Kadin Henningsen, a graduate student and teaching assistant at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), went on strike this past February with 2,500 of his coworkers to protect their jobs and (no pressure) the future possibility of liberal arts education. In the process, Henningsen may have discovered the perfect role model for the millions of unionized and organizing teachers fighting across the country to improve their working conditions. In a speech he gave before a rally of strikers, Henningsen turned to Bartleby the Scrivener, “the original Wall Street Occupier,” to draw a lesson from his field of study, American Literature, about opposing the mindless coercion of capital.
Henningsen got the entire crowd to chant a variant of Bartleby’s famous catchphrase (which in the story is invoked in opposition to his employer’s will): “The President and Provost, they want to corporatize higher education and UIUC. To them I say, WE PREFER NOT TO … They expect us to work without guaranteed tuition waivers, to pay to work for them! To them I say, WE PREFER NOT TO. They expect us to abandon our future colleagues. To them I say, WE PREFER NOT TO.”
The nearly two-week strike undertaken by members of the Graduate Employee Organization (GEO)—which represents graduate and teaching assistants at UIUC—can help us understand why tens of thousands of graduate workers have sought union recognition in the past two years, and why non-tenure-track faculty continue to organize in record numbers.
Hostile politicians have defunded our public universities for the same reason they continue to undermine union representation throughout the country (see Janus v. AFSCME); both union members and college graduates tend to vote Democrat. Meanwhile, university administrators who view their teachers as just another line on an expense report are seeking to reshape higher education to make profit its single guiding value. The increasingly militant teachers fighting back are not only protesting the dire financial conditions under which they work; they fight to preserve a certain vision of their profession, and of our society.
After almost a year of stalled contract negotiations between the union and the university, the UIUC administration proposed language that would have eliminated tuition waivers for a significant portion of GEO’s members. These members perform essential functions throughout the university, grading papers and leading discussion sections for large lecture courses, working as instructors of record teaching their own classes, or performing clerical duties for their departments. Despite teaching nearly 20 percent of the classes at UIUC, graduate workers were valued so little by the administration that they were being asked to pay to work for the university.
At a university with a $3.5 billion endowment, where administrators’ six-figure salaries continue to rise, graduate workers were being threatened with tuition bills that nearly equaled, or in the case of nonresident and international students, represented twice their base salaries of $16,360. Never mind that UIUC itself says $22,314 is the local living wage.
Why would a university push for anything so opposed to every justifiable educational goal? Surely the school wants to compete for the best applicants. It must be beneficial to undergraduates if their teachers are not taking second jobs, going hungry, or going without basic medical care. And the administration must realize how this negatively affects their stated commitment to diversity.
This is perhaps the most important principle that the members of GEO, and of every union, are standing up for when they defend workers’ rights and compensation: the diversity of their workplace. It is already difficult for UIUC graduate workers to complete a degree without independent financial support, but this proposed change threatened to make it impossible. Undermining the union would not only destroy the economic diversity of their graduate programs, but would disproportionately affect students of color, LGBTQ students, immigrants, and women. It would do so at a time when higher education is one of the best engines for social mobility, when a diverse faculty (say, the TAs teaching first-year undergraduates) is essential to providing mentors and role models to support a diverse student body, and when a lack of diversity continues to plague the ranks of professors.
If it isn’t research, education, or diversity, what do UIUC administrators value? According to GEO copresident Augustus Wood, with whom I spoke by telephone after the strike, the university’s motives were clear to him and all the members of the bargaining committee: “The new administration wants to change this university, to go more corporate—to do so they have to de-power the groups already on the campus. Our union is the most powerful [of all of them].” The clause on tuition waivers would not merely have helped the university’s bottom line at the expense of their own teachers; it would have led to the decertification of the GEO.
Receiving a tuition waiver was part of the contractual definition of union eligibility—the university had simply found a convoluted loophole to bust the strongest union on their campus. GEO’s decertification would only be one step in a restructuring of UIUC according to profit-driven models of administration that would fundamentally reshape what could be taught or learned there, how, and by whom.
Since the UIUC administration refused to recognize the value of their teachers’ labor, GEO decided to let them see if they could run a university without it. After months of strike preparation during which the university was given ample time and warning to make things right at the negotiating table, their 2,500 members turned the campus into a constant, only seemingly chaotic Gesamtkunstwerk (total artwork).
