In the last two years, renewed militancy in university struggles has led to both victories and defeats at campuses across the country and beyond. Against the backdrop of continuing academic proletarianization, ever rising student debt, and expanded campus policing, students and workers have nonetheless formed new tactics and solidarities, and forced numerous concessions from university administrations. This dossier presents critical reflections and reportbacks from recent university struggles, indicating some of the possibilities, paradoxes, and challenges of ongoing fights to transform the university.
With the recent victory of one of the longest grad labor strikes in North American history, 2022 has begun on a high note in university organizing. It is worth comparing this moment to the start of 2020. Then, a wildcat grading strike at UC Santa Cruz was gaining momentum and visibility, eventually becoming a full teaching stoppage and picket line with mass community support. In both the militancy of its tactics, and the political scope of its demand – which tied a labor struggle to problems of social reproduction within the context of increasingly financialized universities – the COLA strike quickly became a key reference and inspiration at numerous other campuses. It seemed to indicate the initiation of a new cycle of struggles.
The political opening created by UCSC grad workers was abruptly widened by the arrival of the pandemic, as student, worker, and community groups frantically mobilized against the mass layoffs, unsafe working conditions, and material neglect that followed from universities’ prioritization of capital over life. Over the first weeks of spring, small organizations grew massively in size, their meetings (now held on Zoom) better attended than at any point in their existence. From NYU to the University of Hawai’i, and from UMass Amherst to Oregon State University, new actions, new networks, new solidarities, bloomed into existence. Colleagues became comrades, and discontent, worry, and militancy generalized across campuses.
This opening was ripped even larger with the police murder of George Floyd and the ensuing rebellion. The footprint of antiracist and abolitionist campus organizing dramatically expanded, leading to intensifying campaigns and, at the University of Chicago, a 19-hour occupation of campus police headquarters. Shifting public attitudes towards racism and policing were reflected in organized labor’s increasing, if still limited, adoption of explicit antiracist positions and demands. By the start of the summer, multiple struggles had converged both within and between campuses, and plans for a fall general strike were in preparation. In some ways, at least, 2020 was off to a good start.
Since then, some concrete victories have been achieved. While no general strike actually materialized, numerous grad and undergrad, adjunct, and campus worker unions have won recognition and corresponding bargaining rights – often by way of extended agitation campaigns and the threat of strike action. Among these is UC’s Student Researchers United/UAW, which with over 17,000 workers, was the country’s largest new bargaining unit of 2021. Contract fights have also ended with not insignificant pay and benefit increases. Though such victories have sometimes occurred against the anti-democratic pushback of business unions, certain democratic reforms have also been achieved, such as the UAW’s new international leadership election policy, which for the first time gives tens of thousands of UAW-affiliated university workers at least a nominal say in who runs their union.
One may also cite less tangible – but arguably no less important – victories, such as the shifts in the balance of forces that have occurred every time a university was forced on the defensive by student and worker militancy, forced to make some concession that violated its default austerity logic and its preferred modes of conflict management. Such shifts have opened political space into which scores of new students and workers have poured, with the latter thereby developing critical perspectives and practical experience that will be instrumental in future struggles. As labor militancy generally increases across sectors in the country, so it also increases in higher education. The broadening scope of strike demands – to address rent payments, harrassment and discrimination arbitration procedures, and policing (both private and public) – has definitely expanded the horizon of collective struggles in, around, and against universities.
And now graduate workers at Columbia have concluded a ten-week strike with perhaps the “clearest and most decisive win” in North American grad labor history.
Yet between 2020 and 2022, we do not find an unambiguous narrative of university labor on the offensive. The victory in Morningside Heights does not represent the norm. If there is a line connecting 2020 to 2022, it is one that is at times faint, which reverses, or momentarily disappears, before jumping forward again. This is perhaps just the time of politics itself; not the linear mechanical time of automatic forward movement, “but a broken time, full of knots and wombs pregnant with events,” a time of breaks, a time of leaps. Yet if there have been, over the last two years, a couple leaps, so there have been reversals, lulls, setbacks.
For as 2022 begins we experience an almost nauseating replay of 2020, in which we fought, mostly without success, to weaken universities’ ghoulish drive to remain in-person (and later to reopen) and to thereby collect every last penny of tuition, room, and board rather than protect the safety of students and workers. That the latest wave has necessitated the same exact fight indicates that, two years later, power remains firmly in the hands of the other camp. As does the fact that, of the over 650,000 university jobs lost in the wake of the pandemic, only about half have returned, with job growth having “sputtered” by the second half of last year. In comparison to February 2020, one out of every fourteen jobs in higher education has perhaps permanently disappeared, and the university seems to have seized another “crisis” to further entrench austerity.
Nor have higher education’s structural problems loosened. Over 40 million Americans now hold $1.8 trillion in student debt, a number that is expected to soon exceed 2 trillion. The distribution of this debt is itself racially inflected, with black college graduates owing on average $25,000 more than white graduates. That debt is anything other than simultaneous means of extraction and discipline is belied by a labor market in which a BA, and even MA or PhD, can often deliver at most a low paid service-sector or entry-level administrative job, which promise just enough to cover interest payments for the remainder of one’s indebted life. Militant refusal to allow the university to thus interpellate and capture students in the order of financialized capital is met by repression and police surveillance. After everything, cops are still on campus.
