Strikes and organizing in academia

This post is inspired by things I’ve seen happening recently in the context of academic organizing. This post is not about bad-faith critiques or attacks on folks who are reacting to the horrors around us in the best ways they know. I am excited to continue learning, developing new relationships, and building a better world with you all. By the way, there is a totally amazing strike happening right now at the University of Michigan—grads are walking off the job, which their admin says is illegal btw, to protest re-opening conditions and demand police abolition.

Please donate to the GEO strike fund!

I have organized in Higher Ed for over four years, working with a myriad of collectives towards a variety of aims, and with just as many sets of practices and tactics. My primary experience is as a labor organizer—for two years I was Co-President of Graduate Students United and I helped to found the University of Chicago Labor Council in late 2018. I have run dozens of trainings on the basics of organizing, communications, direct action, and training itself, marched proudly on picket lines across Illinois and New Mexico, knocked doors for four union elections, and was a strike captain during our own strike in the Spring of 2019.

This is a lot, looking back on it all, but I don’t say all this to pretend that I’m some irrefutable authority on activism. I have made so many mistakes along the way and I continue to make them today. In fact, a lot of what appears here is about reflections on these mistakes. My four years of experience pales in comparison to the lifetimes of struggle that some organizers I’ve learned from have to draw on. Frankly, I’m trained as a mathematician, not as a Marxist historian, critical race theorist, or political scientist. I’m explaining all this so that y’all understand where my experiences come from and why I feel the ways that I do.

Lots of us in academia are new to thinking of ourselves as workers deserving of a union, or even basic worker rights. We’ve been inundated by a practically feudal system that profits wildly off of our unpaid and oftentimes free labor. We’ve become desensitized to countless forms of abuse from individuals and institutions in order to survive. We’ve been taught to conceive of justice as individual success instead of collective liberation. And some of us are well on our way to reproducing these structures of extraction for the next academic generation, if there is one.

I will forever remember how Candis Castillo, during the first union organizer training that I ever attended, gave me the freedom to name the fucked up aspects of this life and also helped me to understand that we can fight back together. But most academics don’t have Candis, or Anne or Kira or Emma or Natalye or any of the other incredible organizers (there are truly too many to name) to help them start along this liberatory path, or to patiently train them on the tried-and-true fundamentals in the arsenal of working people. I miss Candis ❤

Okay, all this said, I want to offer my perspective on a few things I’m seeing:

  1. Striking alone. I’ve seen a small number of junior academics, mostly postdocs but a couple of graduate students and one TT faculty member, talk about going on strike as a form of protest. These folks always have deeply moving and legitimate reasons for wanting to do something so drastic—their workplaces are racist, sexist, transphobic, ableist, and otherwise dehumanizing, and also the world we all live in is quite simply on fire—but they also are quite clear that this action does not extend beyond their own labor. There are no organizing conversations, no risk assessments, and no comrades throwing down with them. This is going to get people fired, without any change in the conditions that lead to their taking action, if it hasn’t already. And what scares me even more is that I’ve also seen tons of other academics on Twitter praising these folks, not recognizing how dangerous doing something like this can be (especially during a pandemic). Any form of work action is only effective when done en masse, with respect to your target, both for our own protection from retaliation and for the damage (or threat of damage) we can inflict on our oppressors. Which brings me to the next point…
  2. Striking without goals. Going on strike—literally putting our jobs and sometimes lives on the line for a greater purpose—is a big deal. Striking without a clear demand is not only a missed opportunity, it’s profoundly disorganizing, demoralizing, and dangerous to the people involved. If there is no clear way to know when the strike is over, participants will be confused and lose energy quickly; when it does end, they won’t be able to feel if the action was successful. More than that, whatever goal that strikers set is one that they should craft and build collectively, with a spirit of solidarity and radical understanding. That’s how we get people out, taking risks, and dreaming of a better world together. We can do that with organizing conversations!
  3. Striking that isn’t really striking. Academics love teach-ins. When the work “strike” gets thrown around, this is, without fail, one of the first things that people suggest. Unfortunately, this can be a big problem if it’s the premier aspect of your strike because you’re literally continuing to do labor. If the institution administration are at all competent, they can and will co-opt that labor into pithy admin-sanctioned reflection events that don’t actually move the needle on anything—there have been a lot of Black Lives Matter-esque marches, treated cordially by campus police, in this spirit. I’ve also seen folks on Twitter over the last few days talking about how their employers have instructed them to log a recent teach-in-centered action as a use of their vacation days, which is indicative of an ineffective action. Now, all this said, I’m not anti-teach-in! A teach-in on the picket line is dope. A teach-in on public-access radio while protestors maintain social distancing by cruising around in cars is even more dope.

Especially on this last point, I’m feeling like a lot of academics are caught in an important tension. Remember, tensions can help us grow 🙂 In the words of Irami Osei-Frimpong:

That is, academics get caught between choosing between fundamentally different ways of bending our labor towards revolution. Striking and radical pedagogy are both essential to building a better world, but they have distinct functions: the former is about directly exerting power to make material changes in our conditions, while the latter is an ongoing struggle alongside students towards self-determination as people (and maybe even as mathematicians) in search of collective liberation. I’d also like to emphasize that a strike doesn’t need to be centered around teach-ins to be anti-racist—allow me to re-up the GEO strike happening now.

Striking is a lot of work, y’all, and it shouldn’t be the first step in campaign—it’s okay if we take some time escalating to a place where we have a vision strong enough and big enough to really throw down around! Our movement has to be driven by one-on-one conversations, so let’s have them. We need to find a way to cross institutional and disciplinary boundaries, to start building a common vision for tearing down the systems of white supremacy that are actively killing us. We cannot be scared to make demands and talk with each other about what it takes to get them.

Preface

(moved to the end because there are lots of things to say but they weren’t the subject of this post)

We are currently in the midst of a pandemic that has killed nearly a million people outright, along with so many more through ongoing healthcare and logistical crises. We are still at the beginning of a global economic crisis at a scale not seen since the Great Depression. With U.S. elections around the corner, Biden and Trump keep pledging material support to police (assuring us that it’s really the other who wants to defund cops) while millions of people have taken to the streets for over 100 days to protest state murder. Each day I teeter between fury, joy, and hopelessness.

Higher education in the U.S. is facing its most dramatic transformation in the last century, accelerated rapidly and across the board in the last six months by coronavirus. Meanwhile, faculty, graduate students, staff, other university workers, and community members have been structurally and utterly disenfranchised from having a say in these transformations. Colleges and Universities, more than ever, continue to serve as crucibles of inequality, essential to the neocolonialist project.

By their nature, institutions of Higher Education are huge employers (the University of Chicago, where I just finished my PhD, is the largest employer on the South Side and the second largest private employer in the city). These institutions are centers of economic transformations—they operate medical centers, create technologies, develop real estate, train lawmakers, and exert a powerful influence on public policy—that are reliant on student debt, dominated by financial interests intent on eradicating shared governance, and manufacturers of widespread gentrification. Ultimately, there is a deep urgency to the organizing that happens on and around our campuses, by students and community members and workers alike, not only for our immediate living conditions but in the broader objective of resisting and dismantling white supremacy.

I want to think together about how we as organized academics can engage in coordinated radical pedagogy and mutual aid, while also ramping up for escalating campaigns of direct action to make concrete wins for a better world. Together we can create radical changes in the governance of our institutions, where students, faculty, nurses, trades workers, clerical staff, and the community are empowered to make decisions—rather than administrations and boards of trustees or, back in the day, faculty senates—about the things that impact all our lives. 

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