The UIUC buildings housing most undergraduate classes were picketed. Daily rallies brought strikers together with supportive undergraduates, faculty, community members, and politicians. In the second week, the president’s and chancellor’s offices were occupied. A support team kept everyone on task, passed out hand warmers as temperatures dipped below freezing, and distributed earplugs. Noise was made.
Strikes have a way of bringing out the best in workers and their supporters. Many faculty members canceled classes in solidarity or relocated them off campus. Undergraduates left with mostly free schedules (another sign of the essential role GEO’s members play in university life), had a two-week crash course in solidarity. Grant Neal and Nick Goodell, who organize the Undergraduate-Graduate Alliance on campus, joined the pickets, spoke at rallies in support of their teachers, and canvassed support from fellow undergrads by explaining what was at stake for their community.
While many undergraduates are indignant to learn that, despite their exorbitant tuition bills, their teachers are among the lowest-paid workers on campus, Neal and Goodell’s concerns were not at all self-centered. On the contrary, they spoke about the substantial labor performed by grad workers and the poverty wages they receive in return. “As leftist students of history,” Goodell told me, “we have a strong identification with the labor movement in the United States, and with people fighting for better material conditions.”
It must be beneficial to undergraduates if their teachers are not taking second jobs, going hungry, or going without basic medical care.
The strike was also a sort of celebration of the intellectual creativity of all of its participants. Kadin Henningsen’s Bartleby-themed chants are a prime example. His inspiration came from the American literature survey class he was TAing before the strike; in addition to relocating off campus in solidarity, the faculty member leading the class assigned Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” for the occasion. Henningsen drew from what he described as his “rabbinic school reject skills,” telling a powerful story about growing up on welfare, becoming the first in his family to attend graduate school, and choosing UIUC in part because a previous generation of GEO members fought for and won trans-inclusive healthcare.
The music students, who were particularly targeted by the language of the tuition waiver clause, also brought their talents to the front lines, marching with drums and other instruments that could be heard several blocks away. Almost a week after the strike ended, Henningsen told me, “We were loud. I’m still hearing drums in my sleep.” Another student who, if they aren’t in engineering, should be, hooked an air mattress pump up to a vuvuzela, to spare their lungs while adding to the fray. The objective, of course, was to lawfully disrupt the status quo as much as possible.
Supporters from the community joined the picket lines, made food for strikers, and contributed to the strike fund. A local reverend gave a sermon to his congregation about GEO’s fight. Even U of I alumnus Nick Offerman tweeted his support for the strikers, noting that several of his own family members are teachers. The outpouring of solidarity from around the world caused GEO’s #EducationForAll slogan to trend on Twitter, adding to the pressure on the administration to respond.
As I said, a strike brings out the best in workers—and the worst in their bosses. UIUC’s administration followed a textbook divide-and-conquer strategy, trying to turn the campus’s undergraduates and faculty against the graduate workers.
Emails sent from the administration to the faculty before the strike sought to breed dissension and fear. One suggested that faculty were required to scab in place of striking TAs, and another encouraged faculty to report the names of graduate workers who went on strike.
Another email, sent to faculty during the strike, claimed that the grad workers’ demands would interfere with faculty governance. The Campus Faculty Association issued a response that called out the administration for their falsehood and their divisive tactics. Their response also made the stakes of the fight clear: “In addition to being the industry standard, the tuition waiver protections GEO proposes ensure that we continue to attract the BEST graduate students to all of our graduate programs and not just the wealthiest.”
An email to undergraduates posed a thinly veiled threat to strikers, encouraging students to call campus police on picketers. The wording was indicative of poorly disguised hostility: “If you have any concerns or experience any difficulties please contact the department that offers the affected class or call the University of Illinois Police Department.”
Of course, the administration ought to know who faces the biggest threat if the police are called. While there were no arrests or uses of force from police officers during the strike, two groups of students who occupied administration offices reported substantially different treatment from campus police. A group of white GEO members volunteered for the first night of the occupation, out of concerns about how the police would respond to the action, and reported no problems. The second night, primarily POC and LGBTQ workers conducted the occupation, and were met with far more suspicion and disrespect by the same force.
