On May 1, graduate students at more than 75 public and private universities across the United States and Canada mobilized under the name “X Campus” to protest conditions for student workers.
United under hashtags such as #HighEdWorksBecauseWeDo and #MayDay2020, students at Yale University, the University of Chicago, the University of California–Santa Barbara and many other schools used their platforms to draw attention to unfair working conditions as a result of growing austerity in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic.
While the choice to mobilize on May Day—a day historically used to celebrate and advocate worker’s rights across the world—was strategic, many of these students have been protesting working conditions for years.
Graduate student workers, who often run labs, assist professors, and even teach their own courses on campus, often receive very low pay, are not guaranteed housing, and do not have benefits such as paid sick leave. As universities enact austerity measures such as increased furloughs and pay decreases as a result of the pandemic, many student workers are nervous that their already tenuous living conditions will be put under even more stress.
Students across the board used social media as a means to alert the public and the press of the conditions they are protesting. At the University of Indiana, Bloomington, student workers used the hashtag #wheresthemoneyIU on Twitter and Facebook to both communicate with the university itself and alert the public to how the school is treating its labor force in this moment of crisis. “As student workers, we are required to pay about $1,300 every year in mandatory fees to the university to cover things like technology and building maintenance,” Valentina Luketa, a graduate student at Bloomington, told The Nation. “Right now while we’re working from home and can’t even use university resources, we are still expected to pay that fee. Our paychecks are already so low, and the portion we have to pay back to the school is about 10 percent of our wages. We are demanding that these fees be removed.”
According to the university’s website, room and board plus indirect cost and other fees is more than $21,000, far more than most student worker’s stipends. As an international student, Luketa is responsible for paying an additional fee of $700 to the university. She’s worried that if she loses her job due to the college’s austerity plans, she might suddenly lose her student visa and have to leave the country.
“We’ve noticed a pattern where schools are quick to furlough or get rid of labor on campus to make sure their revenue is not affected,” Luketa said. “But a lot of these schools have huge endowments, about as big as the GDP of my home country of Croatia in some cases. We’re just asking them to use that money to protect workers and protect the educational experiences of students.”
Many student workers have been meeting to discuss their shared grievances for months. Uday Jain, a sixth-year PhD candidate at the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, said that he has been attending Zoom calls with graduate students at several other universities since March to discuss possible actions, structural challenges, and possibilities for new coalition-building. Weeks of meetings and Slack discussions allowed students to gather knowledge about shared working conditions and challenges in order to properly advocate for their collective rights.
“We are anticipating that the cuts to higher education in the wake of the coronavirus will be worse than the cuts after the financial crisis of 2008,” Jain said. “We are fighting collectively for private and public institutions to take this moment to invest deeply in their workers and the communities that they anchor. We are resisting a higher education model that guarantees the reproduction of a tiny class of elite at the expense of the large majority of precarious professional and working-class teachers and researchers who are constantly struggling to make ends meet.”
The University of Chicago is the eighth-largest employer in the city and the largest employer on the city’s South Side, a region that is home to majority low-income and black and brown people. In many ways, the fight to ensure living wages for university workers affects not only its students but also the thousands of people employed at schools across the country.
“Our institutions operate large medical centers, do cutting-edge research in science and technology, develop real estate, train lawmakers, and employ large numbers of people in our communities,” said Jain. “The institution has an endowment of $8.5 billion, supplemented by an additional $5.4 billion in recent fundraising efforts. This superbly wealthy institution has the money and the responsibility to support the South Side and the city of Chicago in this moment of grave crisis.”
Student workers at the University of Chicago are demanding a relief grant for graduate students, more transparency about university funding, protection for local union workers, and a 50 percent reduction in tuition for both undergraduate and graduate students. The school has refused to bargain with student demands, according to Jain.
Student workers in Canada have also been organizing for better working conditions amid the pandemic. At least 13 open letters and petitions are circulating in Canadian universities to ask for a better response to graduate students’ needs across the country. At the University of Quebec in Montreal, student workers are protesting the exclusion of foreign students from the Canadian Emergency Student Benefit and asking the school to remove several months of tuition fees.
“At the University of Montreal, we know that our salaries only account for 1 percent of the university budget, but we also know that without our work almost no research would get done and the cost of teaching would be much higher,” Luc Chicoine, a PhD student at the University of Quebec, told The Nation. “So not only is our essential work underpaid, we don’t get much recognition for it either. With the pandemic and the explosion of public spending and deficits, we are afraid that we will enter a new cycle of austerity that will lead to more budget cuts.”
Canadian higher education is structured very differently fro, universities in America. Canada has very few private colleges, and the cost of tuition is usually much lower. Despite this, Canadian students like Chicoine found they had many similar grievances to student workers in the United States. “What we all have in common is the burden of the double status as student and worker,” Chicoine said. “Student workers are so often patronized because of the student status, as if this gave less value to the work we do. This shared understanding of who we are and what we fight for makes it very easy for all of us to connect, and the current crisis makes this even more obvious.”
One of the most common demands from student workers is a universal one-year extension of studies and research. Students at Northwestern University, Stanford University, New York University, and Princeton University have all asked for this. At Yale University, which has a $30 billion endowment, students are demanding a fully funded one-year extension for all graduate students. As a result, the university is allowing departments to individually dole out one-year extensions on a case by case basis, a measure that has many students concerned.
