by Hannah Borenstein
Shortly after I received my letter of acceptance into the Ph.D. program in Cultural Anthropology at Duke University, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that graduate research and teaching assistants were entitled to collective bargaining as the Obama-era came to a close. My parents are both in unions, so at the time I knew far more about unions (some) than I did about critical theory and graduate school (nothing). I shared an article about the NLRB decision on social media with a single descriptive word: “cool.”
It was cool, I thought, to be starting a graduate program in Anthropology, despite not really having any idea what to expect (for example, I didn’t know that there was a distinction between Ph.D. student and Ph.D. candidate until the end of my first semester). Friends and family thought it was cool, too, but even those who were college-educated did not really know what it was that I would be doing.
I would be going to Duke – a well-endowed university with a polarizing basketball team – free of other obligations. I thought I would only read, think, and debate history, theory, and politics with peers. Many people I knew simply thought of it as an extension of undergrad. When I told them my degree would take at least six years I often heard responses like “Six more years of classes?” Others asked me if I would be able to get them basketball tickets. I already knew the academy was an opaque place. But it wasn’t until I became involved with the graduate student unionization effort that I saw how the depths of opacity shroud the academic enterprise.
For many inside and outside of academia the notion that graduate students are indeed workers is not readily clear. In large part, I came to see this as mirrored through the reproduction of academia’s lack of emphasis on scholarly praxis. Graduate students and professors are often far more keen to cite Marx’s famous quotation from Eleven Theses on Feurbach – “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it” – in seminars and publications than to actually consider what it would mean to change the working and living conditions at Duke and in Durham. While this odd disconnect that privileges theoretical eloquence over instructive practice does little to change the modes of production of the university, I can confidently say that my theoretical toolkit, research methods, and critical skills, have been more astutely honed through my organizing efforts than in my seminar discussions.
When I arrived at Duke in 2016 I was quickly approached by graduate student-workers who had already been involved in earlier unionization efforts. The student workers gave me an explanation detailing the amount of poorly compensated hours they spend teaching, grading, and doing lab research, and the lack of benefits they were receiving at Duke. Rising living costs far out-paced stipend rates, and Duke was systematically chipping away at vital resources; for example, they had recently taken away gym privileges for students beyond the third year of graduate school. They asked me to sign a card and commit to vote yes and I did.
In early 2017 there was a mail-in election. I was initially not mailed a ballot and had to actively request a ‘replacement.’ Then, the results came in; we had 398 votes in favor of the union, 691 against, and, wait for it… a whopping 500 ballots to be challenged by the notorious union-busting law-firm Proskauer & Rose, for which Duke paid more than $1,000/hour. Trump had just won the presidency, and our affiliate – Service Employees International Union – advised that rather than costly litigation, collective action would be a more effective way to channel our energies.
Collective action came in many forms, beginning with the formation of a direct-join union – the Duke Graduate Students Union, SEIU-Workers United Local 27 – in which members actively sign up and pay dues. At the end of 2017 we began a series of actions and strategies to push for our demands – the elimination of recreation fees and continuation fees (a $7,000 charge advanced graduate students have to pay to remain enrolled), better health care coverage and improved means of fighting harassment and discrimination, and 12-month pay schedules (most students do not get paid until the end of September in their first year nor in the months May – August). All the while, we focused on building our membership.
Building active membership has been a perplexing endeavor. Alyssa Battistoni’s recent article in n+1 “Spadework: on political organizing” encapsulates many familiar themes and frustrations we faced, and continue to face, at Duke. Namely, the troubling fact that “[many] people liked unions in the abstract, for other people, but had reservations about whether one made sense for us.” Battistoni turns to cultural theorist Stuart Hall to make sense of a sense of consciousness that is informed by the system in which we live: “‘I’m not cut out for this,’ people often say when they struggle with organizing. No one is: one isn’t born an organizer, but becomes one.”
It wasn’t surprising that the university administration did not support our union, despite it purporting to “provide a superior liberal education” and promote research to strengthen economic and political equality. More baffling was how difficult it was to convince graduate student workers to do minimal work at organizing. Cold calls, text banking, list compiling, tabling, on-campus actions, turned away many who seemed to think they were not “cut out” for organizing, were “too busy,” or saw on-campus actions as uncool and gratuitous.
However, as I prepared to advance to candidacy last year (through a portfolio-style exam that deems graduate students having completed “all but the dissertation” or “ABD”) the more obviously important higher ed organizing became. This is not only because universities treat the majority of their on-campus workers – poorly paid adjunct faculty, custodial staff, dining hall personnel, and graduate students – in similar conditions to the exploitation of Wal-Mart workers, but also because they are supposed to be sites of knowledge production and constructive research. We received critiques from graduate students, faculty, and various onlookers, that we were too entitled to ask for better pay and working conditions. Some told us we were privileged and out of touch for aligning our efforts with other workers, despite the fact that adjunct and contingent faculty, other on-campus workers and members of other locals – notably Fight for $15 – have been our strongest and most consistent allies.
