Part I: Scarcity Consciousness

In one of my earliest labor history courses, the professor explained to the class how economics directly impacted the way in which people think not just about themselves but also about society at large. We were in the midst of a longer discussion about economic depressions and how some psychologists now argued that prolonged exposure to material scarcity produced a kind of “scarcity consciousness.”

The reasoning goes that as food, shelter, and clothing are increasingly difficult to come by, individuals become increasingly preoccupied with securing these materials on a day to day basis. This radically alters one’s consciousness, as it prevents people from concerning themselves with larger questions of self worth, higher ideals, and larger issues in politics, culture, and society. Empathy, justice, and creative expression go by the wayside, and a focus on oneself at all costs becomes not a sign of moral failing but a necessity.

Abraham Maslow is lurking in that understanding, but the professor argued that there was a tendency to use Maslow’s work to only understand the individual, particularly the individual sense of self actualization. What about an entire society? Or, more potently, what about different segments of society? What happens when you artificially cut resources to one group, make that group focus on the acquisition of future resources, and then task that group with profound decision making issues? These questions are at the forefront for every scholar who researches and writes in the fields of labor history and working class studies. Thinking along these lines forces us to contemplate how unequal allocation of resources affects groups of people, and in turn how that impacts social conditions and forms of political organization like democracy.

Although many labor historians and working class scholars typically focus on low wage earners, the same phenomenon can be seen in any occupation. It is a condition that as a graduate student and aspiring labor historian I have thought much about. With increased cuts to higher education, low living standards for graduate students during their formative training years, a publish-or-perish mandate taken to new extremes in the last 20 years, and a near continuous mantra of “there are no jobs!”, one cannot help but wonder what impact such artificial scarcity is having on a generation of thinkers, researchers, and educators. Likewise, it is a concern that begs the question– what is to be done? The answer for many graduate students across the United States has been to form graduate student unions. This is not a simple matter. The struggle to form a union is a struggle to address basic needs like a living wage without losing sight of higher ideals like academic freedom, shared governance of the university, as well as issues of social justice on campus.

In March 2016, at a regular meeting of the Purdue Graduate Student Government (PGSG), graduate student workers and graduate student representatives of Purdue University announced formally that they were pursuing the possibility of unionizing as a workforce.

The issue had been years in the making. As efforts to unionize began, I was told by two professors that years earlier, when graduate students had threatened to unionize, administrators agreed to provide better health insurance. Although that seemed to settle the issue, little was done to address the underlying problems of graduate student labor—low wages, exploitative working conditions, and precarity. However, if the students at the PGSG meeting had hoped for relative unity among students and a warm welcoming from university administrators, they were soon disappointed.

At that PGSG meeting, Andrew Zeller, the president of the graduate student government, openly stated that although he did not directly oppose the push for a union, neither would he openly endorse it. His largest concern? That a union would interfere with what he saw as an already good working relationship with university administrators. “I think we’ve had a very positive relationship with university administrators,” Zeller told a local newspaper, “and I don’t necessarily think that a union is necessary to reach the goal that we want to reach.”

Administrators agreed. Trent Klingerman, director of employee relations in human resources, quickly argued that efforts to unionize were unwise, because they would hinder the university’s ability to “communicate” with graduate student workers. As he told one media outlet at the time of the unionizing announcement, “I don’t think (a union is) necessary. It doesn’t take that to get my attention, and it doesn’t take that to get most administrators’ attention on campus.” Supporters of unionization, like myself, began to see the parameters of the fight. We had an uphill battle, with little formal support.

At this point I should state, for the sake of transparency, that I am far from a nonpartisan reporter in all of this. A student organizer openly identified with the movement to unionize, I study as my primary field American labor history and social reform. Furthermore, for the past three years I have been a member of the Purdue Social Justice Coalition (PSJC), a social justice and civil rights group that has tackled issues ranging from sexual assault on campus, to racism and white supremacy, to economic exploitation. In my previous work with the PSJC, we had found the university administration resistant to change but also found that progressive policies could be affected through our organizing.

In September 2015, PSJC had been part of a successful effort to push Purdue University into establishing a rape crisis center. The effort argued that Purdue was one of the only major universities in the country not to have a specific center dedicated to education, prevention, and assistance for the issue of sexual assault and relationship violence. Instead, the campus had a far-flung “network” of resources, which included a Crisis Center run by the community and which was more of a phone service across town, nearly 45 minutes by bus.

