We Will Not Be Your Disposable Labor: Graduate Student Workers’ Fight Goes Beyond the GOP Assault

Tom DePaola and his chapter of the SEIU protest in front of Paul Ryan's office to protest the newest GOP tax bill.Tom DePaola and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) demonstrate in front of Paul Ryan’s office on December 5, 2017, to protest a proposed tax on tuition waivers. (Photo courtesy of SEIU Faculty Forward)

Welcome to Interviews for Resistance. We’re now nearly a year into the Trump administration, and activists have scored some important victories in those months. Yet there is always more to be done, and for many people, the question of where to focus and how to help remains. In this series, we talk with organizers, agitators and educators, not only about how to resist, but how to build a better world. Today’s interview is the 98th in the series. Click here for the most recent interview before this one.

Today we bring you a conversation with Tom DePaola, a third-year Ph.D. student graduate worker at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education. DePaola studies urban education policy and academic labor in universities.

Sarah Jaffe: We are talking today because you were one of several people protesting in Paul Ryan’s office [Tuesday] over the tax bill and what it would do to graduate student workers like yourself. First of all, tell us about the action yesterday — what ended up happening? Any reaction from Paul Ryan?

Tom DePaola: We were hoping against hope that Paul Ryan would actually sit down with us and hear our quite reasonable concerns. He didn’t and that was no surprise, but we decided to do everything we could to elevate this issue and make our voices heard anyway. For several of us, that included taking arrests and that was something that we were happy to do.

We came together really quickly and with a lot of support from SEIU [Service Employees International Union]. We felt very protected. They had really fantastic lawyers standing by that were ready to pounce if anything went awry. We had hoped that there would be more time to tell some of our stories using the people’s mic and to get some more said before they started hauling us off. Unfortunately, it didn’t pan out that way. I think I was basically one of the only persons who got to do that.

If we are getting taxed as though we make close to six figures, then that is going to be a way of just forcing us out of school altogether.

We showed up and there was some press. We did some interviews. We were a little thrown off at first, because it was clear there were two cops for every one of us in the hallway. They were quite an intimidating presence. For many of us, this is definitely the first action of this gravity that we were undergoing, and the first time many of us were taking arrest…. Several of us flew 3,000 miles to get arrested, essentially. [Laughs] But I think it was worth it.

I believe the Senate version that they passed did not actually have the grad student tax, but the House version did. Is that correct?

That is right, but who knows what is going to come out of reconciliation. I am sure a lot of the senators who voted on the Senate version had no idea what was in it … I am sure that the talk was, “Don’t worry. We will fix it once we go back to the House.” There were contradicting measures in both bills. Some of those things bought us some time. They were clearly in a hurry, and for good reason.

The more that people look into either version of the bill, the scarier it starts to look. The tuition waiver was a big issue for me and for many of my colleagues, because you can’t tax money as income that one never sees. We make barely enough to get by in an expensive city like L.A., where those of us from USC were coming from. We get enough to pay rent and try to eat regularly. That is about all we can hope for. If we are getting taxed as though we make close to six figures, then that is going to be a way of just forcing us out of school altogether….

Even if we are getting educational benefits from this work, we are still paid employees and have a right to have a structural voice in our workplace.

We are all sitting on lots of student debt already. We are certainly not going to take out additional loans that are literally going into the pockets of donors to people like Paul Ryan to pay taxes. That feels just outrageous. If we have to go down there and get arrested to make that point, then we will, and we did….

Talk a little bit more about the union organizing campaign, because one of the big challenges that graduate student workers have in organizing is that the university tries to claim that you are not working.

The last time that graduate workers had the right to unionize was just the short window from 2000 to 2003/4. During that time, there was obviously a lot of energy around the country. Many schools found that graduate workers were unionizing and then once their status [as workers] was revoked, many schools tore up those agreements.

There was this question of primary status. What they had argued over for forever was, “Are we primarily students to earn educational benefits from our work at the university?” or “Are we primarily employees being paid a wage to perform a service?” That is why there has been all of this flip-flopping, depending on what administration was in power at the national level and who they were appointing to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The key difference with the most recent decision in 2016 by the NLRB was that they said, quite correctly, that it doesn’t matter what the primary relationship is, you can be both. Being both doesn’t negate your rights in either sphere.

