• GradHacker

    A Blog from GradHacker and MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Online

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Labor Organizing and Academia

Recognizing the parallels between your work as a graduate student and that of labor organizers in academia. 

March 20, 2019
 
 

Neelofer Qadir will receive her Ph.D. in English in May 2019 from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Currently, she is a Research Associate at the Five College Women’s Studies Research Center. Follow her on twitter @_neelofer and check out her website.

This week we are going to focus on Graduate Students as active citizens, activists, and forces for change in their own community. On Monday, Patrick shared his experiences working in local government. So, stay tuned to the blog for more posts or check us out on Twitter where we will being highlighting past posts on this topic.

My first encounter with academic labor organizing happened in undergrad, when I reported on the adjuncts who were fighting to unionize on my campus for my college newspaper. It took them four years — from 2005 to 2009 — before the first collective bargaining agreement took effect, but their efforts fundamentally shaped how I approached graduate school and a career in/adjacent to academia. Being in conversation with contingent faculty as I took classes with them meant I understood that not all faculty members have consistent office space, that many commute across several campuses (sometimes on the same day), and that none of this means they are lesser educators in any way. Seeing the crisis of adjunctification playing out also alerted me to the extreme precarity for faculty, staff, and students at many tuition-driven liberal arts colleges well before this crisis hit the fever pitch it is at today. And, it played a significant role in guiding me toward UMass Amherst, where our Graduate Employee Organization has existed since 1991.

GradHacker previously tackled the topic of graduate student employees and unions in a 2016 two part series. Building on that robust conversation between my colleagues Patrick and Madeline, I wanted to add the perspectives of two labor organizers, Anna and Matthew, who I met in academic labor contexts, to think about the similarities and differences in pursuing careers in academia and/or union work as well as what these organizers can offer us in terms of the academic labor landscape, which has tilted dramatically away from secure, recurring positions.

Currently, Anna works for a large public sector union that organizes with school employees. When I asked her what brought her to this position, she told me she never anticipated a career as a labor professional. “Maybe a labor attorney,” she mused. Her transition into a full time career as an organizer was slow and steady, if unplanned. She didn’t think she had the leadership potential for it, but a position as department steward showed her how “revitalizing and energizing” the work could be. So, she pursued a co-chair position in the steward’s assembly, after which she was elected to the union’s steering committee and then leadership.

Similarly, Matthew described his experience as having “turn[ed] around one day and realiz[ing] [he is] chest deep in labor organizing without a how-to checklist … The day to day is the same: you wake up, shake your head at the state of the world, sit in a committee meeting or three and then get to work.” But, what exactly is that work after the committee meetings? Much of it seems to be in direct member engagement, which both Matthew and Anna highlighted in our conversations. As Anna put it, “Being trained in the structuring of arguments and teaching others how to structure arguments allows me to teach the local leaders I work with how to do this. Ultimately, I want them to feel like they know what they’re doing. Know that they can call me, but, at the end of the day, it’s their union and their contract.”

The game changer for Anna was that she realized her output as an academic labor organizer “had a material impact that benefitted other people. I found I had a lot of energy to do that work at a time when I wasn’t finding the same motivation around my academic work.” Her experiences track well among other colleagues: both among folx she knows and new people she’s meeting at events like 20-year reunions, Anna finds people jumping from the doctoral program boat into labor careers.

Matthew offered me similar insight into why he’s leaving academia, for now, to pursue a career in labor organizing. “What I distill from labor organizing is what I had hoped to drink in the academic sphere. I always found myself borderline dehydrated [in my doctoral program].” They broadly agreed that union work affords similar kinds of intellectual challenges that one might engage with in a conventional academic career, but with a much stronger sense of gauging the impact of the work being done. Matthew explained that he draws a great deal of strength from the notion that as he does his job, he never forgets that the core of it is “struggling toward justice” using many of the same skills he used as an academic.

Elaborating on the overlap between her graduate education and current work, Anna noted how people expect our social science colleagues to shift into labor organizing in a way that’s less expected among literature graduate students (both she and Matthew, like myself, pursued literature Ph.D.s). Nevertheless, she found that “All the reading primes you for dealing with a diverse and often complicated landscape within unions. It sets you up to listen to a lot of different points of view with empathy.” That strong skill set of critical listening and reading then translates rather organically into considering the different audiences that organizers must reach in their work. Thus, writing like a chameleon is a significant asset.

The focus on audience, rhetoric, and purpose brings me back to what the stakes are for academics at all levels when it comes to organizing across tenure-stream, contingent, graduate, and undergraduate labor positions. Both Matthew and Anna agreed that tenured and tenure-stream faculty need to show up for the rest of their colleagues because, ultimately, they are not as far removed from the crisis of work as it might seem.

Matthew advised approaching “organizing as you would your research field; understand you are part of a complicated history and see where your individual talents fit in.” He added a warning, “Don’t let a feeling of professional and/or financial security obscure the procession of precarity you might have followed to get here.”

Anna, too, had specific and actionable advice for people with secure positions can support their contingent colleagues:

1) Get to know colleagues who are not on the tenure-track. Ask them what they need. Find out how to be their accomplices because they need them. Literally, know who they are.
2) Be right up front with your grad students: that they don’t have to be college professors and that there are a broad range of careers out there well suited for people with our skill sets.
3) Develop contacts and build a network with people, who have other kinds of jobs on campus and in your towns, who may have connections that’ll help you and your students.
4) Don’t be hands off as a mentor!

Share your experiences on academic labor organizing with us in the comments. Are graduate students on your campus unionized and, if so, what works and what doesn’t? Has working with or studying labor organizing prompted you to consider it as a career path?

[Header photo by Flickr user ProgressOhio used under a Creative Commons license.]

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