“The policy pits lower-year cohorts versus upper-year cohorts, current graduate student employees versus future ones, and faculty against graduate student employees,” Alexander Kolokotronis, a fourth-year graduate student employee at Yale University and a member of its campus’s Concerned and Organized Graduate Students, told The Nation. “It will disproportionately be slanted against women, people of color, first-generation graduate student employees, and those with families. This movement is not just about universal extension for graduate student employees. This is about a stance against austerity.”
As student workers organize for better working conditions on campus, many have attempted to reason directly with their respective universities’ administrations. At the University of California in Santa Barbara, where graduate students have been on strike since the winter quarter of 2020 to protest low wages and insufficient housing, the administration has yet to formally acknowledge that any protests have taken place. Instead, the dean of the Graduate Division wrote a letter encouraging upset students to seek support at the campus’s counseling services.
“We have been met with a ruthless cold shoulder,” said Matt Harris, a sixth-year PhD candidate. “The administration at UC Santa Barbara has not responded to us or acknowledged that there was even a strike.”
Though they did not communicate with student activists, the administration was closely following what they did. According to recent reporting from Vice, the California National Guard provided military surveillance equipment to the University of California at Santa Cruz’s Police Department in order to surveil striking students at UC Santa Cruz, UC Santa Barbara, and other schools in the UC system during the Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) strike in February. As a result of the protest, many of the students involved were fired from their teaching positions.
According to Harris, student workers at UC Santa Barbara have been fighting for a COLA so that they can afford housing, food, and health care security. While these conditions were already precarious in 2019, Covid-19 and the move to online teaching via Zoom has only furthered these economic and housing crises. “To make ends meet, many graduate students picked up side hustles like tutoring or working at the public library or a coffee shop, but now those extra gigs have diminished or disappeared,” Harris said. “We simply cannot afford to continue to live here and work here and pretend that everything is good.”
Students at Rutgers University in New Jersey have been more successful in getting face-time with their school’s administrators, though student organizers say the meetings have not been successful. “I’ve met with several different levels of university administration since the start of our shutdown,” said Alexandra Adams, a fifth-year PhD candidate in the department of biological sciences at Rutgers University–Newark. “It’s been unsurprising; they are shamelessly unwilling to be helpful in any capacity. The deans have been sympathetic but are seemingly unwilling to push back against those above them that actually have the money to effectively address the problem.”
At Rutgers, students are demanding an extension of contracts for all graduate workers, a freeze of funding caps for graduate students, the creation of an internal emergency fund, and the reinstatement of part-time lecturers who were recently subjected to a hiring freeze by the university. While the school has argued that measures were instituted in order to save funds, Adams argues that certain decisions, such as the hiring freeze for part-time lecturers, do not make sense financially, as these workers are generally the lowest paid and receive the fewest benefits from the school.
“Rutgers has a pretty transparently massive budget of liquid reserves that they don’t feel is meant to be used for student and worker relief, and instead they have taken to austerity measures such as the mass firing of contractually insecure workers,” Adams said. “This saves them a few million dollars, rather than the hundreds of millions they would save if they did as little as furlough the pay of a handful of their top administrators making $200k a year or more.
“This makes it seem pretty clear that this is not really about the money for them,” she said. “It’s common knowledge that funding for students and schools comes directly from our central administration, but the university is going so far as to try and declare financial hardship. They disgust me.”
At New York University, student workers delivered demands to the administration in March and have yet to receive a meaningful response from the school. To protest unfair working conditions, several teaching assistants at the school organized a “sick out” on the last week of classes wherein student workers all used their sick days at the same time to force three days of paid time off and effectively bring an early end to the semester for NYU students.
“I’m taking part in the sick out because I am convinced it is the only way to make the NYU administration listen to our demands,” Sarah Sklaw, a 5th year PhD candidate in history, told The Nation. “I’ve seen that the burden of Covid is falling disproportionately on low-income students and students of color. They don’t have the technology they need or space to study at home, and they have more responsibilities to care for siblings and parents. NYU pays lip service to diversity without actually providing resources to support them. So I’m sicking out for myself and also for my students.”
Protesting student workers at New York University also compiled a document titled “NYU Can Afford It.” In it, they break down the school’s finances and argue that the university has more than enough to provide aid to employees. The document reveals that in addition to the school’s $4.3 billion endowment, the university also holds over $2 million in cash and several of its top administrators such as the university’s president and chief investment officer make over $1 million a year in salary, which has not been reduced in any efforts to preserve the school’s budget. Faculty at New York University are also protesting poor housing conditions provided by the school.
Campus organizing amid the coronavirus has been fraught with difficulties on a number of fronts: Because of social distancing measures, students cannot gather on campus in person to discuss demands or next steps. As the virus continues to spread, many students are still unsure if they will be able to return to campus in the fall, which also upsets their ability to negotiate with their respective universities in the upcoming semester.
“We will continue to fight next semester no matter what, especially because conditions are worsening by the minute,” said Luketa. “For example right now, student workers at IU do not have paid sick leave, so if a student falls ill with the coronavirus, they do not have any income, and it’s up to another overworked and overwhelmed graduate student to pick up their classes for no extra pay. This is not a sustainable way to work or live. We plan on using the summer to congregate in bigger numbers, share resources, and enter the fall semester ready to pressure our universities to make real changes that will protect us.”
Student workers are pressuring their universities to provide them with measures that protect them financially. But more than anything, these students are demanding respect.
“Academic workers worldwide perform the labor that makes our institutions run,” said Jain. “We teach the classes and we do the research. We deserve basic labor protections and a seat at the table when decisions are made that affect our lives. This is especially the case during this pandemic when the most vulnerable are the most harmed by top-down measures of higher-education austerity.”