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Bring down the duke and bring up the collective

United States

Necessary after pooling money. TaxRebate.org.uk under a Creative Commons Licence

For the past two years, graduate students at Duke University in North Carolina have pooled their incomes in a single bank account.

While some of the graduate students in the Collective work for the faculty, they are not considered employees of private universities, like Duke, and the amount each student receives as a stipend can vary.

By pooling their combined incomes, the Collective hope to support students who the university pays less, or who are unable to work because of immigration restrictions.

‘We are challenging the experience of “mine” and “yours” by substituting it with “ours,”’ explain members of the group who – in keeping with their collective mission, opted to answer New Internationalist’s interview questions collectively on a Googledoc.

Started by three friends in 2012, the Collective has since grown to nine members. For at least five of the students – some of whom are employed to work on campus in temporary positions – the account is where they deposit all their income.

The group sees this as a major challenge to the ‘logic of competition’ pushed by a university that forces students to compete for grants and paid positions.

Its continuing existence runs contrary to the expectations of naysayers  – other students who saw the idea as naïve and impractical, and predicted failure. Some reject the idea of collectivity in principle; others cling on to the hope that they will go on to get tenure, even if others are not so fortunate.  

Research by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) suggests that this is getting ever less likely. For the last four decades, tenured positions have been shrinking, thanks to a dramatic transformation of the teaching profession.

‘There’s been a real shift in the overall employment situation in colleges and universities,’ explains John Curtis, Director of Research and Public Policy for the AAUP, ‘with increasingly precarious employment for academic staff members and an increase in the non-academic staff.”

Between 1975 and 2011, the number of full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty members grew by just 26 per cent, while the number of contingent staff increased by 226 per cent.

Curtis believes this drop is not just down to cuts in funding, but ‘a question of priorities’. As the proportion of secure positions has dropped, the number of administrative staff positions has gone up – along with the salaries for executive positions.  

The situation for graduate student employees has also shifted, says Curtis. The proportion of working graduate students has stayed constant. But the jobs they do have changed.

It used to be the case that graduates worked as teaching assistants or with faculty members in positions where they would perhaps teach a lecture or two or help out with grading or seminars. Now, Curtis says, ‘it’s much more common for a graduate student to be the essentially the teacher of record’.

The Duke Collective are not the only contingent workforce involved in campus organizing. In colleges and universities from Boston to Washington, and San Francisco, labour unions are trying to unionize ‘adjunct’ professors – part time faculty members who are paid by class delivered. ‘There’s been a real blossoming of attempts to organize adjuncts throughout the country,’ says Dan Kovalik, senior counsel for the United Steel workers union.

Kovalik explains that there is little variation between the nature of the secure and insecure teaching roles. ‘Frankly it looks like the same job that the full time tenured professors are doing. The students don’t even know the difference,’ he says. ‘It’s clear that probably a large proportion of teaching has been shifted from tenured or tenure-track faculty members to individuals in very precarious temporary positions.’

The difference comes in the pay and conditions. As an adjunct professor himself, Kovalik says he hears from others who are working at multiple universities and will be forced to take summer jobs in places like Starbucks, Walmart or lumber companies. He even knows of one adjunct who works at a campus bar at night who told him: ‘I make more money serving the kids drinks than I do teaching them’.

Of course, the flip side to any successful unionizing of adjuncts or graduate students may be fewer jobs for everyone. ‘I think it’s a trade off that has to be made,’ says Kovalik, ‘because people cannot survive on these incomes and they become very frustrated – they spend years at the academy hoping for that full time job that never materializes.’

Kovalik told the New Internationalist that while he admired the Duke Collective’s ‘initiative and solidarity’, if the total amount of resources is not increased, through demands for better wages and benefits, it ran the risk of ‘socializing poverty’.

The Collective responded that pooling income ‘is not an alternative to unionizing’.  

‘This is just one thing we can do to improve our immediate situation and support each another’s work while we support graduate student and other workers’ struggle.’

George Lavender is an independent radio and print journalist based in Oakland, California. He’s a producer of ‘Making Contact’, a weekly half-hour radio show, and editor of ‘The Prison Complex’ at In These Times magazine. Follow him on Twitter @GeorgeLavender.

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