends. Our teaching and research labor does not benefit us but rather is a major producer of revenue for universities as we circulate the labor force, write papers and books, go to conferences and give presentations, and make laboratory discoveries. What will appear after our name every time? The university’s name.

Our research is the reputation of the university; without it there is nothing to attract new students.

6. There is no such thing as good faith bargaining with an employer. “Good faith” bargaining is a strategy to get unions to bargain against themselves.

The employer is structurally in the position of power, sitting back, choosing from a competitive pool whose labor-power they want, whose time and body they want to buy. They cannot possibly act in good faith with a group of people they are holding hostage.

Beyond demanding legal obligations, the idea of “good faith” should never be a reason unions take substantive action. A good example happened during the recent strike across all ten University of California campuses.

The dominant wing of the Bargaining Team from UAW’s administrative caucus won nearly every vote by narrow margins, while using “good faith” and “incentivizing the employer” as reasons why they dropped major, core demands like COLA (Cost of Living Adjustments) seven days into negotiations. Then, as UCLA PhD student Gene McAdoo writes, “In just 24 days, the bargaining team had lowered our wages demand by $22K–a whopping 40% drop and nearly $1,000 for every day that we got closer to grading deadlines, one of our most powerful points of leverage.”

This is bargaining against yourself. This is not knowing when you have power: to withdraw COLA, a formative widely popular demand, seven days into the largest university strike in U.S. history is shocking—even more so when the justification was: We needed to try to bring UC back to the table, we need to bargain in good faith.

The standard of good faith which should be our constant compass is our membership, our unit—not the employer.

7. The strike is a weapon, not a threat: We should always be building strike-ready unions.

We will never win what we need without withholding our labor and halting university operations (classes, grades, events) and, therefore, university revenue streams.

We will not be able to strike every time, but we won’t be able to strike unless we act as though we will need to, which is clear from the structural conditions: Management offers never come close to a wage that recognizes all of our labor, both research and instruction, that would end rent-burdened food insecurity.

I’ve seen unions recently ignore overwhelming rank-and-file mandates to strike and teaching assistant agreements that didn’t satisfy the core issues. Rank-and-file members often accept the bargaining team’s recommendation. In this climate, we will need to commit to organizing and empowering the rank-and-file, looking for opportunities to raise their confidence to confront union administration when the stakes call for it.

8. We should build national bodies of graduate worker unions to better organize experiences and data so we can learn from each other and organize across campuses when it makes sense.

The existing Coalition of Student Employee Unions, while inactive, could be revived; we do not need to start from scratch. We need two kinds of national bodies: a national body of graduate worker unions and bodies representing graduate students in specific unions, like the AFT’s Alliance of Graduate Employee Locals, the UAW, SEIU, and GEO.

There is no current centralized database of graduate union activity documenting the number of graduate unions, where they are in the contract and bargaining process, or information about stipends, health care and disability benefits, and so on. We can learn a lot about what graduate workers have asked for and can demand.

This knowledge would also allow us to begin to think on a national scale: What would national or even multiple localized union actions look like?

Could we coordinate the timing of strikes across regions, for example, combining the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and ISU?

We are watching universities in the U.K. as they plan to strike for 18 days in February and March.

In the background, about 15 ISU students holding up various signs seem to be interrupting a formal meeting, some wearing the red hats of the graduate students union. Most of the students are looking at a person speaking at a podium. One sign reads: ‘You think your budget is tight? Try my stipend.’ Another reads ‘ISU WORKS BECAUSE WE DO.’ Several signs have imagery of the power fist holding a pencil. In the forefront, we see the backs of individuals seated and facing the podium.
ISU GWU students disrupt a Board of Trustees meeting in February 2020, an example of one of the many direct action tactics that Graduate unions could learn from one another. Photo Credit: ISU GWU courtesy of the author.

9. We are not going to win what we need without mass campus movements.

This means bringing in undergraduates, faculty of all ranks, and staff into a larger campus movement. In the end, this will be our only power to demand a just and democratic university.

Undergraduates in particular hold tons of power from their sheer volume. While it would not be easy, with a couple thousand undergraduates, you could almost do anything on campus. We need to actively put it in our plans: working with undergraduate groups that make sense, and working in particular with any revolutionaries at all that want to stoke the undergraduate fires from below. We need to do the necessary work with the people around us, however we can do it.

We should work to connect with super vulnerable Non-Tenure Track/adjunct unions which, where siloed off on their own, are often rather conservative, largely because their members are so precarious, are not given a full course load at any one university, and have to work at multiple universities to make ends meet.

We should time bargaining and strikes with other unions—specifically unions representing sanitation, food service, and groundskeeping staff. Together, we could really shut down university operations and would get past the handcuffs of reactionary no-strike clauses.

