George Lavender is an independent journalist based in Oakland, California. A producer for ‘Making Contact’, he also reports for Free Speech Radio News and Radio France International.


George Lavender is an independent journalist based in Oakland, California. A producer for ‘Making Contact’, he also reports for Free Speech Radio News and Radio France International.

Bring down the duke and bring up the collective


Necessary after pooling money. 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.

You are not a loan

Strike Debt want to reduce the burden of personal debt. Photo: jamescollins, under a CC License.

‘Debt is the tie that binds the 99 per cent together,’ says Matthew McLoughlin. ‘Like most Americans I’m struggling …I’ve got $60,000 of student loan debt.’ McLoughlin was an organizer with Occupy in Chicago when he first heard about the Strike Debt campaign. ‘Right away it hit home as a way to further the conversation that the Occupy movement started last year.’

‘A bailout for the 99 per cent’ is how Strike Debt describes the ‘Rolling Jubilee’, plan to abolish millions of dollars in personal debt. The idea is to buy up bundles of distressed debt on the secondary debt market, where it’s sold for a knockdown price of about five per cent of its value and, instead of asking the people concerned to repay it, the debt would be abolished.

It’s an idea that seems to be catching on. Since the campaign’s launch in mid-November 2012, Strike Debt says it has raised enough money from supporters to buy, and then abolish, more than $8.5 million worth of debt. While that represents a tiny fraction of US citizens’ personal debt, the group has much bigger ambitions. ‘The idea behind the Jubilee is providing aid, but it’s also raising awareness.’ explains McLoughlin. He hopes the Rolling Jubilee will highlight the size of the US debt problem and its sources. ‘We don’t feel that we owe these companies anything for the debts they’re trying to collect from us, which are mostly for things that should be guaranteed: like housing, medicine, and higher education.’

Rolling Jubilee will start by buying up medical debt, a problem that afflicts many Americans. As Steffie Woolhandler, a Professor of Public Health at the City University of New York, and a member of Physicians for a National Health Program explains, ‘More than half of all personal bankruptcies in the United States are due, at least in part, to medical illness or medical debt’.

‘Bankruptcy is something I constantly think about.’ says Rebecca Randel, a 39 year-old graduate student, ‘It weighs on me all the time.’ Back in the winter of 2009 Randel had what she calls ‘a classic American healthcare experience’. A week in hospital for emergency treatment left her with $24, 000 of medical costs. Without health insurance and the bills piling up she was forced to use her credit card to make the minimum payments required to keep it from going to collection agencies.  ‘I would have nightmares about how to pay my bills,’ says Randel. ‘I couldn’t sleep at night because I knew I had to make another credit card payment or I was about to max out a credit card.’

Like many people, Randel says she was ashamed of her debt, until she found that she was far from alone. ‘People feel very guilty about unpaid debt,’ says Steffie Woolhandler. ‘They need to remember it’s not their fault they got sick.’ By starting a public conversation about debt, Strike Debt activists say they hope to bring people together to challenge the system that creates it. ‘It’s going to spread like wildfire,’ says Strike Debt organizer, Danielle Villarreal ‘in the same way that ideas about economic inequality did under Occupy, because that was also something that everyone felt and no one was talking about.’ Next, the group plans to organize people who can’t or won’t pay back money they owe, in a co-ordinated debt strike.

So far, Strike Debt has earned praise from some unlikely sources. Business Insider described the Rolling Jubilee as ‘brilliant’, while Forbes ran a column entitled ‘Finally, an Occupy Wall Street Idea We Can All Get Behind’. Meanwhile, Strike Debt groups have sprung up across the US, and further afield, including Britain.

For Nick Mirzoeff, a Professor of Media, Culture and Communication at New York University, tackling debt is just the beginning. ‘This is a way to begin a much wider conversation about what we value in our society,’ he says.‘What we value in people and what we expect a life should be about. We think a life should be about more than just repaying loans, we think people are more than just a loan.’

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