Saturday, April 26, 2008

Slave Labor

Isn't it requisite that every person participate in at least one protest on campus before they can legitimately claim the title of "graduate student?" Well, if so, then I now officially qualify!

The Graduate Employees Union (GEU) has been diligently trying to negotiate a reasonable contract for graduate research and teaching assistants for several months. Their efforts have been repeatedly met with what one might call "less than satisfactory" responses from the administration.

Among other things, the administration sent out notices explaining that they had a "responsibility" to MSU students to staff their classes and report their grades in a timely fashion. Therefore, we were expected to provide a report to our immediate supervisors containing a current list of grades for our students, due no later than midnight on the day prior to when a walkout was scheduled to take place.

This was really the last straw for me because it demonstrated such a complete lack of consideration for us. Although we are expected to function as staff, we are seldom recognized, appreciated, or respected for the contributions we make as such. This particular demand demonstrated a complete disregard for our dual role as students who are already staying up into the wee hours of the morning for days on end in order to fulfill our responsibilities to our assistantships while simultaneously attempting to make progress in our programs.

So, although I don't consider myself a particularly political person, I actually dragged myself out of bed BEFORE 8 a.m. on a Friday morning when I did NOT have to be on campus for any other reason in order to participate in an "informational picket" (a job action that is NOT a strike) in protest of the administration's actions. Why? One of the chants we shouted for two hours outside the administration building, on our way up the stairs of the administration building, and into the hallway outside the Board of Trustees meeting pretty much sums it all up:

"Who does the research?" WE do the research.
"Who teaches the classes?" WE teach the classes.
"Who are the students?" WE are the students.

For me, it was less about standard issues like salary and benefits (although those would certainly be nice) and more about the absolute and total LACK of respect and appreciation accorded graduate students for the quantity and quality of service they render. Although it didn't bother me that the administration sent the campus police to keep an eye on things, I was disgusted by the fact that instead of parking in the parking lot through which the picketers had to march in order to make their periodic circles around the building, the car positioned itself in the middle of the grass where no one could miss their presence. We were an orderly group (we didn't even take signs into the building and got quiet immediately when it was explained to us that while it was within our rights to be present, we could not disrupt the meeting in any way). We filtered quietly into the meeting room until the available seats were taken, and when we were told there was no more room, the remaining members of the group stood quietly in the hallway.

The administration's response? To call the campus fire marshal. He and his assistant came and dutifully counted the number of people, but to his credit (and with a kind smile and a twinkle in his eye), he informed one of the administrators that although the room was at capacity, people were leaving and the group was behaving itself so he didn't see any problem. He advised her to simply be prudent about maintaining a balance between those entering the room and those leaving it.

Meanwhile, it was amazing to listen to the Board spend 2 hours approving all kinds of extremely expensive facilities projects, and to conclude the meeting listening to graduate students make requests such as: Pleeeeease don't take away our parking! Unbelievable. (And just to ensure that there is NO confusion, I am applying that adjective to the administration, not to the graduate students!) In then end, it made me suspect that at their very core, few strikes are really about money and more about the degree to which employees feel valued.

It also gave me cause to ponder that there truly is strength in numbers, and yet that it is incredibly difficult to get people to support even those causes that will result in direct, long-term benefits to themselves. (After all, I am ashamed to admit that I didn't do much more than read the bargaining updates with non-committal interest until I was personally contacted by several colleagues and enthusiastically encouraged to participate.) After participating in the informational picket, it was impressive to receive phone calls several days later from two different "picket captains" outlining the plans for the walkout. They indicated the locations that had been identified as picket sites around campus, the procedures for participating in picketing shifts, and explained how important news and other communications would be conveyed. I suddenly realized how much of their very precious (and practically non-existent) personal time they had been investing for months on my behalf.

I thought about how often I have benefited from the committed action and long-term perseverance of very small groups of people whose individual actions and sacrifices improve my circumstances. I hope that as a result of this experience, I will be more willing to blaze trails regarding issues about which I am passionate even when others are slow to follow, recognizing that I have been abundantly blessed because of the similar efforts of others regarding issues I am not particularly passionate about myself. I wonder if there will ever come a day when the contract negotiation process will be approached from the perspective of members of a single community coming together to decide what is best for the community instead of divided factions doing the best they can to ensure that they don't "lose" anything in the process?

In any case, the experience was educative, and a reasonable contract was negotiated on the day the walkout was scheduled to occur, just a few hours before my 8 a.m. shift on the picket lines was supposed to begin. Ironic that a similar scenario seems to play out in a similar way every year . . . just before a walkout is scheduled to begin.

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