Why we organize

Financial circumstances of grad students necessitate unionization

By Joe Grim Feinberg

I was touched when Maroon reporter Ilana Kowarski recently took an interest in my uninteresting life, in order to shed light on the lowly living conditions of U of C graduate students, and on our efforts to unionize (“Some grads struggle to make ends meet,” April 13th). I was also not surprised to see Deputy Provost Cathy Cohen snapping back (I paraphrase) that we are privileged and really should keep quiet.

The fact is that our union, Graduate Students United, has rarely emphasized the abject poverty of graduate student life. There is nothing picturesque or spectacular about our poverty, and least of all about my own. Ours is a banal poverty that eats away slowly at our pockets and brains, while we smile through wine and cheese receptions and hobnob with models of our improbable future success. It is considered most proper to pretend it isn’t there.

Nevertheless, when a reporter takes an interest in our situation, we are compelled to answer her inquiries with facts. If Cathy is troubled by this, she can take up the issue with the reporter who decided the facts held enough “human interest” to be worth reporting. But the facts are not our fault. We merely live them, and we are doing our part to change them.

Cathy’s reaction is typical, however. Academics, including grad students, do not like to admit that we have something in common with fast food workers who face a life of minimum wage work. This denial is especially convenient when it can be framed as a respect for the more authentic and truly humble poor. If we could only be meek as well, then the truly deserving would someday get their due. In the meantime, let us overlook the likelihood that after grad school many of us cannot expect a life of wealth and privilege (as Cathy predicts), but rather a life of adjuncting that roughly pays (yes) minimum wage. Perhaps we enjoy a “privilege” to suffer in unusual and very special ways, but that is meager consolation for it.

It is a long-standing tactic of those in power to play up the “privileges” of the ruled. Poor whites are told they are superior to non-whites, so they should be happy with their trailer parks and bad healthcare. Unionized transit workers are told they have “good jobs” and can afford to sacrifice for those less fortunate, to save the mayor’s face. The poor should smile upon their not-quite-abject poverty, and the destitute should blame the poor. The rich and powerful wrinkle their brows in concern, while the soft burn of vermouth reminds them of the world’s distant misery. And they go back to busting unions.

We should be unionizing, not because we are the most miserable people on the planet, but because the planet itself is miserable, and we can make it better. With that in mind, we should not hesitate an instant in demanding decent human lives while pursuing the trades that we have had the unfortunate privilege to love.

And we can look forward to the time when the essence of “human interest” will not be found in our poverty but in our efforts to overcome it—when stories will not be told about how we make ends meet, but how we meet our hard-fought ends: equality, democracy, and community, within the university and without.

— Joe Grim Feinberg is pursuing a PhD. in anthropology.