Some graduate student workers and faculty share a remarkable willingness to rail against the neoliberal corporate university but never show up to a union rally. Some publish books and articles about the exploitative conditions of laborers throughout the world, but will not sign on to a pay-raise petition. Others issue scathing critiques of our union – from not being radical enough or for being too radical – but never come to a meeting to provide constructive input. This last and the year before, graduate students and faculty organized and attended fifty-year anniversary seminars about social movements born out of student unrest in 1968, but brush past information tables the same year about the $7,000 continuation fees already-indebted advanced graduate students are being forced to pay.
This seems to be common across, and beyond, universities. Journalist Emily Guendelsberger who recently published On the Clock: What Low-Wage Work Did to Me and How It Drives America Insane – a book about the lives of workers in Amazon fulfillment centers – found many poorly treated and highly monitored employees expressing discontent after a few drinks in to after-work interviews. Even though it has been widely documented that these workers forgo bathroom breaks to avoid being docked for “time off task” and receive pain medication from vending machines to avoid the stress of walking over 10 miles a day, Guendelsberger explained that most people would not initiate complaints about their jobs. With excessively lonely working conditions and quotidian exhaustion, many workers initially expressed gratitude for their jobs. However, after some sociality and probing they began to share stories of frustration and maltreatment. The notion that we should feel grateful for having the freedom to choose our places of work and be receiving wages at all seems to pervade a range of working environments. And indeed, for those enduring grueling slogs, being attuned to brutal working conditions may do more harm than good in getting through the day. In higher education, however, it feels more ironic because our jobs are precisely supposed to be conscious of these dynamics.
But aside from these hypocrisies shedding light on the fabricated reproduction of prestige and thus the important of unionization in higher ed, organizing made clear the need for praxis-oriented education. Principally, I’ve seen this because through organizing I have become a better anthropologist.
This past year I was deep in the weeds of honing my research methods and developing literature reviews throughout a year-long campaign of organizing for higher and more consistent pay for graduate student workers. Days consisted of writing research grants, annotating books, and grading papers and assignments as a TA; evenings and weekends often consisted of meetings about our campaign. Mapping power flows in the university and spotting inconsistencies in the ways that the Duke administration responded to (or ignored) our request added layers of understanding to how flows of capital, and bureaucracies, could continuously obfuscate power dynamics. Engaging graduate students in organizing conversations from a range of backgrounds improved my interview skills.
In 2018 we began a series of actions through an inside-outside strategy to address graduate student pay. While the Duke Graduate School suggests on its website that Ph.D. students receive a stipend of $31,800, many make considerably less (often under $24,000) and are not paid over the summer, while the cost of living in Durham has increased 23% over five years. Advanced students paying continuation fees can take home as little as $12,000, some of whom have childcare and medical expenses to pay.
In addition to a cohort of DGSU members meeting with members of the Academic Council, we published op-eds in the on-campus newspaper, held bake sales to raise money for the food pantry that caters to graduate students in the most precarious positions, and wrote letters to administrators, leading up to what was to be a big action on the accepted-students day in 2019. A week before our big event was to occur, we received an abrupt e-mail from the university Provost that, beginning in 2022-2013, all Ph.D. students would receive 12-month stipends with a base pay of $31,160.
Though the administration acknowledged the necessity of a nearly 33% wage increase, they left our union unrecognized and gave no help to current graduate workers struggling to get by. The present dismal stipend means that completing a Ph.D. is far easier for those who come from wealthy families – and who are disproportionately white, cis-gender, able-bodied, men.
As powerful universities imperviously reproduce these spaces, some of the brightest and most inventive minds are kept out of academia, prevented from spearheading original research, and the possibilities for growth become progressively harder for the few who do manage to break in. The gate-keeping nature of higher education limits the praxis-oriented opportunities that should always accompany research. All this despite Duke’s mission statement claiming “to contribute in diverse ways to the local community, the state, the nation and the world.”
This is precisely why graduate student worker organizing is so important: when research becomes detached from its application, it reproduces and normalizes existing conditions. Perhaps by continuing to institute more praxis-oriented approaches to our research and making academic spaces more open and transparent, we indeed can shift the tides of not only higher ed – but the capital networks and political bureaucracies in which it is embedded.
Hannah Borenstein is a PhD candidate in Cultural Anthropology at Duke University. Her dissertation research explores how Ethiopian women working to pursue careers in long-distance running navigate transnational networks of people, corporations, and capital. She is an active member in the Duke Graduate Students Union SEIU-Workers United Local 27.
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