Marching, gathering signatures for a petition, organizing speakers, and speaking to the press had all been used by the campaign, which included a number of people, organizations, and activists in the greater Lafayette area. Although we never found the exact date, many of the activists found through research that the attempt to create a specific crisis center on Purdue’s campus dated as far back as the 1970s.

The university’s consistent response? Such a thing was simply not needed. Some administrators claimed that not many students at Purdue experienced sexual assault. In fact, early on we had even been told that really “only” 2-5 people experienced sexual assault every year at Purdue. With such a “low” number did it really make sense, we were asked by university officials, to dedicate resources to an entire center?

This line became untenable when the American Association of Universities finally released a new study on the rate of sexual assault. The number of people actually sexually assaulted on Purdue’s campus? More like 22% of all women. That was, of course, keeping in mind that the crime of sexual assault is often drastically underreported.

Suddenly the line that some administrators had been peddling, that Purdue was a magical place free of the concerns found in the rest of our society, became indefensible. Shortly after the report was released, the university announced that the Center for Advocacy, Response and Education (CARE) would be established. The president’s office personally sent an email to the student body admitting the issue of sexual assault was in fact a problem on campus. The entire episode was a multifaceted lesson. Coalitions of various groups on and off campus, over several years, and through protest and direct action could produce positive change.

In late October of the same year, the Social Justice Coalition saw another victory when it, along with United Students Against Sweatshops, convinced Purdue to become the twenty-second school in the country to cut ties with JanSport for violations of worker’s rights around the world. Again, the action had been years in the making. In the 1990s student activists at Purdue had forced the university to join the Workers’ Rights Consortium (an independent organization that monitors working conditions in industries like clothing manufacturing). In that fight students had engaged in a several day hunger strike, again showing the power of direct action to create change. This was known to everyone working on the campaign with JanSport in 2015, and I will never forget messaging my friend Dana Smith (the lead organizer for the project) to see what we needed to put on the PSJC’s facebook page for the coming months. “Uh… we won,” she told me. I looked at the message confused.

Dana is a brilliant and dedicated activist who has since gone on to work as an organizer with Service Employees International Union (SEIU), but surely she and the students she was organizing hadn’t already convinced Purdue to cut a multi-million dollar contract with JanSport? They had. Two major victories in the span of an academic year. It isn’t difficult to see how my friends and I in the PSJC felt confident. It was with that confidence that we began discussing a consistent issue on campus— exploitation of graduate student workers, low pay, and the virtual non-existence of real legal protection.

As I told the reporter covering the graduate student government meeting, I didn’t think student government was the best place to advocate for collective rights as a unified workforce. A union would best serve that cause. “Where we go from here is going to largely depend on how graduate students respond,” I said. I was cautious, but optimistic.

Why unionize though? It was a question we received early on from professors, administrators, and the general public. Two of my good friends in the history department told me shortly after the early planning had begun that their respective advisers had cautioned against a union.“Why?” I asked. One friend was told by their adviser that graduate students were “journeymen” in the profession, our position was temporary, and that unions were for far more exploited workforces. This, of course, ignored the history of organized labor where actual journeymen in trade crafts had often organized and created some of the earliest and most well respected unions in history. It also spoke to a larger conceptual problem.

Graduate students are often viewed as privileged people in the United States because the academy still retains an image of power, leisure, and comfort compared to the rest of society. However, even a quick perusal of publications like The Chronicle of Higher Education show that such a state (if it had ever existed) is not the reality. Increasing adjunctification of faculty, decreasing tenure track positions, and a larger push toward neoliberalism in the university has revealed that the academy is very much a part of the “real world.” Therefore, issues of economics, like wages and worker protections, are as much an issue in a philosophy department as they are in a McDonald’s kitchen.

For example, when I began my studies at Purdue University I was lucky enough to come in on a Ross Fellowship. One of the highest paid members of my cohort, I only made about $16,500 a year with guaranteed summer pay. Most of my friends and colleagues came in somewhere above $13,000 and had no guaranteed payment over summer. This was particularly devastating for international graduate students who, due to visa restrictions, could not supplement their income with outside employment.

To put this all in perspective, to be at the poverty level in Indiana one would have to make around $11,000 a year. This is where the Federal government provides such benefits as SNAP, Medicaid, and TANF. Placed just slightly above the poverty level, graduate student workers are often ineligible for many government programs. We can often make as low as $6.25 an hour, far below the “living wage” marker, and are then expected to somehow make ends meet via our own ingenuity. None of this is hidden information to administrators.

