OSU graduate students protest GOP attack

November 16, 2017

Preeti Singh, Jacob Scheier and Somak Paul write from Ohio on a mobilization by graduate students who would be hit hard by the House Republicans' tax proposal.

AS HOUSE Republicans try to ram through the regressive Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, some 300 graduate students and their supporters at The Ohio State University, rallied on November 13 to protest a provision that would specifically cause graduate education to suffer.

The Republican tax bill introduced in the House threatens to reclassify graduate student tuition waivers as taxable income. So far, the federal tax code permits nonprofit educational institutions, including colleges and universities, to provide employees, spouses or dependents with tuition reductions that are excluded from taxable income.

If this provision is repealed, as House Republicans want, it would amount to a pay cut of thousands of dollars from already meager stipends for graduate students, making it impossible for large numbers of them to continue their education.

At Ohio State, taxes for the graduate student would increase dramatically, from around $460 each year to an estimated $3,500.

Around 300 people attended the November 13 rally, most of them graduate students, but also teachers, undergrads and community members. The action began with speeches and culminated in a march on campus, with people chanting slogans such as "They say cut back, we say fight back!"

Graduate students and their supporters on the march at Ohio State
Graduate students and their supporters on the march at Ohio State (Ralph Orr)

Six speakers opened up the demonstration. Alex Davis, a graduate student in the OSU Department of Mathematics, began the rally by discussing this possible tax increase to come from a Republican bill that will massively cut taxes on the rich. Emma Lagan, a PhD student in the Department of Anthropology, talked about the difficulties of surviving on an already meager income from graduate stipends. Preeti Singh and Jacob Scheier, two of the authors of this article and graduate students in English, also spoke at the rally.

Not only the speakers, but many in the crowd talked about how their situations were barely sustainable with the present income--and that they feared they would be unable to complete their graduate education if the bill passed.

The situation is even worse for international students, whose visa status prohibits them from working outside the university, or within it beyond a 50 percent appointment. This effectively prevents them from making extra income that would be needed to supplement a decrease in their stipends.

Even in the present circumstances, most students get paid the minimum possible--not unlike other university workers, including painters, technicians and food service workers, who are now struggling to increase their income to a living wage. "We see ourselves as workers who are being paid federal poverty wages," said Jenna Freudenburg, a PhD student in the Department of Astronomy.

Graduate students and lecturers are the engine of this university--our labor is what allows it to run. In every department, graduate students teach freshmen courses taken by thousands of undergrads each year.

Pranav Jani, an associate professor in the Department of English, emphasized the need to see this provision of the Republican tax bill in the context of the national attack on public education. Jani also drew people's attention to the campus administration's own interests in defeating the Republican tax legislation, which would hurt OSU in other ways. This puts them in the position of being on the students' side on this question, though they aren't on other questions.

ON NOVEMBER 16--when the House is supposed to vote on this bill--students plan to protest outside the office of Rep. Pat Tiberi, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee.

In a statement supporting of the bill, Tiberi made the absurd claim that the committee was focusing "on growing our economy, creating jobs and delivering meaningful tax relief to American families"--despite the fact that this so-called "tax relief" disproportionately favors the rich rather than the poor.

According to the Tax Policy Center, 56.6 percent of the benefits of the House tax plan would go to the richest fifth of taxpayers, with nearly 21 percent going to the top 1 percent.

Along with the local action in Columbus, plans are underway for a National Day of Action under the slogan #SaveGradEd. On Thursday, graduate students at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, University of Maryland, Princeton University and University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, among others, will be participating in the nationwide action.

Meanwhile, the Senate is debating its version of tax cut bill--presently, the Senate bill doesn't eliminate the waiver for grad student stipends, though it is still being revised. Donald Trump, in a desperate attempt to score "a win" before the year is out, said he hopes to have legislation passed by the end of the year.

Graduate students organizing at OSU are prepared for sustained action should the House bill pass. "The plan is to pressure the Congress and possibly the Senate", said Noah, a PhD student in the Department of Physics, who also expressed hope for a continuing graduate students movement at OSU beyond just this legislation.

We should protest this bill not only because it would affect our immediate income, but also because it would have far-reaching consequences for the structure of the university.

The university is a space that allows students to nurture their intellectual passions, but it is also where they transition into workers, preparing for life ahead. As students fight for a just education, they must also fight for our interests as workers, in the present and the future, alongside other workers at the university.

There have been many examples recently of the power of students, and particularly student workers.

Just a couple of years ago, when graduate students from the University of Missouri were informed they were losing their health care insurance subsidies, they organized and threatened to walk out--and their insurance was restored.

In 2012, in protest of a proposed tuition hike, students across the province of Quebec carried out a mass strike that lasted for months. Not only did they win on the tuition hike, but the provincial government that proposed it lost the election the following year.

These are examples we can look to with hope as we organize against the Republican tax bill.

Ethan Ackelsberg, Twinkle Panda and Coco Smith contributed to this article.

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