This post appears in the SHA Grad Council's new series about research, teaching, and living under the shadow of the pandemic.

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Six years of a PhD program and it ends here. On a couch watching a ten-minute video on my laptop. A dean confers my degree in Latin. I wear a tam, t-shirt, and house shoes. If only my sharecropper grandparents could see me now.
If those grandparents had lived to hear Dr. Randolph, they wouldn’t think of their grandson. They would think of the chiropractor two towns over. Maybe that’s why I cringe when I hear it. Maybe it’s guilt. Probably it’s guilt.

My parents were the first generation of their families to graduate high school. I was the first to receive a college degree. No better than they are, I have accomplished something lastingly strange to them.

But here we are, on that couch, becoming Dr. Randolph. Meanwhile, back on campus, all hell breaks loose.

As a now-credentialed historian, I know we have and haven’t been here before. Rather than litigate our moment’s precedence, I want to muse on the opportunity to organize our industrial sector. For, in addition to teaching me about southern history, graduate school taught me something about the university as a workplace. It taught me that the university would allocate resources toward almost anything else before it fostered contested deliberation—that it would post innumerable lists of frequently asked questions (FAQ) that explain austerity as an inevitability before it supported democratic action.

As the impact of COVID-19 unfolds, I hope the history profession can mobilize to reject the austerity logics that reemerge each time destiny interrupts unprecedented economic growth. If we didn’t learn the last times, it’s becoming clearer still: universities should not aspire to be or make decisions like businesses.

Hiring freezes, furloughs, terminations, department consolidation, graduate admission cuts. These policies add up to the same ethos: something else is more important than humanistic inquiry and instruction at a living wage. That something else might be the university hospital, building projects, or old-fashioned endowment wealth hoarding.

I know some disagree with my analysis of the COVID-era corporate university. In this counterargument, graduate students are thankful for their stipends and healthcare. They work harder on their dissertations, compete for fewer academic jobs. By this logic, the working-class graduate student, especially, should consider leaving academia.

But I’m just as confident that too few people have had an opportunity to think about what it might mean to be included in decision-making at the core of our academic institutions. Fewer still imagine that their opinion could make a difference. I once counted myself among those university denizens. I still struggle to see a path forward at times. But I think organizing our workplace is a start.

I came to Yale in 2014 with a credential few of my Ivy League peers could dream of: an associate’s degree from a rural community college. True, I had stepped up to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for my bachelor’s degree. But some of my peers at Yale already held master’s and professional degrees. Others had worked before returning to school. By comparison, historical research had been my only real job outside of working in my family’s small business and completing a City Year in Philadelphia. The university, as I knew it—really just UNC’s History Department—had been my only patron and benefactor. It got me out, helped me run away from home.

At Yale, I learned that academia could also be a family business. Second- and third-generation PhD students sat beside me in seminars. They were some of the first to suggest that the university was exploiting my labor and the low-paid work of NTT colleagues. I scoffed; I resented the pretension. After all, my graduate school stipend was the largest wage I had ever made. Steeped in a culture that demanded sweat-of-your-brow work and displays of gratitude, I thought I was getting away with robbery.
So when colleagues approached me with the idea of graduate student unionization, I hesitated. There was so much to read, so much to write in order for a first-gen student to catch up. How could anyone from my background get a PhD and help organize a union? I signed a union card after two meetings with organizers. It took many more meetings to convince me to have the same conversation with friends and colleagues.

At some point the tension between academic work and organizing work became too great to ignore. What sort of industry was I striving to join? If I buried myself in my research and won the academic job market lottery, could I join a professoriate built on casualized adjunct and graduate labor without trying to change it? At Yale, many non-tenure-track faculty members earn under $30,000 annually. Meanwhile, some administrators take home salaries over $1 million.

I lost sleep over this dissonance. But I did not wake up one morning with an overwhelming, heroic desire to build a union. Instead I haltingly joined a team of graduate students working in my home department. We got signatures on petitions, turned out colleagues to union-sponsored actions, and eventually mobilized to vote in a federally recognized election on February 23, 2017.