For a week and a half, the administration tried to ignore the strikers. Not budging at the negotiating table, remaining silent on the subject in public, or claiming it was “minimally disruptive,” they hoped the graduate students would doubt their own power and give in.
They were wrong. On day 11, the administration came to the bargaining table with a generous agreement that offered the strongest guarantee of tuition waivers the contract has ever included, a similarly unprecedented raise, improved health insurance and dependent coverage, and several changes to protect a diverse range of students from discrimination. Ninety-eight percent of GEO membership voted to ratify it and return to work.
The GEO’s victory will benefit workers far beyond the current members of their bargaining unit. After three years of raises, a new generation of grad workers will return to the bargaining table to negotiate from a position of strength. Across the country, administrators will be taking notice of how far they can push neoliberal reforms before having to face similar consequences.
Other graduate workers, too, who are organizing in record numbers, will benefit from GEO’s tenacity. Numerous studies have shown that the increased wages and benefits of unionized workers ripple through entire industries that compete for the same applicants. And schools with nascent organizing campaigns can point to such victories as examples of what their colleagues can gain from a union, and what they might lose without one.
The GEO’s victory will benefit workers far beyond the current members of their bargaining unit.
Unions of graduate workers have a long history at public universities (governed by state labor relations boards), but Republican appointees to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) have prevented almost all graduate workers at private universities from unionizing. Obama’s NLRB restored to graduate students at private universities their recognition as workers, and thus their right to a union, in 2016. Almost 20,000 graduate students across the country had filed petitions with the NLRB before Trump appointed two union-busting attorneys to the board only a year later. This massive push occurred because the labor conditions GEO is fighting to change are an industry norm.
Unfortunately, university administrations have almost unanimously taken the hard union-busting approach seen at UIUC. They will oppose Trump’s actions in the name of liberal social values when it affects their bottom line—for example, when his travel ban threatened to deter lucrative international students from applying—but will cynically support the Republican anti-union agenda without a concern for how this aids the GOP’s consolidation of power and flaunting of democratic norms. Though it is possible for universities to voluntarily recognize their workers’ unions even if the NLRB won’t (NYU did so in 2013), almost all private universities with union drives among their grad workers have hired the same union-busting law firm, Proskauer Rose, to prevent their workers from gaining legal recognition.
These anti-union policies are consistent with the Republican effort to stifle liberal arts education in our country. The ultimate goal of university administrators and Republican politicians can be observed in accelerated form at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point, where a proposal to eliminate 13 humanities and liberal arts majors was recently announced. This restructuring is a logical consequence of the dismantling of tenure protections at Wisconsin state universities in 2015—an initiative of Scott Walker, the same governor who stripped public unions of bargaining rights.
UIUC administrators have made clear that they still have their eye on the flexibility needed to make such changes. After they spent a year actively opposing such an agreement, Provost Andreas Cangellaris issued a statement saying that the contract had achieved their twin objectives of supporting graduate employees while “also guarantee[ing] our faculty the flexibility to ensure the future quality and competitiveness of our academic programs in the rapidly shifting landscape of global higher education.”
These are the ultimate stakes of GEO’s struggle. It is not a coincidence that the disciplines most threatened by administrators’ and politicians’ neoliberal priorities are those that, instead of producing economic value, offer the possibility of a critique of capital. While the humanities and social sciences tend to face a more existential threat, this division runs within every university department, as certain forms of research, in the natural sciences as well, are privileged for very unscientific reasons.
In response, educators and researchers are reinventing the university as a site of resistance to the anti-intellectualism of our society and of their own administrations. GEO members’ political work takes place in the classroom as well as on the picket line; as Neal and Goodell of the Undergraduate-Graduate Alliance attested, a liberal arts education can be a powerful weapon against the status quo.
Bartleby is a potent vehicle for this type of transformative thinking precisely because his resistance was not limited to any concrete material gain. Like Job before him, he dares us to peer into the absent center where a justification for our social order ought to lie. The politicians and administrators who would rather we not see behind that veil feel just as threatened by Henningsen’s discussion sections as they do by labor organizers.
This article was commissioned by Ben Platt.