by Jacob Scheier
In early November 2017 the Republican-led House of Representatives released their version of what would become the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017—an unprecedented give away to the wealthiest Americans. A provision in the bill would have included the “taxing” of graduate student tuition waivers. As a result, graduate students could have owed the government thousands of dollars in “taxes,” despite the majority of graduate students earning less than $20,000 a year. By treating our waivers as income, the GOP would have priced the majority of graduate students out of their education and career hopes. But SaveGradEd, a nation-wide coalition of graduate students, fought back and played a crucial role in ensuring the provision did not become law.
In this article, I mostly focus here on the successes, challenges and shortcomings of the 2017 movement at the institution where I was a graduate student, The Ohio State University—or OSU as I refer to it from hereon. I hope this document will be useful to other graduate student activists, particularly at OSU, in the years to come.
At OSU, SaveGradEd crossed disciplines, bringing together graduate students from the Humanities and STEM—though the two departments with the most involvement were Physics and English. This was largely due to the fact that two of the campus-based revolutionary socialist organizations had members from these departments. I believe it was a great strength of our protest campaign that we began with members in the Humanities and STEM as this allowed us to recruit to the movement graduate students with whom we already had established friendships with and/or collegial relationships. The other important advantage of a cross-discipline coalition is that we could share experiences of our working conditions with each other.
A drawback to the movement forming, largely, between two revolutionary socialist organizations is that, at least in the case of the now defunct International Socialist Organization—they wanted to use the small but growing graduate student movement as an opportunity to win people to their radical politics. Leaving ideology aside, the tactic, I feel now, was misguided—probably alienating to progressive minded graduate students who otherwise might have joined the movement. I should disclose I was then a member of the ISO and quit the organization in the spring of 2018 for both ideological and personal reasons.
The very first protest of the national SaveGradEd movement was on the main campus of OSU, organized by a core group of eight or nine graduate students. The protest had approximately three hundred participants—mostly graduate students. OSU’s SaveGradEd coalition seized the opportunity at that first protest to start collecting the contact information of participants. At our next meeting, instead of eight committed activists in the room, there were about forty. We also started reaching out to graduate students at other universities.
On November 29, 2017, there was a national day of protest action at over forty universities. This received significant media coverage, including in Time Magazine and on a DemocracyNOW! segment where one of the founding members of the OSU chapter was interviewed. At OSU, we organized a day-long “grade-in” at the student union—demonstrating our labor to the campus community—it numbered in the hundreds throughout the course of the day. We also used this action to get hundreds of signatures on a letter to Republican Senator Rob Portman opposing the provision, and as an educational opportunity: with speakers talking about various related topics, such as past successful student movements. The president of CWA local 4501, which represents custodial and food service workers, among other staff at OSU, spoke about labor solidarity.
I consider the national day of action successful in a number of ways—by receiving media attention, it raised public awareness and sent a strong message. At the same time, of the forty or so universities involved, very few, if any, aside from OSU, were from Ohio. I think we needed to not just focus on the national level—though a national presence was needed to convey this was a national crisis—but we also didn’t make it of equal priority to reach out to nearby universities that, due to state laws, faced similar labor conditions. Namely, that graduate students in Ohio’s public universities are not considered workers, despite being teaching assistants and research assistants (i.e. despite working), and so do not have the right to collectively bargain.
One way we could have better utilized that crisis moment and the spirit of resistant that came out it, would have been to build a state-wide solidarity network. If, for instance, the graduate students at Ohio University in Athens organized a protest to fight for or against an issue, say, for better protections against harassment in the workplace, every university in the solidarity network could then hold its own protest in solidarity—a sister protest. This would give the demands of graduate students more pull. Although a graduate student union is the best way to hold the university accountable to treating its student-workers fairly, and ultimately should be the long-term goal, a solidarity network would be, in the meantime, a move in the right direction.