I have personally seen associate deans (whose salaries are often in the six figures), when told about the hardship of making ends meet, tell graduate students in earnest about food pantries run by local churches in the area. In essence, the dean suggested that the charity of others was the best way to address the problems of systematically impoverished workers. Not surprisingly, soup kitchens are not a stable way to get one through graduate school. So, graduate students are forced to find additional sources of income. One such way is to seek out and secure additional appointments at the university.

My friends and their advisers who say we are “journeymen” understand the problem. They get it. But what can they do? One of their advisers said that being associated with a unionizing effort has consequences, both for future employment as well as current funding at an institution not exactly heralded as a progressive bastion of forward thinking politics. As one of my friends reminded me, “Keep in mind who Purdue’s president is.”

Part II: The Boss

Mitchell Elias Daniels, Jr. has had a long career in both politics and the private sector. In 2013 he was made president of Purdue University by our Board of Trustees. But before that he worked in a range of offices, from Senator Rich Lugar’s chief of staff, to George W. Bush’s director of the Office of Management and Budget. In between these appointments, he was a corporate lawyer for Eli Lilly, one of the nation’s major pharmaceutical companies, working in a number of different executive positions there from 1990-2000. However, the height of his political power came in 2005 when he was elected Indiana’s forty-ninth governor. Serving two terms, he lived up to his reputation of being anti-worker, anti-union, and pro-corporate power. In 2012 he signed a “right to work” bill, limiting the effectiveness of organized labor to collectively bargain, unionize, and negotiate contracts.

National publications roundly criticized the legislation when it was passed. The New York Times argued that the legislation, aside from limiting worker’s rights, was also a contradiction of what Daniels had previously stated in some public forums.

Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana, who had once said that he did not wish to add a “right to work” provision to the state’s labor laws, signed a bill on Wednesday doing just that. The legislation, which bars union contracts from requiring non-union members to pay fees for representation, makes Indiana the first state in more than a decade to enact right to work legislation and the only one in the Midwestern manufacturing belt to have such a law.

In The Nation, John Nichols also noted Daniels’ lack of honesty concerning these “right to work” laws. While seeking reelection, Daniels appeared before Teamsters Local 135, promising that he wouldn’t push the “right-to-work” issue. Yet, despite what Daniels had stated previously to some constituents, this “betrayal” was largely a reflection of what he had always felt about organized workers.

As Daniels stated in his 2012 book Keeping the Republic,

With unionism comes political power, and with that power, still more of an upending of the original relationship between the people and those who work for them. In a now-familiar cycle of corruption, dues are forcibly withheld from the pay of public employees and funneled into union coffers. After the cost of the union’s bureaucracies are covered, much of the rest is poured into political activity.

Daniels continues by explaining that the mission of curtailing and limiting labor unions, specifically public sector ones, is a partisan issue. One which hampers Democratic opponents and helps the Republican Party. Furthermore, he identifies what he sees as one of the worst culprits in modern American union thuggery— teachers. “In Indiana,” he wrote, “the average public school teacher out earns the average private-sector worker by 22 percent; when benefits are counted, the gap widens significantly. This, of course, is for a 186-day work year, compared to the private-sector norm of 240 days.”

The message from both his book and actions as governor is clear. Unions are corrupt political hacks, and the workers who make up their ranks, lazy and overpaid. Therefore, it is better to limit their power to collectively organize, negotiate contracts, and push for better pay and benefits. These are not subtle messages, and everyone I have spoken to at Purdue knows where the “boss” stands on efforts to challenge him, especially on issues like the unionization and the economic standing of graduate students.

Ironically, Daniels only has his position in the university due to the very type of political machinations that he condemns in organized labor. As governor he appointed many of the members of Purdue’s Board of Trustees, who are now all but beholden to him, his agenda, and his position of power. With his power secured Daniels has been able to pursue a host of neoliberal policies, negotiate his own contracts (the irony is not lost on those wanting a union), and completely ignore the concerns of students, staff, and faculty when it serves his purposes. Attacks on faculty oversight, shared governance and academic freedom surfaced again recently when Purdue University announced its purchase of the online, for-profit Kaplan University, which has abysmal graduation rates and a history of misleading, predatory, recruiting practices. The deal has rightly been criticized for violating long-held academic principles and for channeling “public financial means to a private, for-profit entity with no public oversight, draining resources from public colleges and universities devoted to academic excellence and the public good, not the bottom line.”

Unionizing is perilous, and done at a high risk at Purdue University. Like an all-seeing-eye from a Tolkien novel, Daniels brings his past political positions to bear on the university. The Kaplan deal Daniels negotiated is only the most recent example of the broader impulse to treat higher education as a corporation.

