Where Student Protests and the Adjunct Labor Movement Meet

Having seen up close some of the issues Allyson Manchester makes in her excellent article on the importance of the adjunct labor movement, I just want to add historical context to some of her points. Many colleges and universities continue to oppose adjunct unionization, and even the most so-called “progressive” schools (including my alma mater) have repeatedly resisted attempts by staff and physical plant workers — often the most underpaid and most powerless employees on campuses — to organize for their basic workplace rights.

Meanwhile, it is becoming evident that students — graduate and undergraduate alike — are now part of the global working class. The skyrocketing student debt level, the fact that is necessary for a majority to work at least one part-time job to at least scrape by through their college years, increasing costs at universities in general…all these factors indicate a growing ‘proletarianization’ of higher education. Adjunct instructors, grad students, and undergrads alike are all feeling the crunch.

This is not to say that this process has not taken place without struggle. Most saliently, in 2012 we witnessed the massive student strike in Quebec to oppose a tuition hike. This university-centered demand turned into a massive mobilization, joining students and ordinary folks together to protest austerity measures by the then-current government. On this side of the border, in California, students at one of the largest public university systems in the world have stood face-to-face with the neoliberal assault on education — what could be called simply the ‘privatization’ of public education — twice, in 2009 (in response to the massive tuition increases that were the response of the UC regents to the budget crisis) and again in 2011.

Now, graduate students at campuses across the UC system, represented by the UC Student-Workers Union (UAW 2865), are embroiled in a bargaining deadlock with the administration over more than issues such as adequate pay, support for students with families, and healthcare, but also questions about the quality of UC education. The biggest problem on this front is class size. To quote Michelle Glowa from UC-Santa Cruz in an article from SFGate “[w]hen you have one teaching assistant and 300 students, you can’t have one-on-one time with the students or even small-group time where they’re receiving individual attention.” Like many universities around the country, there have been continual cuts to the number of TAs per course throughout the UC system, leading to overworked and overloaded instructors and students who aren’t receiving the education they are paying (and also working) for.

This sheds some light on that great stat from Allyson’s article that has received the most attention: the gap in tuition dollars between the cost of each course and the amount of money an adjunct or graduate student instructor is paid to teach classes of ever-increasing sizes. What this gap means means is that university education is heading steadily towards a position of mediocrity. But in addition to the problems of class size, there are also quality of life concerns, particularly for LGBTQ students, as well as debilitating budget cuts for students of color and ethnic studies programs (African American Studies, Asian American Studies, Women Studies, Comparative Literature, etc.).

So far, the administration of the UC system has responded to the graduate demands for a better contract — which provide some first steps towards solving these problems — with complete inadequacy. The administration wants to shut out graduate students from any part of these decision-making processes while continuing to pay graduate student stipends stipends that, in comparison to similar programs around the country, are among the lowest.

We responded on November 20th here at UC-Santa Cruz with a strike, an action made in support of AFSCME service workers who are also engaged in contract negotiations over wage cuts and threats to their pensions. What made this joint action so interesting was not only the fact that it presented a powerful form of student-worker power, but also that it prompted an enormous outpouring of undergraduate support and mobilization (which is exactly what Allyson called for in her article).

If the privatization of the UC system and other public universities is to be resisted, and the quality of education at private colleges and universities is to be upheld, then these forms of support between graduate, undergraduates and workers — since they are all workers in a sense — must be actively encouraged, not despised as the doings of some privileged students or union thugs. There is a real stake in these struggles over education. If one fundamental tenet of the public university system in the US (and elsewhere) should be to “provide common knowledge for the greater good of all,” and not simply the business interests of those who run this system, then Allyson’s conclusion should be extended: everyone should care about the outcome of these struggles, of which the battle at UC is but a local instance.

photo credit: Ross Little, Creative Commons/flickr