Politics

Created 4/25/1998
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Berkeley Graduate Student Strike

 


The Situation

In English, in History, in a large number of disciplines across the humanities, the interpretive social sciences, and into the sciences, new University of California Ph.D.s--at Berkeley as well as elsewhere--are facing a wall. The new rule of thumb in the English Department is that a new Berkeley Ph.D. spends three or four years trying to get a job as a professor. If he or she doesn't get such a job--and perhaps two-thirds of new Berkeley English Ph.D.s don't--then the consensus of advice is to give up, go do something else, abandon hopes and expectations of ever becoming a professor anywhere.

The traditional implicit contract between graduate students and their universities has always been a complicated one. Universities have offered their graduate students a complicated package made up of a library card, of some scholarship money, intellectual stimulation and engagement, some tuition waivers (a scholarship that covers only the tuition theoretically charged for graduate study), the opportunity to take courses, some subsidized loans, dissertation supervision, unsubsidized loans, the opportunity to earn money as a teaching fellow, and the obligation to teach undergraduates. The university thus fulfills its mission of preparing the next generation of college-level teachers and researchers and teaching its current undergraduates; graduate students get enough money now to support a (somewhat spartan) style of life today, and get the preparation they need for the professional college- and university-teacher jobs that they want in the future. Both gain.

Or, rather, both gained. Both gained as long as there were jobs--assistant professorships--with good long-run prospects for newly-minted Ph.D.s.

Now, with only one-third of new Berkeley English Ph.D.s getting academic jobs, the implicit contract no longer looks so fair. The university's promise that completing the Ph.D. will set the stage for a rewarding professional life looks increasingly empty. The claim that serving as a teaching fellow is a low-paid but valuable skill-building enterprise seems laughable when teaching fellows can count and conclude that two-thirds of them will never be professors.

Thus graduate students look at the teaching that they do, look at the teaching that professors do, calculate that it would cost perhaps four times more for the university to hire enough extra professors to do the teaching that graduate students do. They fell exploited. They are angry. They want a union to boost their bargaining power, so that they can respond to the university's breaking of its implicit contract with them by renegotiating the terms on which they participate in the university.


Poisoning the Well

The discussion is poisoned because many graduate students believe that the professors and the deans could have--but didn't--make sure that entering students had a realistic picture of the quality of graduate student life and job prospects for new Ph.D.s.

The discussion is further poisoned by the university's declaration that graduate students who teach are not employees but apprentices, who do not deserve to have a union or be treated as employees because their work is not work but training, for--or so the university claims--every time a graduate student teaches a discussion section, it is really the university that is the teacher and the graduate student who is the learner. Such claims appear to every graduate student to be transparently false.

In other contexts such legal fictions mght not do much harm. But a university is supposed to be an arena for discussion and debate, for the exercise of argument and insight and not of power. The university is different from all other institutions in that the university's very existence is a bet that insight can be gained through the exchange of ideas and the advancement of different points of view. Its very survival depends on the common commitment of all at the university to the pursuit of trut. In such a context the claim that teaching assistants are "students" and "not workers" can appear to be a total and cynical betrayal of the values of any university. How committed to intellectual work and to knowledge can administrators be if they deny with straight faces that graduate students are employees?

From the activist graduate student perspective, therefore, it is easy to come to the conclusion that discussion is fruitless: How can you trust the renewed promises of those who made false past promises (or, at the very least, encouraged you to hold onto false beliefs) when you started graduate school? How can you hold a discussion with those who use the pretense of knowledge as a device for the exercise of power: claiming that war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength--and that those who teach sections are not teachers, but learners?

The natural thing to do is to try to match power with power, and in our culture the power that workers have is the power to strike.


A Strike

But will a strike achieve the ends that graduate student activists desire? Almost surely not for the relationship between the university and graduate students is not your standard employer-worker relationship. The problem is not that teaching assistants are not workers, the problem is that the university is not really an employer.

