Graduate Workers Are Expendable

As our campus community grapples with the coronavirus pandemic, the University must help—rather than hurt—its graduate employees.

By Eric Powell

I’m a Ph.D. candidate in the English department, coming to the end of my eighth year in the program. Come September, I will have no income, no health insurance, and will have to start making payments on over $70,000 in student loans, which I can’t escape even through bankruptcy. I cannot file for unemployment. The academic job market in my field was bleak before the current crisis; now, it is hopeless. Graduate Students United (GSU) has petitioned the University to extend funding and deadlines for graduate students in this time of crisis, just as they extended the tenure clock for faculty. UChicago’s response has been silence. Lives and livelihoods are on the line, and the University administration seems to be fine with leaving graduate employees at the mercy of a nonexistent job market. Undergraduates, faculty, and staff have their own concerns and demands arising out of the current crisis. Now is the time for solidarity and direct action among all the workers and students at the University, up to and including a general strike, to force the University to hear and act on these concerns and demands. Together we can put forward an alternative vision for the future of the University.

On June 1, 2017, I took the stand at GSU’s hearing with the National Labor Relations Board. I was questioned by a team of lawyers from the high-powered law firm Proskauer Rose; the point of all their questioning, what the University was paying them for, was to establish that my fellow graduate employees and I were not workers, that all of the work we do is merely academic job training. The absurdity of some of their arguments, and those of the administrators that took the stand, elicited an avalanche of scorn and outrage on social media at the time. They asked me what positions I held at the University. I told them I was working several jobs: managing editor of Chicago Review, editorial assistant at Critical Inquiry, co-coordinator of the Poetry and Poetics Workshop, and that I had just taught a lecture course in winter quarter.

The positions that I was working at that time are a small fraction of the work that I’ve done for the University over the last eight years. I was a course assistant for three classes, I worked in Special Collections as an accessions assistant, I was commissioned to research and write a history of the English department, I spent two years as a B.A. preceptor for undergraduate-thesis writers, and I worked as a research assistant for a professor. After serving on the poetry staff and as managing editor, I went on to serve as the head editor of Chicago Review for two years. This last job is of particular significance, because it is why I am in the position that I’m now in. If I hadn’t taken on this editorial work—basically a full-time job, though the pay is a modest stipend that amounts to about $2 an hour—I could have finished my dissertation in time to take one of the Humanities Teaching Fellowships that are now guaranteed to Ph.D. students who finish within seven years. But there was no one else in a position to take over as editor at the time, and I felt an obligation both to the journal and to my fellow students, current and future, who would have the opportunity to participate in one of the best literary journals in the U.S.

Coming from a working-class background, I’ve been working since I was 15, including stints working the night shift at FedEx and at a metal shop called Quality Industries that made parts for Peterbilt trucks and Maytag ovens. But I’ve never in my life worked as hard as I have over the last eight years. The University exploits the labor of graduate workers, not just in those positions that we voted overwhelming to unionize for—our teaching and research positions, primarily—but in countless other part-time jobs and the countless ways that we are a part of the University “community”—our research, our participation in conferences, our attendance at lectures and talks, and on and on. But now, when our lives and livelihoods are on the line in the midst of a pandemic and another Great Depression, the University administrators simply turn away: Graduate workers are expendable.

Recently, Professor Kimberly Hoang, who I wouldn’t be surprised to see rewarded with an administrative position, published a condescending op-ed in The Maroon aimed directly at graduate workers like myself: “[F]or those who come from a working-class background, graduate school can offer security, but you need to understand that rejection rates—despite your qualifications—are increasing, so get comfortable with rejection and brace yourself for an academic job market where tenure-track jobs will be hard to come by for at least two to three years. What I’m saying is this: Enter the market with open eyes. Cast your nets wide as you apply to jobs and be prepared to accept your lower-tier choices.” In effect, her message is: Be quiet, do your job, and resign yourselves to the way things are now. Rather than quietism and passivity in the face of the current crisis, I choose a different path—I chose it years ago when I joined my fellow graduate workers in the struggle to unionize. I choose to believe that the workers of the University have the power to transform it through collective action, and that solidarity demands that in a crisis such as the current one we must say an injury to one is an injury to all. I choose to believe that all the workers of the University are essential.

GSU has made a simple, human demand: that in this crisis no graduate student be left without health insurance and without a livelihood. I would wager that the University paid more to the anti-union lawyers at Proskauer Rose than it would cost to meet this demand. But this irony contains all the proof we need that they will not do so voluntarily. The recent communications from the provost and the president have made it clear that what is coming is a doubling down on the austerity that followed after the financial crisis of 2008–09, and an acceleration of the neoliberal policies that have dominated higher education in the last several decades. The only thing that can change our course is if all of the workers that are essential to the functioning of the University—tenure-track and contingent faculty, graduate students, undergrads, and staff—come together to demand a different future. A crisis is also an opening, an opportunity for fundamental change: The essential workers of this university must take collective action now—including a general strike if necessary—not just to prevent the worst of this crisis, but to offer an alternative vision for what the University can be. 

Eric Powell is a Ph.D. student in the Department of English Language and Literature.