• Home
  • About Us
  • Guest Posts

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Why Solidarity is Important, or, An Open Letter to UC Faculty

By Earl Perez-Foust, Comparative Literature, UCSB

Dear UC Faculty,

I am a graduate student at UCSB and a rank-and-file member of the UC Student-Workers Union (UAW 2865).  As you may have heard, my union has declared a strike for April 3rd with some campuses striking April 2 as well.  This is the first Thursday of the Spring quarter and it will likely add further disruption to what is already a chaotic time of the year.  The strike is over an Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) charge that the UC has intimidated members of the union with respect to their participation in the November 20th sympathy strike with AFSCME 3299.  In a recent statement, the Berkeley Faculty Association called on the UC to “respect the protected rights of union workers to take collective actions free of undue managerial interference.”  I would like to echo this and call upon all UC faculty to take stock of their stakes in this conflict, which at the very heart of it deals with the misuse of power dynamics within the University, and show solidarity with their graduate students.

This letter, however, is not meant to be an announcement of the strike nor a detailed breakdown on the charges within the ULPs – I have attached a link to these materials if you're interested in finding out more.  Instead, this letter is concerned with what it means – and what it feels like – to be a graduate student who is invested in the quality of their, and their colleagues', working conditions but who may feel intimidated by the prospect of approaching faculty with these investments.  Some of this may come as a surprise to you, a lot of student-faculty relationships are bracketed by an implied camaraderie and friendship.  However, perhaps especially when it's an issue of work stoppage, students may feel as if any disruption might be registered as a personal affront to this relationship.

To be sure, a strike is a legally protected concerted activity and any managerial intimidation with respect to one's participation in a strike is a violation of the law.  However, there are hidden mechanisms of intimidation and we all know what these may be: the infamous things which “just happen” (ie, TA appointments which “just happen” to go to someone else, a fellowship competition you “just happen” to lose, letters of recommendation which “just happen” to be poor ones).  These things, the “just happens,” are terrifying and can make the prospect of approaching our faculty daunting.  

No doubt some of you are thinking that you would never do this to your students and I'm not calling this into question.  You need to understand, however, that this isn't completely apparent to us – there is just so little room to talk explicitly about the workplace in these relationships.  We simply don't know what the response is going to be.  This strike gives us an opportunity to redefine the terms of our relationships within the University.  It gives us an opportunity to rethink what labor within the University means and what an ethical relationship within it could look like.  Navigating this is dizzying and can be confusing or difficult to situate.

For these reasons, starting the conversation may be the hardest step – we are unequipped with a language with which to speak about these issues.  If you are approached by one of your students or hear about the strike through another means, your unequivocal support is necessary.  The details and the context of the strike are important, but there is at least one other question in this conflict: what sort of working conditions are faculty endorsing?  We need to change the lexicon of our student-faculty relationships, which is to say that we need to be able to talk about the conditions in which we live and work.  Your expressed support of our collective action is an incontrovertible part of this.

I hope to see you on the picket line and that you will offer your support to myself and my fellow academic workers.



Anonymous said...

Because an overzealous campus cop (undoubtedly a union member himself) at one campus decided to videotape students trying to hand over a protest letter, you're going to deprive students at all of the campuses of a day on instruction for which they paid a lot of money. Incredible.

Anonymous said...

@Anonymous: I don't understand your comment--what does any videotape have to do with anything? TAs aren't depriving students of a day of instruction, UCOP is, but not agreeing to at least discuss the issue of class size, which has again and again in all research been shown to be one of the most important factors in quality of instruction. A world-class institution should at least be willing to discuss it.

Anonymous said...

As a faculty member who is teaching a Tue-Thu lecture course with 8 TAs I am directly affected by this. In spite of the chaos it will produce, I think it is VERY important that the University discuss the issue of class size with Grad Student Instructors. I know I don't want my grad students to spend inordinate amounts of time grading and managing their teaching loads, when they should really be focusing on research. Even if some undergrads do lose some TA-provided instruction on this one day, they will not only be learning a larger lesson about power relations and standing up for one's rights, and likely benefiting future students (possibly including themselves) who will profit from better classes, they may also be able to make up some of the missed instructional activities.

Anonymous said...