Even if we are getting educational benefits from this work, we are still paid employees and have a right to have a structural voice in our workplace. That was a really key distinction in the most recent turn. It remains to be seen what difference it will make in the event that Donald Trump’s NLRB decides to come in and mess with our status again. We know that universities … are waiting and hoping for this administration to swoop in and save them from the horrors of having to negotiate with their own workforce over working conditions.

It should give us a bit of hope, even in these sorts of dark times, that collective power is something that we can wield in nearly any context.

It seems sort of silly because there is a lot of empirical research that shows, in fact, having a unionized graduate workforce is not going to affect the quality of student/faculty relationships, which is a claim that is often made. There is research that shows it doesn’t impact the bottom line. These are always the things that they level in the fear-mongering campaigns that tend to come out of these battles. As we organize, we are trying to be cognizant of the tactics that will be used and the ways that these tactics are being used uniformly across the country. We see that largely, these institutions are hiring the same law firms. They are spending millions of dollars to obtain legal help to fight us when we are no threat to their bottom line. Which should indicate it is not actually about bottom lines; it is about power.

The other important piece is that in 2004, when all of these institutions tore up their previous agreements, that only galvanized some unions further. So NYU’s graduate union, through sheer militancy, managed to get voluntary recognition some years later from the university just to keep them from drawing all this bad attention. That was key, because eventually in 2016, the Columbia decision was able to cite NYU as evidence that, in fact, all of these concerns that the universities like to put out there of how unions will negatively affect them are unfounded. It should give us a bit of hope, even in these sorts of dark times, that collective power is something that we can wield in nearly any context.

It doesn’t mean that it is equivalent to not [having] a legal status. It certainly isn’t. If Right to Work passes, that would be incredibly tragic and make things immensely more difficult. But at the same time, there is no reason to feel like we are on the path to certain defeat. I have never been so heartened to see so many people trying to genuinely organize and figure out how to wield power together….

How have the universities reacted to the fact that this tax bill would potentially tax grad student tuition waivers as income?

I think that they are nervous. Not because of … overt sympathy toward their workers, but because we are, relatively speaking, cheap labor for them, and if they remove the ability to have this cheap labor force doing a lot of their instructional labor, doing a lot of their research labor, we know it’s likely to get much more expensive for them to fulfill these needs…. It seems like there are grant eligibilities tied up in the problem, and that is partially why there has to be tuition charged and waived, but nothing ever changes hands. No one is paying tuition and then paying it back. It is all on paper. Which makes it all the more absurd that they would tax this fictive income.

As long as there is an army of disposable labor running the university, you are never going to be safe.

But they are also scared about their endowments…. Universities — particularly elite universities … they are in this position where they are deeply dependent on the current administration and their insidious tactics in order to be able to keep these democratic movements at bay and ultimately wash their hands of it. In the event that the NLRB is able to step in on their behalf, they can say, “Oh, well, we would have negotiated in good faith, of course, but this wasn’t up to us.” It is all connected.

Ultimately, we have to try to democratize these institutions…. I see tenured professors lamenting the loss of academic freedom, and I want to just shake them and be like, “Where do you think it came from? If you want academic freedom, if you want those threats to go away, then you should be aggressively trying to organize your colleagues and advocating for your students who are also employees, to have a voice.” We can only protect that sort of thing together. As long as there is an army of disposable labor running the university, you are never going to be safe. That seems like a really basic lesson that a lot of these older tenured professors just haven’t learned somehow….

I feel like it is up to us to show them how to do that. I hope that we can, because I don’t think that there is an intrinsically hostile relationship between a unionized graduate worker body and the faculty. We, in many ways, want the same thing. We all want a strong university, a robust and democratic space of scholarly inquiry. The only way we are going to have that is if we combine our forces.

