Graduate workers fight the GOP tax plan

December 4, 2017

SW rounds up reports of graduate students getting organized as the Republicans' tax plan takes direct aim at higher education generally and graduate workers especially.

ON MORE than 50 campuses across the U.S., graduate students organized walkouts, grade-ins, rallies and other forms of protest on November 29 to show their outrage at provisions of the Republican tax plan that take aim at higher education.

The House version of the Republican tax plan would treat tuition waivers and tuition reductions for grad student workers receive as taxable income. This change alone could add up to $8,000 to the tax liability of some graduate workers.

More than half of all graduate workers have adjusted gross incomes of $20,000 or less, so an additional annual burden of $8,000 would be a crushing blow, leaving graduate students to take on even more debt, drop out or never start grad school in the first place.

This provision, however, is only the most onerous of several anti-graduate employee elements under consideration. Other provisions would eliminate the deduction of student loan interest payments and eliminate the Lifetime Learning Credit.

Taken as a whole, the tax bill is a frontal assault on the ability of anyone who isn't independently wealthy to afford higher education.

Graduate student employees and their supporters rally at Syracuse University
Graduate student employees and their supporters rally at Syracuse University (Dana Cloud | SW)

With the Senate passing its version of tax legislation in the wee hours on December 2, many graduate student organizers across the country are calling on universities to implement free tuition for graduate students to eliminate the potential tax liabilities they face should the House version make it into law.

In Syracuse, New York, more than 250 graduate employees, undergraduates and faculty gathered on the quad at Syracuse University to speak out against the tax bill, situating it in the context of a broader neoliberal assault on higher education.

"We've seen four decades of the attack on higher education," explained geography professor Matt Huber. "This tax plan is a policy enacted by elected officials. The state is complicit with a regime of what I'll call fake austerity. The formula for that is to cut taxes on the rich, reducing revenue substantially, and then claim we can't afford higher education in the richest country on the planet."

Huber explained how severe cuts at public universities have saddled students with massive loan debt. The interest rate on student loans stands at 6.8 percent while businesses can borrow millions at close to the prime rate of 1.5 percent. "In medieval times, we'd call that immoral usury," he joked.

Many speakers connected opposition to the Republicans and the organizing drive on campus to form a graduate workers union. Graduate Employees United (GEU) is working with Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 200United to win union recognition and bargaining rights for graduate employees.

At private universities, administrators hire corporate marketing directors to trumpet "the student experience" at the expense of scholarships and services. In 2015, Syracuse laid off 254 staff members--it meanwhile built a climbing wall and heated promenade.

Other speakers discussed how economic discrimination is tied to other accessibility issues at the university, including exclusions on the basis of race, international status and ability.

"I wasn't supposed to be here," said Gemma Cooper-Novak, a graduate student in education. She explained that as a queer and disabled person without the resources to pay independently for graduate study, she would not have access to higher education without her wages and tuition stipend.

Several speakers noted that graduate workers produce a lot of value for the university and see little of it in return.

"The amount of money graduate students make for the university drastically outweighs the money that they pay us," said Brandon Daniels, a graduate student, organizer of Graduate Employees United and member of the International Socialist Organization. Daniels estimated that the three classes he teaches bring in roughly $200,000, "but I'm paid a fraction of that," he said. "We demand a greater share."

The value produced by graduate students is not limited to financial returns for the university. For example, undergraduates rely on graduate students as their teaching assistants, tutors and mentors.

An undergraduate physics student named Seif told a story about how he was mentored by TAs and RAs who encouraged him to engage in research. "The university cannot produce the education without them," he said of grad students. "We have the power as students to put a halt to the system in which we produce the wealth."

Daniels argued that if a tax bill passes that treats tuition waivers as taxable income, the university administration must put in place a plan to offset the tax burden faced by graduate workers. He and other speakers closed out the rally by arguing for organizing--and specifically union organizing--as a key source of power for graduate workers to win their demands.

Scott Phillipson, president of SEIU Local 200United, called the tax bill "a kick in the gut to the working class. We were told we could go to school, get an education, better ourselves. But they want to give the money to rich people."

But, Phillipson added, "This thing isn't done yet, folks. This is a dream that is getting squashed. We need to do something. I'm honored to stand with you as you stand up for a voice at work, a union."

In Columbus, Ohio, as many as 100 grad students and supporters held a grade-in on November 29, taking over space in the Ohio Union at Ohio State University (OSU).

Grad workers sat, sprawled and otherwise situated themselves on the floor, pulled out their laptops and did their grading work, with signs pinned to their backs to explain why they were against the tax bill and the impact it would have on them.

Throughout their stay, speakers came up and spoke about the tax bill, the international struggles of students, the context of neoliberalism and solidarity with undergraduates and faculty. The action combined elements of a teach-in with periods of grading to illustrate the heavy load that graduate students must bear as they attempt to juggle teaching, research and their own classes.

The grad students also read aloud from a letter they sent to President Michael Drake and OSU administrators to thank them for opposing the tax bill, but to also demand that the OSU chapter of Save Grad Ed, the national formation coordinating grad students' response to the tax bill, be part of any decisions that happen on this.

The November 29 action followed a 300-person rally and sit-in at the office of Rep. Pat Tiberi's office, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee that came up with the tax bill. This action took place on November 16, the day that the House passed its version of the tax overhaul bill.

Three days before, graduate students and their supporters rallied on the OSU campus to protest the legislation.

The graduate employees at OSU and Syracuse have been part of efforts to reach out nationally and organize a wider resistance to the tax bills--with more protests to come in the future.

Dana Cloud and Pranav Jani contributed to this article.

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