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From the Issues in Graduate Education column in the November 1999 Perspectives

From Sociality to Responsibility: Graduate Employee Unions and the Meaning of the University

William Vaughn, November 1999

The nationwide campaign to unionize graduate assistants stems from various motivations. Foremost among these is a desire to secure the status of true employees. Grad employee union drives, however, are notoriously belabored endeavors. The efforts at the University of California system, at Yale, and at my own University of Illinois, have lasted for the better part of this decade, and in the latter two instances, workers have yet to secure full, formal recognition from their employer. This typically means that those initiating a campaign may never reap the benefits of recognition, such as a contract, better pay, better health care, and grievance procedures. Activists graduate, drop out of academia, or return to their dissertations after giving as much of their time as they can afford—but all grad unionists must contend with their own relatively transient status. Then too, we shouldn't be surprised if grad union organizers, who are typically volunteers, eventually burn out. They face innumerable barriers, often including mammoth legal hurdles; extensive, university-bankrolled anti-union campaigns; and the inherent difficulty of persuading and mobilizing their far-flung and at times recalcitrant colleagues, who work and research in a myriad of disciplines.

Given this, what would motivate someone to pursue such a project often against almost insurmountable odds? In a typical union campaign outside of academia, organizers might plausibly expect to enjoy the concrete improvements they work to secure. But given the unlikelihood of that scenario for many grad unionists, one might imagine they derive their strength from some other, less tangible source. In my research into academic activism, I've discovered one model for how unionists understand what sustains them. The organizers tend not to be driven by the specific goals they hope to achieve through collective bargaining. Rather, in seeking to be recognized as workers, they are better able to recognize the link between their own labor and the aims of the university itself, in an ideal sense. Indeed, the academics I've studied on my campus, members of the Graduate Employees' Organization (GEO), find in their activism a renewed commitment to the whole of academic culture, a commitment I trace in terms of three stages: sociality, community, and responsibility. Such activists are motivated not by self-interest, but professional involvement. In an era when universities actively degrade the labor that sustains their mission, acting professionally—for students as well as teachers—means working as an activist. Academic activism is selfish only insofar as it desires to preserve a way of life not entirely driven by bottom-line economic imperatives. Most of us wouldn't be teachers if we weren't already motivated by something other than money. Academic activism is a way of realizing that motivation to the fullest extent in our professional lives.

The sequence of commitment I've deduced from my research ascends from a simple appetite for contact, to a sense of connection, and finally to an obligation toward one's peers—in other words, it moves from sociality, to community, to responsibility. Individuals characterize these modes in various ways. The experience of any mode may range from burdensome to enlivening. I offer these accounts not as sociological truth, but as informal oral history meant to capture a moment when—for grad employees at one campus, anyway—the imperatives of their professional values intersected with a view of the university's mission as a shared enterprise that could only be sustained by collective responsibility.

For many, that sense of enterprise is enhanced as its extent enlarges. Some activists begin union work simply hoping to enlarge their social network. A graduate colleague in English notes, "It's hard being a graduate student. It's easy to get insulated in your department, and one of the most important things about the GEO is that it helps graduate students make connections across departments."

But simple sociality can quickly evolve toward community, a sense of common culture. After one of the union's first interdepartmental meetings, a colleague in English noted, "that was the first time I'd laid eyes on someone outside of the English department.. We can reach out to other departments and see if they have these issues."

Two historians perhaps best capture this shift from sociality to community. "First of all," one told me, "my whole social vista completely broadened. That's one of the most important benefits of the GEO as a kind of community organization, 'cause the people are isolated here.. I never felt like I had a community before."

"There's obviously a social dimension to the union that's really nice," said the second, "and it's really changed the face of the group of people I feel a connection with. The university feels a lot smaller thanks to the GEO, so it's not quite the monolith it seemed to be; but now it actually feels much more like a community."

The values of community range from the personal to the political and the scholarly. For anthropologist Richard Freeman, the experience included all three. Participating in the union, he told me, "serves both my own personal needs and satisfactions, and it's things that I feel good about doing that also help other people. So it's the best of both worlds." Others locate the value more specifically. According to a colleague in English, "if you have something like a union established for graduate students, it gives them some breathing space; they understand that they can focus on their scholarship and not have to worry about what's going to happen if they get in [a] difficult situation."

Some unionists have derived scholarly profits from this experience. One of our founders said:

I like to think that a lot of graduate students find connections between our work and the way we think about our work, and the connections in which we work. And it only enriches your academic work to be constantly thinking about the factors shaping what you can study, how you can study it, what you write—that kind of thing. . . . I think the whole process of becoming really aware of the importance of the institution greatly shaped my dissertation.. I think being an activist and bringing these issues to bear on my academic work has only made my academic work better.

Just as it's possible to see sociality contributing to community, we can also recognize how the experience of community fosters a sense of responsibility. A historian told me:

What I get [from the union] is community,. . . understanding the bigger picture of the university as a whole. And also links—which I think are very important—to the "outside world." It connects us to the university community, but it also connects us to other unions in the community, and struggles that are going on in the community, and puts our lives in perspective.

Another historian characterized his interest in the union this way:

I liked the idea of a political community. Even more than winning benefits and a contract for grad employees, what really excited me about the GEO was that it could be a political community, and we would be able to work with other political groups on campus, and make this campus just a better place, a more politically charged place, and a more democratic place.