10. We must fight within our unions for open revolutionary politics.

Graduate worker unions like University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana and University of
Michigan’s GEO operate on abolitionist horizons, taking up the core relations of production. Angela Davis reminds us, “the etymological meaning of radical is ‘root’, so abolition allows us to get to the root of the problem,” riffing off Marx in A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, “To be radical is to grasp the root of the matter.”

In organizing for a revolutionary union, we set our sights not simply on achieving higher wages but connecting that fight with broader struggles to abolish capitalism and smash the state, to build an international socialist movement that can grasp the roots and pull it all out.

This puts us in direct conflict with the employer, but also the dominant forces of business unionism which have operated hegemonically since the end of World War II, as Kim Moody wrote in An injury to all: the decline of American unionism,

In the view of business unionism, capitalism, unionism, and democracy were inextricably linked. Unions could not function without political freedom, and capitalism was thought to be the basis of that freedom… [and lead to the idea] that ‘trade unions pure and simple’ were themselves businesses.

Due in part to the downturn of labor union membership in the U.S., leadership and tactics have fossilized without contestation. So, while union density and power shrank up, business unionism got stronger, reproduced and absorbed into newer generations (a history of sorts appears in Tim Goulet’s review of Joe Burn’s Class Struggle Unionism).

So it isn’t just big bosses; there are folks in our units that we will need to persuade, like we saw in the example of the UC bargaining team. We will need to transform the leadership structures of locals and internationals in order to truly contest for power. The sausage of business unionism makes it so that there are forces we need to confront beyond the employer: there are forces in union bureaucracy as well as in our memberships that are deeply individualistic, thinking about how contracts affect them, or the “majority,” rather than orienting to the worst off, the most vulnerable.

If we only orient ourselves to the employer, we will miss the forces in our unions that are working at cross-purposes, supporting a capitalism and a U.S. state that is incompatible with the wins we need as workers and, therefore, antagonistic to our interest in building unions that operate on the register of political and economic systems.

But we must struggle openly within our unions and on campus. The people who run our universities are villains, albethey boring bureaucrats. It’s up to us to tell a better story, to render visible the actual relations of production of the university, not the mystique of Learning that university administrations use to mask the suffering, poverty, and debt that fuels their astonishing wealth.

Part of telling this story better is not just the content, but how we tell the story: confidently, directly, in as many public places as possible, with as many people as possible—but we can’t wait for a mass movement to make a mass movement. We do the work with who’s around or we don’t do it at all.

Two images capture banners dropped on two ISU campus locations. Both are large white banners with black text that says ‘ISU PAYS POVERTY WAGES.’ The first image shows the banner dropped on a bridge, marked with metal signage that says ‘ILLINOIS STATE UNIVERSITY - FOUNDED 1857’ and a logo of the university’s mascot Cy the cardinal. Cars drive on the road below the bridge. The second image shows arms extending out of two windows in a red brick building, each holding the banner between them.
ISU GWU members drop banners simultaneously over a campus bridge and out of Fell Hall during Festival ISU. Photo Credit: ISU GWU courtesy of the author.

Power in the streets

The major lesson here is two-fold: 1) Contracts aren’t won at the negotiation table, but outside, in the streets contesting the common sense, the hegemonic ideological coordinates, and 2) Without mass power, messaging is severely limited in what it can win.

At ISU, we in the Graduate Workers Union announced the name and basic thrust of our second contract campaign: Professionals Not Apprentices. We are in the early stages, and aren’t revealing much of our hand yet, but we are taking aim at the student-worker distinction: Professionals Not Apprentices is a campaign with a trajectory imagined in the cadence of the revolutionary praxis articulated here.

We are full-time workers—teachers and researchers—that deserve full-time pay, not to live $20,000 below the cost of living for our area.

We can’t build what we don’t talk about. We need to take up explicitly arguing that the people who make the university work should run the university—not overpaid administrators paying themselves hundreds of thousands and millions of dollars, not a Board of Trustees filled with political appointees and token student representation. At ISU, for example, how could it possibly have been appropriate for Bob Dobski—an owner of ten McDonalds, a steakhouse, and three childcare facilities—to have a deciding vote on the short- and long-term operation of Illinois State University for the last six years?

To replace Dobski, on February 10, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker appointed Lia Merminga, “an internationally renowned physicist” and director of Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, to the Board. Prestigious titles aside, of what relevance are those accolades to the job of deciding the everyday life of this university, to which Dr. Merminga has no connection? She did not attend ISU, nor does she work at ISU.

Students, faculty, and staff should run the university, not the undemocratic governor appointees of the Board of Trustees or highly-paid administrators. Revolutionary graduate worker organization shows the way toward the possibility of a democratic and accountable university that doesn’t sacrifice a connection to the mass movements we need to build socialism and end capitalism.

Featured Image credit: Photo courtesy of the author; modified by Tempest.

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Steven Lazaroff View All

Steven Lazaroff is a member of the Illinois State University Graduate Workers Union. In Spring 2023, he teaches ENG 165, Introduction to African American Literature & Culture and ENG 227, Introduction to Creative Writing.