When grad students strike

The New York Times Magazine is running an article (or is it an editorial?) entitled Eggheads Unite. I was one of a few graduate students who quietly opposed the unionization of graduate assistants at the University of Washington. The question remains for me whether these are employees or apprentices. Far from being oppressed, I felt very well treated as a graduate student. I was embarrassed to see my fellow grads marching for their own community instead of for the truly disadvantaged of Washington State. (Let me include a caveat here: many of those students also worked for those less advantaged, but it still rung a little off-key when they considered themselves somehow disadvantaged.) Part of this also came of being “lifted” from paying tuition to being supported. Those pushing for unionization considered themselves exploited labor, I thought of it as a scholarship and a chance to get teaching experience. Those who were paying for their education would gladly have availed themselves of this “exploitation” rather than working part-time or full-time in real jobs while paying tuition. Moreover, we were paid far more per hour than the folks in the student union who were doing real work.

If the argument is that TAs are an economic rather than an educational decision, explain to me why we don’t hire adjuncts instead. I fully support unionization of adjunct and temporary instructors. Here is a market of experienced teachers who are often exploited. (Again, there are the exceptions, but by and large this is the case.) If it is a strict economic decision, it is an easy one: hire temporary, adjunct, and visiting instructors rather than TAs. They have more knowledge and experience, and do not require tuition-waivers.

Many who argue for unionization point to campuses where it has occurred and say that there were no negative consequences. It’s hard to imagine that they can be so naive as to think that changes in culture are either so immediate or so measurable.

Maybe they are right. Maybe the university is already too much of a corporation to retain these pre-capitalist ideas of service and apprenticeship. But I hope they are wrong.

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