Staff members of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) were on hand as over eighty percent of graduate teachers in history courses voted in a secret ballot election to bargain collectively with Yale through UNITE HERE-Local 33.

There was only one problem. In Yale’s estimation graduate teachers were neither workers nor employees. Unlike our unionized colleagues at public universities, Yale said, we were apprentices—a position the university still maintains. Yale refused to negotiate contracts, instead contesting the election’s foundational merit. In the end our votes mattered little. The university decided for us: we were incapable of deciding for ourselves.

Academic employers who refuse workers a say in the terms of their own employment find strange bedfellows. In Yale University’s case, the Trump administration’s Department of Labor became an ally. In fall 2019, the Trump NLRB exercised a rarely used and legally dubious power to promulgate a new rule: graduate students at private universities could not be employees. Though still in a protracted public comment phase, such a rule would effectively outlaw unionization campaigns at private universities, most recently Georgetown. Do you think it will stop with graduate students?

Antidemocratically inclined university administrations find inventive ways to skirt real, meaningful deliberation. The FAQ, a pre-formed list of frequently asked questions, must be the most peculiar of these non-conversations.

I first saw FAQs used as a tool of academic governance in the leadup to Yale’s graduate union election. In NLRB elections, employers cannot disparage unionization efforts, target organizers, or recommend that employees vote one way or another. To run such an anti-union campaign could be an unfair labor practice. Employers can, however, present their side of the facts. Private universities achieved this by posing hypothetical questions from imaginary graduate students.

Take one set of “FAQs About Graduate Student Unionization” from Harvard University in 2016:

Q: Can the union bargain for everything and anything, including areas that fall outside my duties as a teaching fellow or research assistant?

A: While the NLRB and the courts have interpreted these concepts in other employment sectors, no precedent exists…for graduate students at private universities, whose teaching and research are part of their academic training. Some items are clearly not “bargainable,” such as student degree requirements, but many others might be questionable.

In addition to pointing out how the inflammatory presentation of not-so-frequently-asked questions could sow doubt, graduate workers found that private universities across the country had come to the FAQ format at roughly the same time.

This history is important because the FAQ has become ubiquitous in university-wide responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. Your question didn’t come up in the president’s scripted town-hall webinar? Don’t worry: we’ll post an FAQ tomorrow. Your question about the decision-making process regarding faculty layoffs doesn’t appear in the FAQ? Huh. Must have been too specific.

At once innocent explanation and undebatable policy, no technology of university life better captures the challenge of collective governance than the FAQ. In the name of efficiency, they stifle deliberation. Lacking clear authorship or the mere suggestion of recourse, they epitomize top-down administration and bureaucratic delegation. What might the university look like if its staff, researchers, and teachers—graduate, NTT, TT—came up with our own answers?

Time will tell if a new tendency toward committee governance is any more democratic or inclusive than fiat. Are faculty members serving on re-opening committees actually empowered to make decisions? If so, whose opinions do they represent? Do contingent colleagues like graduate students and NTT faculty get a say? What about non-instructional staff members suddenly tasked with disinfection? I have my doubts that such experiments in republicanism contain the capacity to reflect on who isn’t at the table.

The antidemocratic culture I endured as a graduate worker appears on the horizon for all university workers now.

And what if the university promulgates policies that put community members at risk? If a majority of us, say, refuse that calculus? At the core of our work as historians and humanists, I think, should be building solidarity and power for a safe workplace. We should wield power in our university communities through our labor power as the purveyors of instruction and conductors of research. And yes. We might have to withhold that labor if we come to a consensus on demands not met.
We must talk to one another about the place we work as much as we do about our work. Above all we must fight together when policies we had no role in crafting pit us against one another.

[Justin Randolph received his PhD from Yale University in May. He is an incoming Assistant Professor of History at Texas State University.]

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