In the end, it was just this sense of politicized involvement that best expressed how my colleagues described their contributions and rewards. They invoked concepts like "democracy," the "public," "citizenship," "duty," and "service"; used verbs such as "connect," "reinvigorate," "redefine," "integrate," "intersect," and "confront"; and characterized their actions variously as exhausting and rewarding. From the beginning, I think, the interest in responsibility was paramount. Here is how one of our founders described the union's origin:

We had the idea that the English Department had to recognize its relation to the university administration, to other departments, to broader institutional structures.... We also wanted to make connections with graduate students in other departments.... We also wanted very much to have a connection to the community, so we worked on a literacy project [and on] connecting with different literacy projects in the community. We wanted very much to connect with other national issues that were affecting education, so we helped organize a conference of Teachers for a Democratic Culture.... We were really trying to redefine English as a discipline: to expand the definition of what it meant to do academic work in English, and to constantly be making connection to other departments, to the conditions that shaped our work and our research.

Although you would think that many of the things we're studying . . . would lend themselves to broader institutional analysis . . . in fact they don't. There is a level of abstractness, and a refusal to engage immediately in political issues at the local level, which I just felt was wrong.

Overcoming that abstractness—being engaged to such a great extent—can be quite draining work.

Nevertheless, most of the activists spoke as though the union helped them find their grounding, both civically and professionally. "It's actually helped me become a responsible citizen," said Randi Storch, a historian. She added:

What's the point of doing all of this reading and writing if you're not somehow interacting with the world around you? For me, working on labor issues, and wanting to talk about that with my teaching, I feel that, as an academic, it's my responsibility to try to integrate that stuff in my life as much as possible. . . . How can I write about people if I don't know what's going on? I think that's the case for lots of humanities and social science people, who want to talk a good talk by reading the books, but when it comes down to it, are too busy to be out there, and I really see that it's impossible to separate.

Storch went on to describe her ideal university as one "where people are the dominant force, and I'm able to have time to build networks and coalitions, and actually do community work and service that's outside of the research realm."

Hers was a common sentiment. Explaining what he derived from his involvement, another historian told me

I have a much better context for useful political engagement. What happens to an academic when they get involved in this kind of thing, I think, is that they get taken out of their cloistered existence, and...they're forced to confront a lot of things: they have to confront people in other disciplines; they have to learn how to speak across disciplines, which is incredibly difficult . . . . And they have to confront the reality of power in the academy. And that's not a pretty picture.

That practice of confrontation, he went on to say, engages the question of citizenship, and how academics see themselves as citizens.

Many academics feel that their intellectual prowess or capabilities remove them from the realm of citizenship and politics. And that's a very, very negative conception. If academia is devoid of a concept of citizenship, all we need to do is sit back and expound on our own completely irrelevant research. But if we are citizens along with everybody else, that means we have to get down and dirty with the rest of them. And it means we have many of the same concerns.

I'll conclude with two of the more eloquent testimonies I heard—one from a physicist, the other from a historian. The physicist, Mike Rabin, summed up his involvement this way:

I felt that I was doing something worthwhile; that I was helping; that I was helping make my university a better place by opposing the forces that were continuing exploitation across campus.... I felt a duty that if I'm gonna be a part of that enterprise, I have to make it better.... I really think of the work I did for a couple years here with the union, as something that some people would say they derive from their sense of what is good for the community. And that's how I look at it: in terms of public service.

Such service, a historian related,

gave me more of an appreciation for the goals of a public institution, and rethinking the state's obligations to its citizens, and the people that work at state institutions....I was already pretty convinced that teaching had a definite altruistic bent to it. That was a part of teaching that I really believed in going into it: that in the right hands, this could be life-changing stuff.... I really like the fact that the classroom can be this incredibly exciting place that has a potential to change the lives of students forever. But recognizing that not just as the teacher's obligation—but as a public institution that the university has that obligation to really be working for the benefit of the people that are supporting [it].

That's something else the union has done: it's really sensitized me to the very important role that we have, not just as teachers, but as public employees serving the public.... It's also changed my thinking in terms of democracy—that there's no reason why democracy is something that stops at the voting booth: it's right and it's proper that democracy be something that is experienced at the workplace, too.... I wouldn't have been able to articulate it that way prior to my involvement in the union.... A lot of the appeal of a public institution is that there's this context in which you're operating, where at least on the face of it, there are certain ideals that this institution ought to be encouraging and operating with, and a big one is democratic participation of the people in the decision-making process, wherever that process impacts their lives. So there is a nexus of three roles: activist, scholar, teacher. My role as a teacher and as a scholar serving a public institution in part is to also encourage that kind of democratic participation of my colleagues and students at that institution. . . . It's about making a community a better place.

As I suggested at the outset, that kind of unabashedly altruistic desire also often explains why some of us became teachers in the first place. Many in the profession still might like to think it's enough to teach and do one's research, and that activism, for grad students or anyone else, is, if not selfish, at least inappropriate. I am arguing here that in fact, given the labor climate we—all of us, tenured or just tenaciously hopeful—face, being an activist is the most relevant and responsible role we can enact. From sociality to community to responsibility, we discover what it means to be professionals in the fullest sense. It's a hard lesson to learn and live up to, but the necessary lessons are always the hardest, and always the most fulfilling.

—William Vaughn directs the Programs in Professional Writing at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he was a founding member of the Graduate Employees' Organization. His articles on academic activism have appeared in Academe, IFT Insight, and the anthology Chalk Lines: The Politics of Work in the Managed University (Duke University Press, 1998), and he has essays on American literature forthcoming in Gothic Studies and The Centennial Review.