Three years ago, graduate students earned the right to unionize. A new proposal from the National Labor Relations Board seeks to take that right away. This is a part of a series of attacks from the Trump administration on organized labor following its resurgence as a powerful political force. Last semester, I wrote about the resurrection of the labor movement and the series of teacher strikes in several U.S. states. Since that time, the movement has only grown. United Auto Workers organized a strike of almost 50,000 members in response to failed negotiations with General Motors, highlighting the emergence of the movement in multiple industries. As the objective of the labor movement is better conditions, students have shown that workers aren’t the only ones who should be concerned about improving the spaces in which they exist. From overnight lock-ins against institutional racism, walkouts over underfunding and internationally organized climate strikes in response to the growing crisis, the youngest generation is proving to be the most innovative at fighting for a better future. The growth of the labor movement is supported by the long-term data: more workers went on strike last year than any year in the last three decades and the highest since 2007. The proposed redefinition of graduate students is retaliation against the re-emergence of the labor movement. If the right to organize is taken away from graduate students, the labor movement should rally behind them and forcefully assert their right — by calling a general strike.
Graduate students play an important role in their universities as well as the national labor movement. As a total population, there are approximately 3 million graduate students in the U.S., with over 130,000 working as graduate teaching assistants. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, TAs had a median annual salary under $34,000 — less than half the median annual salary of a professor. Graduate students who work as instructors at a university are critical to its functioning, often teaching required courses. Regardless of employment status, graduate student unions benefit all students and advocate for important issues, like better health care and greater faculty diversity.
The attack against graduate students is one part of the attack against the labor movement as a whole. Despite his rhetoric of supporting U.S. workers, President Donald Trump has systematically attacked the working class. Trump’s first nominee for Secretary of Labor, Andrew Puzder, withdrew his nomination after information about labor law violations he committed were made public; Puzder paid more than $20 million in class-action lawsuits as CEO of CKE Restaurants, the parent company to various fast food restaurants. Trump’s next pick and former Secretary of Labor, Alexander Acosta, oversaw Trump’s extensive anti-labor agenda, reversing workers’ safety measures and actively working against unions. Following Acosta’s resignation over his role in the Jeffrey Epstein controversy, there appears to have been an escalation in the opposition to labor. The current Acting Secretary of Labor, Patrick Pizzella is known for his opposition to worker’s rights. Pizzella’s first job was in the Reagan administration as a director of right to work committees, which restricted union rights.
Through Pizzella, we can see the long history of anti-union sentiment in past administrations as well. As a whole, labor unions went on the decline starting with the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which itself was a response to a series of strikes in the preceding years — the largest in all of American labor history. From that point on, union membership and the power of labor fluctuated, with some fearing it dead. In spite of these fears, recent movements show that we are far from having to mourn organized labor.
The only legitimate response to a serious threat is a superior display of force; this applies in war as much as it does in organized labor. The idea of a general strike is not new to contemporary politics or to American history, but the need for one grows more everyday. A threat to graduate students is a threat to all students and workers; an injury to one is an injury to all. If this is to mean anything in contemporary labor politics then full solidarity must be shown to graduate students, as their ability to defend themselves from their universities hangs in the balance. If the plan to redefine graduate students goes through, there must be a general strike.
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A version of this article appears in the Monday, Sept. 23, 2019 print edition. Email Cole Stallone at [email protected]