Mizzou grad workers have had enough

September 14, 2015

Joseph Moore reports on a grad employees' union drive at the University of Missouri.

GRADUATE EMPLOYEES at the University of Missouri announced on Labor Day that they would begin a union organizing drive in response to "years of crises in graduate employee working conditions."

The Forum on Graduate Rights (FGR), a grassroots organization that advocates "for the rights of graduate student employees at the University of Missouri," formed at the end of August in response to administrators' decision to end health insurance subsidies for graduate workers amounting to about $3,000 per employee.

Administrators announced their decision on August 14, some 13 hours before health insurance plans were set to expire and two weeks after the expiration of those plans for international students. Neither students nor faculty were given advanced notice.

The callous disregard for the welfare of graduate workers exhibited by Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin and the administration ignited a firestorm of outrage. About 400 graduate employees attended an emergency forum on August 17 to discuss the sudden loss of their health insurance and plan their next moves. At the meeting, attendees formed the FGR.

Graduate employees organizing at the University of Missouri
Graduate employees organizing at the University of Missouri

The revocation of insurance subsidies was simply one among many injustices endured by graduate workers at the University of Missouri (Mizzou) over the past several years.

FGR quickly issued a list of demands, including immediate reinstatement of insurance subsidies, the provision of affordable graduate housing, the return of free on-campus child care facilities, a reduction in supplemental fees, and a "guarantee that no graduate student employee be paid at a rate below the individual poverty line regardless of their appointment status, department or college." (The minimum subsidy for a graduate employee at Mizzou is about $12,000 per year).

Graduate employees gave the administration until August 26 to meet these demands or face a university-wide walkout by graduate employees.

Facing an unexpected backlash from graduate students, faculty and members of the press, the administration walked back its decision and temporarily restored the subsidies for the 2015-16 academic year. However, without significant movement on the other demands, graduate workers went ahead with the walkout and rally.

More than a thousand red-clad graduate employees, faculty and supporters gathered at Mizzou's iconic columns for a march to Traditions Plaza. Demonstrators chanted "M-I-Z-Shame on you!" and "Grads do!" and held signs pleading, "We need a union!"

A week later, FGR's steering committee voted to endorse a union election, clearing the way for the organizing committee to begin a union campaign with the National Education Association (NEA). The roughly 3,000 graduate employees at Mizzou would become the largest NEA local in Missouri.

Over the course of the next month, the committee plans to hold a series of educational forums on the benefits of unionization, while the FGR will continue to pressure the administration through direct action.

THE DEPLORABLE conditions faced by graduate workers at the University of Missouri, and other universities around the U.S., are symptoms of a larger disease plaguing higher education. Over the past several decades, neoliberal reformers have slashed state and federal funds for public universities.

Since 2001, state funding for Mizzou has fallen by 14 percent, even as student enrollment increased by 45 percent during that time. Nationally, state funding for higher education has declined by more than 40 percent since 1980, a trend that, if continued, will see state funds for public universities reach zero by 2059.

This precipitous decline in support for public education is part of the larger neoliberal austerity agenda.

Combined with the reduction of resources for public universities is the steady increase in the number of highly paid administrators, outpacing the growth of full-time faculty by about 35 percent since the 1960s. It's not uncommon for upper-level administrators at large research institutions to be paid in excess of $250,000 per year. In fact, many university "CEOs" (the title says it all) are compensated as much as $500,000 per year.

Wage increases for this technocratic administrative class have greatly outpaced the modest gains for professors and graduate workers, who actually perform the core function of the university: educating students.

Since 1980, the cost of college tuition in the U.S. has increased by about 260 percent, translating to a leap from an average annual cost of $9,438 for a four-year post-secondary institution to $23,872. During that time, the amount of student loan debt has skyrocketed to a sickening $1.2 trillion.

The average student loan debt is now about $29,000. These ballooning costs are a direct result of the drastic reduction in public funding for universities and the steady increase in administrators making six figures.

These new administrations are largely composed of individuals from business and the legal profession. As a consequence, they bring a market-oriented approach to the management of universities, which subordinates all other goals to the profit motive.

AS PART of their mission to cut costs from the bottom, university managers have increasingly replaced full-time tenured faculty with adjuncts, who work for the university on a part-time basis, are paid by the course and receive no benefits.

In 1975, tenure-track faculty accounted for roughly 45 percent of university teaching staff. Since 1975, that percentage has declined to less than one-quarter. Part-time faculty now account for more than 40 percent of university instructors. Teaching jobs in higher education have become increasingly precarious, and often fail to provide anything close to a livable wage.

All of these trends are having a devastating impact on the ability of universities to perform their traditional functions of fostering critical thinking, moral development and active community engagement among students. These goals have been subordinated to a market logic that values education only to the extent that it is able to prepare the next generation of obedient workers to enter the labor force.

As a consequence, funding has shifted overwhelmingly to professional/technical departments, to the detriment of humanities and liberal arts programs. Under this system, the primary purpose of the university is to maintain the neoliberal status quo, while stifling any potential threats to that status quo from activist-minded students and faculty.

Despite the direction that higher education has taken under the neoliberal paradigm, there is still hope for change. Students and faculty around the country have attempted to resist the status quo. One form this resistance has taken is unionization.

In 2000, graduate workers at New York University partnered with the United Auto Workers to form the first certified labor union for graduate employees at a private university in the U.S. Between 1990 and 2001, the number of unionized graduate employees almost tripled from 14,060 to 38,750. Since 2001, more than 20 campuses have unionized, including the California State University system in 2006.

Graduate student unions have fought for higher wages, comprehensive health care, a reduction in supplemental fees, affordable on-campus housing, child care and an expansion of protected classes under nondiscrimination clauses. But they have also been a powerful voice opposing the degradation of higher education generally and the austerity policies that facilitate it.

These efforts are, of course, not isolated to higher education. Seattle public school teachers went on strike September 9 over demands for higher pay, longer recess time for students and the creation of "race equity" teams to end discrimination against students of color.

With the announcement of a union drive, graduate workers at the University of Missouri have added their collective voice to the growing chorus of outrage. If such a campaign can be successful in a state where a bust of Rush Limbaugh graces the Capitol rotunda, then there is hope for higher education in the U.S. and the labor movement as a whole.

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