UCSC teaching assistant strike: Revolt of the academic subalterns

Protests are escalating against the systematic exploitation of teaching assistants by academic institutions in the US.

UCSC - website photo entrance
Last month, the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC) fired 82 teaching assistants for demanding higher pay to afford the area's high cost of living [UCSC website]

On February 28, the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC) fired 82 teaching assistants for demanding higher pay to afford the area’s high cost of living. 

In December, after months of back and forth with the university administration, about 200 teaching assistants went on a “wildcat” strike – a strike not officially supported by their union – and announced that they would withhold the fall quarter grades of undergraduate students until a living cost adjustment of $1,412 was made to their wages. 

In response, the university extended the deadline to submit the grades and encouraged the workers to end their strike immediately. When the workers refused to budge, it proposed a need-based housing allowance worth $2,500 per year, which translates to a meagre $200 increase in monthly wages. When the workers also refused this offer, the university unilaterally terminated the contracts of 54 teaching assistants who had already received spring appointments and told 28 others that they will no longer be considered for contract renewal.

The decision by the university left dozens of already struggling teaching assistants unable to pay rent or buy food amid a global pandemic. Several foreign workers whose visas are sponsored by the university, meanwhile, are now facing the risk of deportation. 

Teaching assistants working across University of California campuses, however, are unwilling to back down. More teaching assistants vowed to withhold winter grades and more than 500 graduate students pledged not to accept positions made available by the firing of their colleagues. 

While the ongoing strike action is undoubtedly tied to the local housing crisis, it is also a symptom of a more fundamental, nationwide problem: the systematic exploitation of teaching assistants by academic institutions. 

The vicious cycle of exploitation

Denying graduate students basic labour rights is a long-running tradition in American universities. This systematic exploitation is made possible by the over-supply of PhD candidates in the academic market. 

Research shows that in terms of future salary or employment, there is only a small additional incentive (or premium) for an individual to pursue a PhD instead of a less labour and cost-intensive master’s degree. While a PhD degree is a basic requirement for a career in academia, the academic market does not create enough additional jobs to accommodate the high number of PhD degrees awarded every year. This leaves many PhD holders and candidates unable to find jobs in their chosen fields.

Despite this well-established fact, however, thousands of young idealists continue to pursue PhDs every year, believing that a doctoral degree would afford them a respected position in society, that it would give them an opportunity to contribute to global scientific knowledge and that the academic market would eventually value their specialised knowledge. 

The universities, meanwhile, despite being well aware of the over-saturation of the market, continue to accept high numbers of PhD candidates in a bid to use them as cheap labour to generate higher research and teaching outputs. 

Upon admission to a graduate programme, most PhD candidates are employed as teaching assistants. As part of this job, they provide multiple hours of in-class instruction to undergraduates, hold weekly office hours, grade assignments and exams, make rubrics and answer keys for weekly assignments. Their duties vary across universities and programmes, but almost all teaching assistants perform most aspects of instructional labour related to undergraduate education. They do not deliver lectures, as these are the responsibility of professors. Even then, the hours of instruction by teaching assistants often exceed the hours of lecture by professors. 

Most teaching assistants are made to sign fixed-hours contracts that limit their working time to 20 hours a week, but their workload often exceeds this limit. These contracts are supposedly designed to protect teaching assistants from exploitation and ensure that they have enough time each week to focus on their own studies. However, they are used by university administrations simply to keep the weekly wages low.  

Beyond contributing directly to the education of undergraduate students, teaching assistants also significantly increase the research outputs of the universities they work for.

First, by providing in-class instruction, holding office hours and grading papers, the teaching assistants allow the professors to find the time to focus on their own research and indirectly increase the university’s research output. Second, they conduct their own research under the direction of their professors. While their well-established advisers sometimes list themselves as first author in the resulting research papers, PhD candidates often singlehandedly do the necessary work to bring these projects to fruition by spending relentless hours in labs conducting experiments, setting up surveys and interviews, and collecting data.

None of these significant contributions, however, seem to be enough for teaching assistants to be recognised as labourers in the US. While the public universities have acknowledged their right to unionise and bargain for wages, some of the private ones are stillfighting to prevent teaching assistants from acquiring even this basic right. In fact, under the Trump administration, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), attempted to ban the right to organise altogether, through a force of federal law.

Meanwhile, almost all academic institutions in the US try to legitimise their refusal to pay their teaching assistants living wages by claiming that these “students” also receive “intangible payments” in the form of tuition waivers. For example, according to a report published by the Washington Post in 1996, Robert Arnold, the then vice provost at Ohio State University, argued that the salary of teaching assistants was equivalent to assistant professors when their tuition waivers were accounted for. This argument is flawed in its core, as graduate students neither receive any in-class tuition nor enrol in courses beyond the first couple of years of their PhD life. For the rest of their time as PhD candidates (varying from three to five years), they typically only receive supervision on research, in most cases from the chair of their thesis/dissertation committee. 

This invisible so-called “payment”, made in the form of tuition waivers, can be added to the reasons why higher education in the US resembles a pyramid or Ponzi scheme. Nevertheless, academic institutions are still adamant that they are paying their teaching assistants by cancelling the fees for tuition they never receive. This argument is so convincing for many that the Trump administration recently proposed to tax such tuition waivers. Had that proposal been approved, thousands of graduate students all across the US would have paid out of pocket taxes for money that they had never seen in their bank accounts. While that bullet was dodged, the insecurities generated by the move prevail.

In the US, the functioning of the academic market is dependent on the exploitation of PhD candidates. It is a vicious cycle. Universities accept a high number of undergraduates to generate higher revenue from tuition fees, then employ a high number of PhD candidates, who they pay next to nothing, to teach these undergraduates. This allows them to increase their teaching productivity, research output and rankings without much effort and investment, and in turn, receive more undergraduate applications. 

While this exploitative system affects all PhD candidates, it harms international students, who account for more than half of the US PhD population, the most. First, despite not receiving living wages as teaching assistants, international students are not allowed to earn a supplemental income by working other jobs because of visa restrictions. Second, for the same reasons, the universities know that international PhD candidates are less likely to protest against the poor wages that are on offer. If terminated, for whatever reason, they end up facing the risk of deportation. 

Changing times

While the exploitation of PhD candidates continues at pace across the United States, this massive but unrecognised labour force is now fighting back.

In the past two years, be it at the eminent private universities like Harvard or Columbia, or at celebrated public university systems such as California or Texas, teaching and research assistants have taken to the streets in huge numbers with demands ranging from the right to unionisation to a living wage.

Despite the mass firings, the teaching assistants of the University of California, Santa Cruz are still determined to continue their fight for a living wage. The sheer rate at which such protests have spread in the past few years should in itself compel the universities to break the vicious cycle of exploitation and start appreciating the workers that help these institutions function and prosper. Otherwise, the revolt of the academic subalterns may soon cause the “Empire of Mind” that is the US academia to crumble. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.