A Tour of the Conflict (a non-fiction piece from the early oughts)

June 13, 2018 § Leave a comment

Brown University Graduate Students and the Drive for Unionization

A historic school set in the historic East Side neighborhood of Providence Rhode Island, Brown University squats majestically on Brown Street, girdling the crest of College Hill, then spilling down in a wash of red brick and wrought iron to the busy retail thoroughfare of Thayer Street. Though increasingly colonized by big names such as Gap and Urban Outfitters, Thayer still retains a degree of chic, with its international restaurants and slightly grungy record and clothing stores. Here the mostly well-to-do student body may be seen shopping, talking, laughing excitedly, studying in cafes — young, high-spirited, excited to be alive or sometimes cloaked in blasé hipness.
Among their number are the various graduate students — not quite so young, or carefree — existing in a liminal state in regard to many things, including their status as students, or teaching assistants, or research assistants, either subjected to or speaking in the voice of academic authority; and their status as either transient visitors or full-blown residents of the city (some of these degrees take a very long time to acquire). They can be spotted sometimes by their in-between age (if they look their age), or by the piles of other people’s papers or blue books they are sometimes carrying, or maybe by something staid and resigned about their manner, something which says, “well, I’m in it for the long haul, I may as well get comfortable.”
One place where many of them are inclined to get comfortable for long periods of time is a café with the forgettable name Ocean Coffee Roasters, a semi-basement beanery with good food and blaring punk rock and noise music on the stereo. A “regular” here is Sally, an Art History graduate student who drinks enormous quantities of chai, sits for hours, often just staring off into space. Then, like many of her colleagues, she’ll suddenly remember an appointment or a waiting classroom and flee as if from a burning building.
Today, on a sunny day in late October, Sally is hunkered comfortably in her usual slouching posture beneath the café’s clock, but she is not happy. I have asked her a couple leading questions about problems she has vaguely alluded to, with the university’s faculty and administration. Rarely at a loss for words, Sally lets loose with a lengthy response in which she enumerates her complaints.
“From the midterm on, I’m inundated with grading, plus having to run discussion groups, teaching the texts, any other sort of logistical work…” She goes on to say that, for this labor, she feels that she receives insufficient and inconsistent compensation. She recounts one semester when, in a professor’s absence, she took on the task of giving an Architecture lecture, although this is a subject outside of her field.
“When I went to put in my hours, I told them I had done an extra eight hours of work. They told me I was basically ‘putting one in for the team.’ That kind of abuse — this after-the-fact finding out — I find really unacceptable.”
As for the regular stipend which she receives — about $12,800 per year, with no health care provision — she finds this inadequate for living in the area.
“I’ve been here for five years, and we’ve never received any kind of substantive increase in our salary, but the property values around this area have surged dramatically.”
This increase in property values is, ironically, partly the fault of the university and its students. In the past decade, the cost of tuition at Brown and another local institution, the Rhode Island School of Design, have risen precipitously. This has attracted a more affluent student body then the city previously hosted, and these young people tend not to flinch at inflated rents. Thus the East Side has lost some of its local color, as many of the rental properties have become affordable only to the students and various yuppies, many of whom have moved to the region from Boston or New York. One area that preserves much of its character, in spite of its proximity to the university, is a neighborhood located south of the campus.
Fox Point. Though certainly not untouched by gentrification, this funky region of historic houses — some fixed up enough to merit a plaque from the Providence Preservation Society, some not; and others less historic, hideously shingled or painted a cruel pistachio green which seems to jar with the prevailing New England aesthetic — is home to many Portuguese- and Italian-American families. Most have been here for several decades and still retain a distinct culture. The old women dressed in black, the career housewives who watch everything out of their windows, the remote old Portuguese men, imbue the area with a solidity of place, a feeling of neighborhood, of security, illusory though this may be. The Family Pub, the Silver Star Bakery with its age-old neon, Friends Market with its museum of small and smaller housewares, and Madeira Liquors all coexist with the shiny chosen children who make the city — a small section of it, anyway — their plaything.
There are fewer and fewer non-collegiate renters in this area, because most simply cannot afford it; and, Sally would add, there are few graduate students who can truly afford to live even in this relatively modest section of the mostly posh East Side. And now an old storefront, situated on Ives Street, the main thoroughfare of Fox Point, has become the home of a new neighbor: the United Auto Workers have taken taken up residence at number 198, at the behest of some — though by no means all — of the graduate students of Brown University.
Luisa, the UAW’s local representative, is one of two full-time UAW staff working in this site, as she puts it, “proximal to the university.” They occupy a spacious, nearly empty first-floor room which resounds with the ringing of phones and the clacking of computer keys. Pleasant, articulate, and bespectacled, Luisa radiates a quick intelligence and an engaging manner. In spite of the air of hubbub and urgency in the office, she obligingly pulls up two plastic chairs so I can question her about what the UAW is doing here.
Luisa presents the UAW’s presence in Providence as a response to a need.
“Graduate students here called the UAW and several other unions after having fought for control over how much their health insurance was going to cost,” and ultimately settled on the UAW because “more power was going to come from the union than from ad-hoc groups.”
She explains that dues from current UAW members are paying for her to do her unionizing work. It turns out that the UAW are old hands at this sort of thing, and that the unionization of graduate students is not a new phenomenon. By Luisa’s reckoning, the first in the U.S. was the University of Wisconsin, which has apparently been unionized since 1969. About one in five graduate students nationwide is a union member, and of these, half are members of the United Auto Workers union.
Luisa goes on to recount her own formative experience of the power of a union, while she was studying at UC Santa Cruz. After “a very long fight against a very intransigent employer,” her union won substantial changes which took effect throughout the entire California state university system. Luisa is also currently a member of a writers’ union, and encourages me to join one as well.