Around the time of the announcement to form a graduate student union, the dean of the College of Liberal Arts, responding to criticism of low pay, announced that graduate student workers would see a pay increase. Where would these new funds come from? “Right sizing” departments, cutting back, and reallocating resources, of course. The department of English, Purdue’s largest program in the CLA, was specifically marked for “right sizing.” Spreading that money to other departments, and raising our salaries (we are set to make a whopping $1700 next year in the history department), I saw how quickly solidarity could evaporate.

My friends and colleagues in English, rightfully angry at the assault, saw many of their colleagues across the university make peace with the reallocation. At precisely the moment we needed to be unified, we were divided by the administration.

In contrast to the top down corporate structure favored by Daniels and other adherents of neoliberalism, a healthy, dynamic academy is built on the idea that academics govern their own institutions, and the effort toward graduate student unionization is part of creating that academy. I’m worried our generation is being trained with that ever present “scarcity consciousness.” I can easily see a future where we, as the next generation of academics, are so convinced that things like tenure, the liberal arts, and faculty governance are so “economically impossible” that we simply let them slip away to the neoliberal administrators who promise us “fiscal stability.” As upholding values like academic freedom come more and more to be seen as untenable in the given economic and political environment, those in the most precarious positions–graduate students and adjuncts–will increasingly find the university to be a hostile place.

This may sound alarmist, but one need go no further than my friend Ti’Air Riggins to see this rise in hostility and lack of protection for graduate students precariously employed in academe. A PhD student in biomedical engineering, she is a combination of scientist, activist, and advocate for the rights of those who are oppressed in society. In 2015 she was Miss Indiana, and used her position to advocate for survivors of sexual assault. Aside from being a leading voice for the need of a rape crisis center on campus, she has also been outspoken about racism, using social media to criticize racism in the sciences, the academy, and society in general.

“Being told you [were] needed to fill the quota of the college of engineering PhD program, not for merit. #BoilersofPurdue #BlackAtPurdue,” she tweeted during one protest on Purdue’s campus.

She continued, “When you have a GPA above a 3, have passed the 1st part of your candidacy process and still being told u shouldn’t pursue a PhD #BlackAtPurdue.”

These tweets were in relation to a series of protests PSJC and other groups held last year to denounce white supremacy. Through persistence these actions have produced changes like the establishment of a police advisory board on campus that advises on issues of racism, discrimination, and community safety. But involvement in these campaigns come with a cost. For her participation and use of social media Ti’Air was threatened with formal retaliation by her department and adviser.

“Are you sure you want to go public with this?” I ask her over coffee as we discussed the need for a union.

“Yes,” she said. She explains her original adviser, thankfully, left for another job. Plus, she says she can no longer in good conscience be quiet about efforts to silence her. She produces the document she was forced to sign. There, on Purdue University letterhead, is a document threatening Ti’Air that if she continues tweeting about her experiences of racism at Purdue that she will be kicked out of the program.

“Ms. Ti’Air Riggins,” the letter begins, “This letter is to inform you that you are now on disciplinary probation for inappropriate and unprofessional use of social media…We now warn you that any further use of social media by you in an inappropriate and unprofessional manner…will result in [the]…immediate termination of your participation in the graduate program of the Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering.”

We both agree that the document can hardly be legal, but such concerns are of little consequence to graduate student workers, who due to their precarious situation, can see funding dry up unexpectedly. We also agree that her case is the perfect example of why we need a union at Purdue University. The offices on campus, supposedly dedicated to “protecting” us, are often little more than HR departments for the employer. They may be able to help, but ultimately their loyalty is to the institution that signs their checks. The only way we will ever have full protection is if we have an independent organization dedicated solely to the material well-being of us as workers, led by the workers themselves.

As we continue discussing the need of a union for graduate student workers in Purdue’s science labs, Ti’Air tells me that it is the height of hypocrisy that neo-fascist groups on campus are protected with free speech, but that people like her are silenced. I agree. It highlights that the threat is real for retaliation, but convinces me that only through solidarity are we going to change anything. Ti’Air’s mention oft neo-fascists is in reference to a flyering campaign that happened on Purdue’s campus just last semester. On November 30, 2016 white supremacist propaganda was found throughout the university. On the signs were faces of Aryan people with messages of “Free Yourself from Cultural Marxism,” “We Have a Right to Exist,” and “Defending Your People is a Social Duty.”