Where can we find out if there is a strike on our campus? A quick search doesn't reveal the answer. It would be useful if all the UC grad TA unions had a central webpage for posting such info-- perhaps that exists and I just can;t find it, please advise.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to say this, but any good will you and your colleagues may have had from faculty in the past has essentially vanished. I will teach as scheduled on Weds April 2, and I will not sacrifice 5% of my carefully sequenced curriculum in this accelerated quarter system of ours to further kowtow to a subset of disaffected graduate students. To impose this academic disruption upon the entire UC system is shameful.

Michael Meranze said...

Dear Anonymous,

I'm a little surprised that you would insist that you are speaking for "faculty" in this regard. I can tell that they have lost your good will from your comment. And probably others. But there are plenty of faculty, myself included, who continue to have good will towards their efforts to improve their working conditions especially given the deleterious effects on teaching and graduate students that I have seen because of some changes that have been imposed in the last few years.

And I would think that missing section one day the first week of classes is actually less disruptive of syllabi than having a work stoppage later in the quarter.

Anonymous said...

Let's do the math. Tuition for CA residents is more than $16K. Call it $5,400 per quarter = $540/week. In other words, you are asking every single undergrad to sacrifice about $220 from their personal return on their educational investment to support this two-day action. They might not even have a choice if your pickets shut down campuses.

Please justify this loss to the tens of thousands of undergraduates systemwide. I haven't seen anything close to a reasonable justification that would convince a money-strapped undergrad with an eye toward getting the most out of every class. And no, faculty cannot just "make up" for the lost days by cramming the missed material into other lectures. The pedagogical loss is demonstrable.

Michael Meranze said...

I am not sure if you were responding to my comment or to another but sure let's do the math. First of all, it is simply not the case that every single undergraduate across the system will be having a TA section on either Tuesday or Wednesday. And as far as faculty making up the material (should you choose to cross the picket line or hold your classes elsewhere in solidarity) will have to cram their materials to compensate. So I think we can cut back on the hyperbole here.

But having seen the numbers of students being pushed into sections over the last few years which have led faculty either to cut back on assignments or section time or the amount of preparation they can ask graduate students to perform I do think that it might very well be worth it for an undergraduate to miss a section the first week of classes if that meant that their situation would improve. Certainly faculty have not been pushing back on that effectively as far as I can tell.

I also do think that as much as we might like to think that tuition can be simply transferred into class time we know better. A lot of that tuition goes into all sorts of other services and things. I'm certainly not defending that as I have made clear in posts over the years. But it doesn't seem now is the time to pretend something is the case to score an argument about graduate student workers.

TB said...

It's not clear at all from the original post whether the strike is about the deteriorating TA conditions (the perpetual section size creep & the amount of work expected of our TAs) or over the alleged intimidation of the participants in the November 20th sympathy strike (which appears to be the stated reason). I am highly sympathetic to the former cause. Having been a teaching assistant myself back in the late 90s, I can compare the amount of TA work I was supposed to do then with what is expected of our TAs now. I also try to shoulder their pain by e.g. providing solutions (while I was fully expected to write those solutions myself as a TA back in the 90s). If, however, the actual cause is the latter -- I have zero sympathy. I will cross the picket line and teach my students, same as I did on November 20, and will encourage my colleagues to do the same. The whole idea of a sympathy strike struck me as frivolous then and any follow-up actions would strike me as frivolous now. Just to remind you: the November 20 strike caused a noticeable disruption on campuses which had *nothing to do* with the subject of that "sympathy".
So, it would be really useful to find a reliable source of information on both the planned actions & the grievances. Could someone please provide a link?

Chris Newfield said...

The TA union wrote a good report on how declining working conditions for grads hurts educational quality for undergrads. http://www.uaw2865.org/wp-content/uploads/Towards-Mediocrity.Sept-2013.pdf
I don't see the virtue of faculty promising not to support a grad strike in advance, either substantively or tactically. I don't see why universities should be immune from strikes at the point when nothing else has worked (UCOP, after years of operating cuts, explicitly rejected the grad union's right to raise educational quality as a bargaining issue) and when university administrations impose the same kind downgrading of teaching conditions that one sees applied to employees in any other industry. The quality of UC undergrad learning depends on the quality and satisfaction of our graduate students who do so much of the teaching--and who in this way also support faculty research. So why wouldn't faculty support them in return?

Anonymous said...



Join the Conversation

Note: Firefox is occasionally incompatible with our comments section. We apologize for the inconvenience.