This background at least partly explains Luisa’s ability to rattle off complete and well-formed sentences about the usefulness of a graduate student union, about how their struggle is part of the larger struggle of part-time workers generally to get a fair deal, not only in academe but also in offices, factories, or even at home, where they do piece-work for distant, unaccountable companies.
In this cultural moment, the most revolutionary concepts are seamlessly incorporated into a syllabus and taught without a trace of irony or incongruity to the children of the ruling class. In the humanities, any contentiousness is subject to the smoothing effects of this accustomed relativism. During Sally’s tirade against the Brown University administration, her tone is so neutral that I have to keep reminding myself that these are issues of flesh and blood, that she idsn’t going to suddenly shift gears and start arguing the other side of the issue as an intellectual exercise.
The friction between students like Sally, and the students who are for various reasons opposed to the current union drive has, I am told, lessened somewhat. They have settled into their oppositional roles, and feel less ruffled and panicky than they did while their positions were coalescing. But I wanted to meet with the opposition, just to be sure.
Making my way back from Fox Point to the Brown campus, I pass through a gate dedicated to the soldiers who fell in World War II. More red brick and black iron, leading to some dormitories and the Lincoln Field Building. This charming edifice contains some charmingly cramped old offices with incongruous iMacs, and a meeting room whose walls are papered with posters about planetary exploration. Here the core members of At What Cost?, a loose organization of UAW-opposed students, meet to discuss strategy. Today they are also meeting me, as a useful practice session for the more important meetings to come with university administration and the Labor Relations Board.
For some reason all the members of At What Cost? are in Science and Mathematics. Hector, the most vocal and articulate of the group, is an Economics major; Candace is in Engineering, and acts it — terse and no-nonsense; and Benjamin is a young enthusiastic Geology grad student. As they tell me, their departments are superior in sources of outside funding as compared to departments like Sally’s (Art History), but they are at a disadvantage in their struggle against the union because they do not have full-time employees to do their organizing and campaigning work.
We sit at a long oak table in a room that seems part conference room, part fraternity parlor, to discuss this disparity of resources, and other issues. Benjamin and Candace tend to cede control of the floor to Hector, who becomes increasingly comfortable with leading the discussion.
The union drive has, they fear, developed a momentum of its own, even though, as Constance says, “I had no say” in asking the UAW to come to town. According to Hector, “they call it a grass-roots effort,” but this approach has clearly “left a lot of people out of the loop.” He points out that there are existing channels, such as the Graduate Student Council, for addressing grievances; and that these channels have been neglected in favor of the UAW, which will “institutionalize a conflictual relationship.” In addition, if a union is established, the dues, which are not cheap, will be more or less compulsory for all incoming grad students whether they wish to join or not.
Hector makes his points in a methodical, economist-like way. Without the pressure of a union, he claims, the administration generally raises stipends by about five per cent each year. If contracts are under negotiation with a union, it becomes unlawful for the administration to make any changes, for good or ill, until negotiations are concluded. Thus, as recently happened at a major university, stipends can be frozen for as long as two years if the parties are in a deadlock. Hector also takes issue with the composition of the bargaining group, the union members who would actually have a say in making policy. Research assistants would be excluded from the bargaining group, according to Hector. And, as it happens, a disproportionate number of graduate students in the sciences are research assistants, “performing cutting-edge research and bringing in grant money.”
The whole thing clearly feels coercive to Hector and the others. He also questions the UAW’s motives for being here in Providence. This once-mighty union has, according to Hector, lost half its membership since the 1970’s. “They’re trying to get their membership up.” Of thei UAW’s current 750,000 members, there are some white collar workers, but the majority are still, as the union’s name indicates, industrial workers. This makes the UAW’s politics problematic. They have recently fought against legislation that would improve emissions standards. The UAW also has a contentious position on H1V visas, which are what all most of Brown’s foreign graduate students to stay in the U.S. for the protracted periods their schooling requires.
Hector runs out of things to say, and my tape recorder runs out of tape, amid techno-geek jokes that the IC chip is still recording and this is just a ruse to get them to speak more frankly. They invite me to attend a “social,” an event paid for by the Graduate School to get its various members to mingle. This is taking place in one of the more hideous buildings on campus, with a drab 70’s-style interior fortunately relieved by large pictures looking out at a yard of sorts where smokers gather in the crispening air.
Beers are distributed. There are discernible knots of self-described “nerds” amongst the slightly more stylish students of English or Comparative Literature or Latin-American Studies. One such knot is untied by the garrulous Sally, who is also in attendance, wearing something flouncy and silken. Her arrival is a welcome distraction from laborious rounds of introductions.
Sally wants to talk to Hector, who is sensibly dressed in a flannel shirt and jeans. After remarking on the new decorum which has developed in their conflict, Sally begins to describe her unfair workload in somewhat more strident tones than she had used with me earlier. Hector stresses that his group is not anti-union, “we’re anti this union right now.” His tone is conciliatory, but Sally does not seem placated. She goes outside to have a cigarette.
Feeling out of place with the scientists and engineers, I follow. Soon the subject is changed: Sally is airing her views on the pretentiousness of the local music scene, the “wannabe rockers,” as she calls them, who serve her coffee every day. This strikes me as biting the hand that feeds, but I resist the urge to draw any larger conclusions out loud.
It is difficult not to wonder what motivates someone like Sally. It seems as though many of them are in school because they could not function in any other environment. Graduate degrees lead to post-docs which lead to teaching positions. They thrive on the order that an institutional setting provides. And the union is also an institution.

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