The flyers produced widespread outrage, and immediately a community meeting was called to discuss what could be done to combat the appearance of white supremacist propaganda on campus. As this community meeting was being called, local media reached out to Mitch Daniels to give a statement, hopefully denouncing the posters. No such statement came. Instead, Daniels simply said, “Reading the dozen or so words on the posters in question, it’s not at all clear what they mean. But if one looks behind them, as I did, to the organization’s website, there are views expressed there that are obviously inconsistent with the values and principles we believe in here at Purdue. This is a transparent effort to bait people into overreacting, thereby giving a minuscule fringe group attention it does not deserve, and that we decline to do.”

The tired old argument that fascists have free speech, and therefore can advocate ethnic cleansing, genocide, and violence against minorities quickly emerged from campus critics of social justice activism. ‘If we don’t give free speech to fascists,’ the reasoning went, ‘then who will also lose their free speech?’

People like, Ti’Air already have. That’s who.

We are already in the nightmare free speech absolutists tell us about. We, at Purdue University, have created a perfect environment to encourage reactionary rhetoric. Fascism is tolerated, but scientists who speak honestly about racism are threatened. Likewise, students who want to exercise their basic right to organize into a union have to fear about their employment.

Democracies do not thrive in such an environment, so after Mitch Daniels refused to denounce the fascist posters, a group, now established as Occupy Purdue, called for an occupation of the primary administration building, Hovde Hall. Amongst the demands of students, community members, and faculty were that Daniels issue a strong statement denouncing white supremacy. Also included in those demands were calls for a mandatory class, which would educate students on the history and legacy of white supremacy and the anti-racist movement. Finally, those parties demanded that Purdue University reinstate the position of the Chief Diversity Officer, a position that was terminated under Daniels and the current administration a few years ago.

The occupation lasted for over 90 days and trained a new group of activists; by the end of it a significant amount of the occupation was being run by undergraduates who were taking part in their first occupation. The occupation sent a strong signal to the campus that fascism would not be left unchecked. Efforts like this occupation, the hunger strike for worker’s rights in the 1990s, and the efforts to establish a rape crisis center dating back decades are the products of considerable amounts of energy and time, often stretched out over years. Occupy Purdue will be pursuing a visible and active anti-fascist movement on campus next year. The protest and demands may seem like pie-in-the-sky idealism, and therefore easy to dismiss. However, dismissing them as idealistic misses the way in which such efforts also negate the effects of scarcity by prioritizing higher level values. This work stands as testament to the stubborn and persistent belief in justice.

“Man,” my friend Enosh says, “my mom always said you had this kind of privilege in academia. It was a belief that since I was brown and Muslim I would be protected in the academy as opposed to working in the private sector.” I nod my head in understanding. Enosh and I were sitting on the floor of Hovde Hall discussing the possibility of a graduate student union. We agree the efforts have stalled since our initial announcement the year before. So many people, not afraid to engage in activism, are now busy fighting open white supremacy, xenophobic executive orders, and blatant apathy from our university leaders. In the face of these other challenges, how do we continue to push for a union?

“Labor organizing,” he tells me as we watch administrators walk quickly past, avoiding eye contact, “is just as much about liberating our consciousness as it is about economic rights.”

A graduate student union, aside from helping remedy low pay, lack of benefits, and violation of legal and civil rights, is also the first step in the process of us, as graduate students, taking leadership positions in the academy. Eventually, as academics, we are expected to edit journals, head committees, and govern organizations central to our fields. We will be integral to holding the line on core principles like faculty governance and academic freedom. We will be responsible for ensuring that the ideas, innovations, and contributions of our generation is not limited by the artificial scarcity imposed those who wish to treat the university as just another corporation. What better way to start that process than by having us, in our very first actions as academics, be responsible for representing our own labor, negotiating our own contracts, and viewing ourselves as integral parts to higher education?

Will we eventually succeed? As a historian, I am unqualified to predict the future. Yet, I cannot help but look to the past and see the way campaigns often take years to come to fruition. Just this year, Yale graduate students succeeded in unionizing. It was a movement stretching back some thirty years. Corey Robin, now a professor at CUNY, but who in the 1990s was a graduate student organizer at Yale, argued then as now that unions do not only “belong to the wretched of the earth.” As academics in training, we too have a right to a union.

What we can see, then, is that what began in one decade can be the beginning of a future success in another. Every time I walk past CARE or notice the absence of JanSport material in Purdue’s stores, I am reminded of that.

Like I told the reporter, “Where we go from here is going to largely depend on how graduate students respond.” These struggles are not won overnight, and I may very well not be at Purdue to see a union come to fruition, let alone resolutions to the long legacy of white supremacy on campus. However, I can lend my voice and time to try and make them a reality. It is why I remain cautious, but ultimately optimistic.