The proletarianization of academic labor continues apace. Over 70 percent of faculty at US universities are non-tenure track. Adjuncts among those can expect around $3,000 per course, and sometimes significantly less. Often providing an insufficient income on its own, teaching undergrads has become a gig like any other. Nearly 25% of adjuncts are on public assistance, and many experience intermittent homelessness. The prospect of escaping such conditions into the relative luxury of a tenure-track appointment are insignificant. After the virtual disappearance of the 2020-2021 job market, this year’s market has seemed to restore the “normal” of the permanently shrunken post-2008 market. In the latter, applicants pay in perfectly tailored job documents and slick websites to play the lottery for each coveted tenure-track spot, to which 400, 500, sometimes 600 applicants apply.
If the organizing response has not yet proven adequate to this impasse, a widespread psychic response seems at least to have absorbed it. Even before the pandemic, graduate students were six times more likely to experience depression and anxiety than the rest of the population, under conditions of work in which isolation, competition, obligatory professional conformity, and minimal job prospects constitute the norm. Among organizers and militants, too, the last two years have not been easy, given that cycles of excitement, burnout, and infighting – routine experiences in many struggles – were experienced on top of the already frayed nerves of virtual life in quarantine. While the transition to video meetings at first enabled us to gather in greater numbers than ever before, it also led to its own set of frustrations. Collective, embodied joy – a lifesource for any movement – was more difficult to experience through the mediation of blue light and audiovisual glitches; new opportunities for sidebarring allowed for the real-time breakdown of solidarity through covert, chat message dismissals. Even in assembling this dossier, we battled, on all sides (including our own), motivation deficits, periods of silence, depressions…
It is in this context of uncertainty and ambivalence, of exhaustion and anticipation, that we present the following four texts, which provide critical reflections and report-backs from recent university struggles. The first two texts offer inquiries into the history, aims, and strategic visions of two organizations that formed in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic and antiracist rebellions of 2020. In the first, The Cops off Campus Research Collective overviews their project to research and consolidate information on campus policing, as a tool in abolitionist struggles. In the second, the Midwest Labor Group details the motivations behind their experiment in building a cooperative grad worker labor union in the Midwest. These inquiries are followed by an intervention from Aimée Lê and Jordan Osserman, who report from the perspective of ongoing struggles in the UK against the casualization of academic labor. The dossier concludes with an abridged reprint of “Abolitionist University Studies: An Invitation,” a 2019 text that sketches an abolitionist stance towards the history, present, and future of the university.
This dossier tackles a set of overlapping themes and problems in current university organizing. In our inquiries, we encouraged reflection not just on struggles within universities, but also, on the university as its own conceptual object, as its own political aim and stake in such struggles. The Cops off Campus Research Collective (COCRC) accordingly theorizes the university within the broader regimes of accumulation and dispossession to which it is linked. This analysis refuses, by implication, “many collective assumptions of the university, perhaps most centrally its benevolence and its inevitable future.” Similarly, The Midwest Labor Group cautions against critical discourses that urge only the “democratization” of universities, without simultaneous calls for broader social transformation. Left at democratization, academic workers may become only “managers of their own exploitation,” unable to challenge broader processes of proletarianization that characterize the economy as a whole.
The COCRC also clarifies the overlapping terrains of abolitionist and labor struggles, indicating the central role of police in disciplining workers, historically and today. They indicate how “Abolition movements have helped to unsettle union organizers’ subscription to a narrow, ‘bread and butter’ trade unionism and shift them to a solidarity unionism approach that tries to intersect labor struggles with other antiracist and feminist struggles.” Complementing this analysis is the Midwest Labor Group’s extended discussion of organization in relation to business unions, which have historically striven to limit agitation to economic grievances. In pushing for a horizontal “combat organization” that struggles across broad social, political, and often extra-legal terrains, they indicate the possibilities, and pitfalls, of definitively breaking from entrenched union structures.
Class consciousness provides the major theme of “Our Consciousness and Theirs,” in which Lê and Osserman combat the complacent expectation that worsening conditions of work will automatically compel precarious academics to fight back. In contrast, the authors argue that class consciousness develops only when “individual demands are actively and consciously made political and collective: in other words, through class struggle.” Lê and Osserman’s discussion of the contextual causes of “professional consciousness” reinforces the Midwest Labor Group’s invocation of Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire to describe the structural individualism of grad workers; like 19th-century small-holding peasants, graduate workers may be viewed as “an enormous mass whose members live in similar conditions but without entering into manifold relations with each other.” However, with their analysis of the conditions and consciousness of an academic “class fraction,” Lê and Osserman ultimately seek to assist the overcoming of all divisions – apparent and real – in the working class.
The final text, “Abolitionist University Studies: An Invitation,” historicizes universities as imbricated with multiple “regimes of accumulation” from the 19th century onward. In canvassing some of the projects that have constituted these regimes – from the accumulation of capital by other means after the formal end of slavery, to the dispossession of Native peoples’ lands, to the management of post-World War II capital and population surpluses, to the non-circulation of students’ wages today – the authors draw attention to the shifting social function of universities throughout their history. In thus demonstrating how the university is “consistently embedded in various, intersecting projects of capital, both its accumulation and its (non)circulation,” along with the “disciplining and management of non-capital surpluses, such as population and living labor,” the authors prompt the question of which parts of the university, if any, can be salvaged and made use of in contemporary struggles.
“An Invitation”will provide our final word: “The abolition university recognizes that abstract oppositionality and critique, left to their own devices, may in fact unwittingly reproduce accumulation regimes by offering their practitioners the sense of moral supremacy and social exteriority necessary to imagine knowledge production as a form of change in itself. Instead, we imagine the abolition university as a relation, a network, and an ethos with various potentials for transforming what and whom the university can be for.”