I don’t want to be overly critical of OSU’s SaveGradEd chapter. Aside from hindsight being 20/20, we were a small group of people racing against the clock. Clearly by design– the GOP-led House of Representatives passed their version of the tax bill shortly before Thanksgiving break and it was in committee in the Senate just a few weeks prior to the Christmas break. This gave us both very little time to organize with the added difficulty of students being away to visit their families and also particularly stressed during the busiest time of the semester. Under the circumstances, I am very proud of what we were able to accomplish.
During the approximately six weeks between when news of the proposed waiver tax hit to its removal from the bill, the OSU chapter of SaveGradEd held several actions to raise awareness—some more successful than others. On the more successful side, alongside the first protest and the grade-in during the national day of action, we organized a sit in, packing the small office of Ohio Republican house representative, Pat Tiberi. Tiberi was in D.C. at the time about to vote on the House version of the tax bill—this action was mentioned in the Time piece. Several SaveGradEd members brought our petition, in person, to Ohio senator Rob Portman’s office. I think this sent an important message to the senator.
From the moment the tuition waiver tax provision became public knowledge, the university administration essentially messaged that they were doing everything in their power to ensure our waivers were not taxed, but whatever that entailed, they did not feel it was their graduate student-workers’ business, nor did they offer solutions should the tuition waiver provision pass.
At UC Berkeley, on the national day of action, thousands of students stormed the administrative building and demanded to know what the university was planning to do in concrete terms. They didn’t get an answer, leaving a sign that read “What’s the back-up plan?” on the entrance to the administrative building. The action received media attention and put the administration on notice: vague assurances were far from sufficient.
A small minority of SaveGradEd at OSU members were willing, in action, to take the fight to the administration. There was a general consensus that the administration was not truly on our side despite shared interests in this particular matter. And though we discussed unionizing– largely, in the abstract, and not extensively—given how risk averse our coalition was, and that unionizing would entail organizing covertly, probably for at least a year, and at any point being possibly expelled from the university for doing so—we were much farther from such a goal then I was able to admit to myself at the time—a state-wide solidarity network is a far more attainable goal in the near future. This isn’t to say a union isn’t possible eventually; we can neither afford to be pessimistic or idealistic.
This relatively tepid student activist culture at OSU has not always been the case at the university. In 2000, graduate students at OSU occupied Bricker Hall, the administrative building, for three weeks in solidarity with a strike by CWA local 4501. According to Chad Montrie, then-graduate student in the history department and one of the organizers of the Bricker Hall occupation, the CWA union leadership compromised far too much with the employer and by ending the strike, the movement on campus fizzled out.
The SaveGradEd movement, conversely, fizzled out because of a quick victory, not because of a a long drawn out disappointment—like Montrie and his comrades experienced. Though it remains difficult to say how much the removal of the waiver tax from the final bill had to do with factors unrelated to our movement, such as university administrative opposition, I believe we had a significant impact. It was, if nothing else, important that we showed the government (Democrats as well) that the death of campus activism, I believe they were counting on, had been greatly exaggerated.
My final takeaway comes less from those six weeks fighting for our education, but from writing this article. I had heard there was a successful student campaign for healthcare subsidizing at OSU in 2001. Attempts to contact people who were a part of it didn’t pan out, and there is scant information on the internet about it. Most of what I know about the Bricker Hall occupation in May 2000 came from tracking down one source—again, information online about it is minimal. Learning about student movements and campaigns that came before ours would have been helpful. We really need an accessible archive—a place where future activists and organizers at OSU and, of course, other institutions can learn more from their predecessors and less from bitter experience. This issue of The Activist History Review is a good start towards fulfilling this need.
Jacob Scheier is a poet, journalist and essayist from Toronto, Canada. He recently finished his MFA in creative nonfiction at The Ohio State University. He is the author of two full length collections of poetry with ECW Press in Toronto and is the winner of the Governor General’s Award for poetry. He is a frequent contributor to Toronto’s weekly alternative NOW Magazine and had a work of literary journalism published as an ebook by The Toronto Star. He has, as well, written several articles for New York’s The Indypendent. His personal essays have appeared in The Sun, Brick and Joyland. He is also an activist and was an organizer with the SaveGradEd coalition at Ohio State in 2017.