This is another side issue, but unionization is not just about graduate workers, it is not just about adjuncts. They may be the ones that get talked about most, but what we call contingent academic labor is in every stratum of the university today. People who end up graduating with Ph.D.s and then doing post-docs for a decade, desperately trying to get a permanent position in the academy and never doing it, getting cycled out altogether. You have contract researchers that are doing lots of work, bringing in tons of grant money, who are also precariously employed. And, of course, the wealth of non-academic labor that keeps things moving smoothly at all levels, from office clerical workers and office staff, all the way to maintenance staff and food service workers. It used to be the case that maintenance workers [and] food service workers had the full benefits of being university employees. Their children could have tuition breaks, they had access to all sorts of benefits. Now, increasingly, it is just contracted out to some third party who brings on temporary workers who are probably scheduled 19 hours a week so they don’t have to pay them their wages in benefits.

Republican donors are pouring money into student elections because it is much cheaper than congressional elections and these are future generations of leaders.

This is about more than just the graduate student workers, it is about more than just the instructional labor. If we want a university that lives up to any kind of ideal as a university, we are going to have to build it the hard way together. It has never really existed. The university that we want has yet to come into being. That is the crucial thing to keep in mind…. The truth is, universities aren’t these passive victims of corporatization…. They are actively trying to interface with the market as much as possible and those incentives are really firmly in place.

It is important that without balancing out the relationships in the workplace and actually giving the workforce a structural voice, it doesn’t matter how much money there is; we will never have that kind of academic ideal where people can pursue the life of the mind. Right now, that is a myth.

I think this is much bigger than just the tax bill. It is much bigger than just graduate students. I try to keep that in mind, because in past iterations of the labor movement in the US, I think that there were a lot of fatal mistakes made when we may have pivoted too hard to bread-and-butter issues as opposed to what we might call “social movement unionism,” where we are all advocating for each other, we are all standing up for each other….

We, students, the workers themselves, we have to come together to protect each other because really that is all we have. The university isn’t going to protect us… None of us have the time to take days to fly down to Paul Ryan’s office to get arrested. But at the same time, we are not going to step aside while folks come in and just try to rip our careers out from underneath us….

The right wing is obsessed with the university as a place where the left has power…. There’s an article where a conservative economist basically admitted that they are targeting grad students in this bill not because it raises a bunch of money, but because it targets the left. I wonder if you could talk about that particular obsession with the campus as the “place of the left” and what that means in this moment.

I think it is deeply disingenuous for them to pretend that this is about closing holes in the budget. Ultimately … there is no way that this education would continue to be tenable if we were responsible for a tax burden like this. Honestly, even without that, with changes to health care and all sorts of other things, we walk a very fine line. I think we could see a massive exodus [of graduate students] from universities. I think that is what excites people like Paul Ryan far more than the prospect of us paying a higher share of taxes, because there is obviously a lot of energy being put into these really insidious kinds of legislative moves. To the extent that they see universities as bastions of critical thinking and, yes, of essentially leftism, this is one response to that.

Another is … the extent to which Republican donors are pouring money into college campuses in really sketchy ways. Opening research centers funded by the Koch brothers and pouring money into student elections because it is much cheaper than congressional elections and you are talking about future generations of leaders….

They want to fuel these tensions on campus because it creates fodder for them to further delegitimize … scholarship, in general. I think we are living in dangerous times where we have to be very, very careful and thoughtful about how it is that we defend ourselves and how it is that we try to secure a future for any of us, for academic inquiry, for empirical knowledge. I have no doubt that they would much rather shut down a lot of these places, where people can start to question the hypocrisy coming from the right….

How can people keep up with you and whatever else you are doing to resist this?

I am part of what we call USC Forward…. Anyone that wants to look at our particular campaign, we are www.USCForward.org, but it is part of a much broader campaign by SEIU called Faculty Forward. They have been organizing contingent instructors for a long time. I encourage any graduate students who are listening, I am sure that there is something happening on your campus related to this. You should seek out those folks, because there are people trying to organize right now. We need to figure out how to wield power together and show solidarity to one another, because the university can only function because we do our work. That comes with tremendous power, and it is right now latent and we need to realize it.

NOTE: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.