A "normal" strike punishes workers--they lose their wages--but it also punishes the employer: the employer loses today's profits and loses the market share necessary to earn future profits. Firm stockholders--those who ultimately choose the managers--don't like the losses of the current profits that pay their dividends, and they don't like the declines in long-run market share that accompany a strike. A strike directly and immediately hits those who choose managers where it counts--in the wallet.

By contrast, who does a graduate student strike hit, and where? Does it hit the deans and their operating budget in the pocketbook? No. The university does not lose student fees or money from the state as a result of the strike. Does it make the faculty's lives harder? Marginally--to the extent that they cover sections that would otherwise have been cancelled, and find themselves staggering under the load of doing the grading that would otherwise not get done. But I suspect that most faculty will react by letting cancelled sections stay cancelled, and ungraded assignments stay ungraded.

Does a graduate student strike make the lives of the regents harder? Maybe, to the extent that they face hostile interviewers asking awkward questions. But there is a countervailing factor: their political patrons get one more chance to run against "the mess in Berkeley," always a popular move in California politics. From the standpoint of the regents' political patrons, the benefits of a strike and uproar to run against clearly outweigh the political losses from having been perceived to knuckle under to student--even graduate student--demands.

Does a graduate student strike make the lives of the undergraduate students harder? Yes--unless the strike is very, very carefully designed

Thus when you look at it closely, a graduate student strike has almost the inverse effects of a "normal" strike. A "normal" strike leaves customers largely unaffected--they simply go and purchase what they need from some other supplier. A normal strike powerfully harms the interests of the ultimate decision makers, the shareholders. By contrast, a graduate-student strike appears likely to have its major negative impact on the undergraduate students--the analogue of the customers, and the closest thing to an innocent bystander--and to exert next to no pressure on the regents--the analogue of the stockholders. Stockholders lose money from a strike; regents get to demonstrate that they can sit tall in the saddle, protecting public order and the state's finances against "the mess at Berkeley."

It is hard to see any end to a strike other than the following: the regents wait it out (and their patrons solidify their political base), the undergraduates become increasingly annoyed, the graduate students lose money (when the university starts docking their pay), and the strike collapses.


Can Anything Be Done?

A better way for graduate students to proceed would be to abandon belief that the strike is an effective way to exercise power in this situation, and to look for alternatives: alternatives that will either (i) put strong pressure to settle on the ultimate decision makers of the university (as a strike does in the private sector), or (ii) shift the discussion back from power to intellect.

Neither (i) nor (ii) is likely to work. But either has a better chance of working than does the alternative of a strike. Both (i) and (ii) require focusing public attention and TV cameras on the issue--either on regents who must explain why they are so hostile to even the idea of talking to graduate students, or on deans who must then explain why the bargain between the university and graduate students is still fair given the unversity's default on its promise of access to an academic career track. Such public scrutiny could be very unpleasant for regents because a failure to negotiate is easily characterized as a failure to listen. Such public scrutiny could be very unpleasant for deans asked to explain wage differentials between graduate student and faculty teaching.

But figuring out how to focus the TV cameras on either regents or deans is very difficult.


"... her high boats and cream-coloured quilted jacket with its exaggerated shoulders had drawn his gaze as he sat impatiently in a line of cars while the pickets argued with the driver of an articulated wagon that was trying to enter the University. She had been standing on the pavement, holding some silly banner--"Education Cuts Are Not Comic", or something like that--talking and laughing excitedly.... [A]nd he remembered thinking to himself: so it's finally happened--designer industrial action... [it] seemed to epitomise everything he detested most about such demonstrations--the appropriation of working-class politics by middle-class style..."

--David Lodge (1988), Nice Work (London: Penguin: 0140133968), p.78.



Professor of Economics J. Bradford DeLong, 601 Evans
University of California at Berkeley; Berkeley, CA 94720-3880
(510) 643-4027 phone (510) 642-6615 fax
delong@econ.berkeley.edu
http://www.j-bradford-delong.net/

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