Friday, September 2, 2016

On Signing a Petition in Support of Unions

I just signed a petition from the AFL-CIO to ask Columbia, Harvard, and the New School to end their anti-union campaigns. If you are an alum of these three schools, I greatly urge you sign it. If you aren't but believe in the importance of labor, I still urge you to sign it.

I wasn't very attuned to labor issues until I joined a union, at the age of 29 at the University of Iowa. That union had no real power because it couldn't strike, but achieved plenty before I showed up -- like health care and a decent wage -- and was then in the process of holding onto their achievements.

I joined a more powerful union at the University of Washington at the age of 31. The union was allowed to strike, which meant that it had a major bargaining position. For that reason, I have a decent wage -- although it is still uncompetitive with wages for graduate students at other state universities -- good health care, and a support system should my supervisors exploit me or break any laws in the course of my employment.

The union is imperfect. All unions are. It hasn't been able to achieve everything that I would want, namely the elimination of student fees, longer guaranteed funding, and lower class sizes. I think the priorities of the union leadership more or less match my own, and even when they don't, well, that's the nature of being part of a democratic institution.

The TAs at Columbia, Harvard, and the New School have something I don't have. They have greater access to resources for research, probably greater access to various grants, and, most importantly, an imprimatur on the job market. But after six years of graduate school, I wouldn't trade places with any of them. As an ABD, there's a lot I freak out about on a daily basis. I have terrifying night-thoughts in relation to a dissertation that grows ever more painful and that I am ever more unsure of, and I remain angry at myself for not knowing how to organize my day. (I just figured out to let myself spend about 45 minutes a day on this blog if I'm writing about something other than my dissertation. I offer myself unlimited blocks of time here if I am writing about dissertation.) But I don't worry about paying for a cup of tea when I go to a shop to do work. That's a luxury a lot of my counterparts at Columbia don't have.

I was in awe of my professors when I was an undergrad. I respected my TAs, but realize now that they deserved more respect than I gave them. Some of them did things that weren't great and it is a little painful to see myself making those same mistakes. But I still remember the TA who told me that I seemed to know what I was saying when I wrote long paragraphs and not to know what I was saying when I wrote short ones. She suggested I write long paragraphs and then divide them later. I may have rolled my eyes in the class when we talked about bell hooks, but that advice has served me to this day. Another guided me through the first paper I ever wrote about comics, a study for an American history class about the Incredible Hulk and the nuclear age. He taught me how to structure a paragraph when doing historicist research. I don't remember either of these two TAs' names.

The bad TAs might have been better in other classes, just as I have better quarters than others as a teaching associate today. But I remember the complaints from my undergraduate years, complaints that I've heard from some undergraduates today: "TAs are arrogant, embittered, and they need someone to kick." Well, I had those TAs and I know those TAs. But if you think they're the majority, you're probably the problem. And if you give them enough money to drink a coffee in a nice shop while they grade your papers, they might be less arrogant and embittered, and less in need of someone below them to kick.

P.S. I know a lot of alums from my year who did very well for themselves. They encourage us to give money back to Columbia. I urge them to cease making those requests until Columbia agrees to accept a graduate student union.

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