[The following letter was sent to Vanderbilt University graduate workers on 23 January 2017.]
Dear Friends and Colleagues:
Welcome back to a new semester and a new year. I write “new” because some of us are seeing a fresh set of faces waiting to be taught; others of us are embarking on a yet-unread list of books to advance our own graduate educations; and others still, for the lightness of unburdening ourselves of the stresses of last year.
But I also write “new” because we are entering an epoch that may very well be unprecedented, not only in American history, but in the entire orientation of the global community. I write “new” because I hope to instill in this letter a sense of urgency, given what may soon come to pass.
Some of you have already pledged your support and ongoing participation to our cause—of joining with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) to organize a union of Vanderbilt University graduate workers—and some of you have not. But I’m here to tell you that now, more than ever, your support matters.
So why support now?
As we know, Donald J. Trump has assumed the highest political office in our country, that of the presidency. We also know he has brought with him a deeply controversial cabinet of problematic ethical, economic, social, and political commitments—a vision of America’s future that is at odds with the vision of 65.8 million of America’s voters.
Nothing has yet been set in stone, but we do know that Trump’s administration is preparing $10.5 trillion in budget cuts, which aim to:
· entirely eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities, following years of efforts by Republican representatives to defund both;
· eliminate programs that work to “prevent violence against women, encourage community-oriented policing, and provide legal aid to the indigent”, and reduce funding the DOJ’s Civil Rights and Environment and National Resources divisions;
· and “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act (without yet offering a viable alternative), robbing at least 20 million Americans of health insurance and increasing the total number of Americans without health insurance from 29 million to 58.7 million.
Betsy DeVos, Trump’s designee for Secretary of Education—notorious now for the questionable understanding of basic Department of Education policies she displayed during her confirmation hearing—has expressed an ambivalence to require schools receiving tax dollars to meet the demands of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Nor has she yet declared her commitment to enforce Title IX on college campuses. What, precisely, she feels about specific education policies is still unclear.
This should alarm you. These are issues that are bigger than the particular institution in which we work. These are issues that will test and keep testing the integrity of what we have chosen to be.
So, what does this mean for graduate workers across the U.S.?
A number of things. For one, the repeal of (or possible amendments to) the ACA could undue the requirement on the part of ACA-compliant private and public insurance companies to provide coverage for women’s health care and mental health care, a 20-25% hike in premiums above existing projections, and increased costs in or removal of coverage for certain prescription medications and birth control. What it means for dependents on health insurance plans is undetermined, but unlikely to benefit those affected.
The possible elimination of the NEH would mean the elimination of NEH grants to museums, researchers, authors, and educational institutions. And when the money goes, suffice it to say that graduate students across the country will bear the brunt of the collateral damage.
More critically, though, Donald Trump’s inheritance of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) means that he has the authority to nominate new members, and there are two unfilled seats in the NLRB at present. Among other things, this could make it “more difficult for pro-unionization activists to challenge NLRB decisions”, and possibly reverse (or, greatly amend) the NLRB’s August 2016 ruling that graduate students at private universities have employment status.
So, what’s happening with current unionizing efforts?
As many op-eds and think-pieces remind us on an almost daily basis, we have entered a “post-truth” age, where the legitimacy of media, constructive discourse, and reasoned argument—the things that have driven so many of us to do what we are right now—is quickly becoming undermined. This being said, in early December Columbia University graduate students overwhelmingly voted to unionize, 1,602 to 623. Harvard University has turned to the NLRB to determine whether its student workers have enough support to unionize—they voted in November, but the vote was deemed “too close to call”—and the hearings are currently in the works.
Paula D. McClain, Dean of the Graduate School and Vice Provost for Graduate Education at Duke University, released a statement on January 19th affirming that the regional office of the NLRB in Atlanta—which is the same office that Vanderbilt University is affiliated with—ruled that Duke PhD students are officially, legally eligible to seek representation through SEIU. Duke graduate workers will start voting to unionize on January 31st, with ballots to be counted on February 21st.
These graduate students have chosen to unionize for many of the same reasons we view as integral to our flourishing in the world of academia: resistance to the growing corporatization of the university which views graduate workers as exploitable resources, dissatisfaction with increasing costs of living without concomitant stipend adjustments, the numerous shortcomings of health insurance policies for students as well as dependents, and pressing worries about the future of higher education under a Trump administration.
Unionizing will be a way for us to ensure that we—we who devote so much work, time, energy, and passion into the deeply important jobs we have undertaken—have a say in what comes next. As for what, exactly, comes next, in the words of Wesleyan University president Michael Roth, “we are in uncharted waters”.
So, what can I do?
You can pledge your ongoing participation and support to our cause online and, most importantly, in writing. We will have tables set up Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of this week at midday, roughly 11am to 1pm, outside of Central Library (south side, to the right of the café tables). You can come by to sign a union card, and meet and chat with some of us about how you can get involved in unionizing efforts.
We also encourage you to come to our first union meeting of the term, to take place on February 1st at 6:00pm in the Buttrick graduate student lounge. There we will brainstorm about our next steps to expand our reach, air our concerns about the future of higher education, and reaffirm our commitments to our work and to one another.
This is a historical moment in our nation’s history, and one in which we are, for better or for worse, fully immersed. Now is the time to take charge of and protect our rights, demand transparency in an age of rapid change, and ensure that our voices—in all their passion and diversity—are heard.
Sabeen Ahmed, 2nd year, Department of Philosophy
Sebastian Ramirez, 2nd year, Department of Philosophy
Kelly Swope, 2nd year, Department of Philosophy
Justin Hubbard, 5th year, Department of History
Jesse Montgomery, 3rd year, Department of English