I am a PhD student in Comparative Literature at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. For the past four days, normally introverted little me has been, instead of teaching my elementary German classes, marching around in circles, banging a five-gallon bucket and yelling at the top of my lungs at passersby, sometimes in the rain. Teaching assistants at UIUC like me have been working without a contract since August because the university administration wants us to agree to a contract that leaves them the right to cut the tuition waivers of certain graduate employees in the future. Now, before you accuse me of asking for a handout, as several undergraduates have done, listen to my story. It is just my story, not empirical data, but it’s what I have to offer right now.
I grew up in East Texas, a bastion of the Republican party, for which I’ve voted all my life until the last election. My dad (whom I love dearly and of whom I have always been proud) is a self-employed mechanical engineer, and I grew up hearing how unions wrecked the American auto industry and compromised the quality of German cars. I don’t have the facts right now to prove or disprove that—unions, like any human institution, can become corrupt, or carry an initially good thing to excess. I also grew up with my dad as a model of a passionate work ethic and strict financial conservatism. Living within my means was a law—I was in my 20’s before I dared use a credit card, and even now I pay my balance in full every month. A huge part of the reason I am striking comes from that same fiscal conservatism. My dad has passed on to me an abhorrence of loans or buying anything on credit—the only loan he ever took out was from his own father, to start up his business. At a time when graduating college with huge amounts of debt has become the norm, someone has to start saying no at some level. The undergrads tell us to pay for our own education—all of us graduate students have already done that at least once, if we are not still paying for or our bachelor’s (or master’s) degrees. Sending an entire generation out into the world burdened with debt before their careers even start cannot be good for the economy, unless you’re only looking at the loan business. I say now to all undergrads that I would be willing to pay more in taxes if the money would go to fund public higher education so that they wouldn’t have to take out loans. But even public schools these days rely more on tuition than on public funding. This needs to change! Declaring war on student debt is the primary reason I am out there on those picket lines!
The value of higher education to society and the ways in which it should be funded is a question unto itself—I’m taking a whole class on this and might write another blog post about that at the end of the semester. But my issue in this post is unions. I was very suspicious of our Graduate Employees' Organization (GEO) when I first got here to UIUC. I heard they’d try to trick you into joining by offering you a free t-shirt and such things. Therefore I am very glad that I was not forced to join the union in order to teach. Neither was any member forced to go on strike, which I also appreciate immensely. However, it has become clear to me that many of the benefits that I have as a graduate employee, such as tuition waivers and low-cost health insurance, are the result of GEO bargaining. My own personal situation is good at the moment, and I want future graduate employees to have the same—it’s called solidarity. I have also realized that many of my fellow grad employees do not have it as good as I do. Some even have to take out second jobs to make ends meet—I wonder when they have time to be students!
This year I have started learning Yiddish, the language of many East European Jews and Jewish diaspora communities, especially in New York. Our class has been meeting on the picket lines this week, singing labor songs about workers who had it a whole lot worse than grad students today. What we have today is in many ways a result of their efforts. These songs have renewed my awareness of how indebted I am to the workers of the generations before me, especially in my own family. My grandparents were German farmers who came to the U.S. without even speaking any English. Others in that generation and the one before were bakers, gardeners, seamstresses and cleaning staff. They worked hard for everything they had, and that is what I want to do too. When I was admitted to UIUC, I specifically asked to teach, both because it’s what I ultimately want to do and because it is immensely satisfying to be able to my bills by means of my own labor, rather than relying any longer on money that those before me have earned. I couldn’t do that without a tuition waiver, though. My dad payed for college in the late 60’s and early 70’s by cleaning the local Catholic church. That’s not possible anymore today. Fighting for accessible and affordable education is not a betrayal of the values with which I grew up, rather, it is necessary to maintain their viability. The American dream became reality for us, and I want to be able to extend that possibility to as many families as possible.
So, finally, I return to the title of my post. Am I still a conservative if I join a union? Do I still want to identify as such in the era of Trump? I should clarify my understanding of conservatism. For me, that has meant strong family values and personal responsibility, and still does. My views on the role of government may have changed somewhat, especially after studying in Germany for three years, but that’s another post again. Supporting workers and their families definitely builds on the values I have always held! While handing out flyers about the strike to furtive undergrads hiding within the world of their earbuds and cell phones (though many were also supportive—thanks a million to you!), I was reminded of my own undergrad days, during which I (peacefully and with a smile, not a judgement!) passed out leaflets about crisis pregnancy counseling at various abortion clinics in Dallas. Supporting workers means supporting parents who might otherwise feel economic pressure to abort their children. It means supporting those children by helping them have access to education and health care. Many graduate students are also married with children, often by deliberate choice. Tuition waivers help them make that choice for life. I too would love to marry and have children—many of us grad students are in our late 20’s and early 30’s, the perfect age for starting families. Tuition waivers help us transition from being dependents to being providers.
In the end, political labels are more of a hindrance than a help. The year I gave up the words “liberal” and “conservative” for Lent was one of my best Lents ever. This past week especially, I’ve also been very grateful to my more liberal and left-leaning professors and non-tenured faculty, who have been incredibly supportive. As the years go by, though deep disagreements on some issues will undoubtedly remain, I’ve realized I have more in common with them than I thought, and I hope we can continue working together toward the common goal of improving higher education and society as a whole. This week has been a very interesting experience in solidarity, and it is not over yet. Join us!!! J