1. I read all of the contributions to this forum with interest, but
none so much as Ed Fox and Curt Anderson's piece on the union in which I
cut my own activist teeth, the organization formerly known as the Indiana
University Graduate Employees' Association. Ed and Curt made some
interesting points on the issues facing graduate student organizers
involving strategic alliances, institutional resistance, and organizing.
2. For me, however, their statement "while universities constantly
lose senior [graduate student] activists, they also constantly recruit new
prospects" points to a problem which much of their review of the history
of our organization demonstrates. That is, in any organization whose
membership is intentionally temporary (and we do hope that all graduate
student activists DO graduate), the institutional history/memory of its
strategies, alliances and activities are necessarily ephemeral. This often
means that each cohort of activists must reprise certain struggles again
and again. Please don't mistake my intent here. I do not mean to suggest
that GEU is doing something wrong; I am pointing out a problem which all
graduate student organizations must face.
Let me give some examples: the authors date the founding of GEA to 1989.
While this is the date of some of our strongest and best documented
activity, the organization dates at least to 1983. GEA really took off in
October 1986: the administration of Indiana University committed a major
misinterpretation of changes to the US tax code in that month; while
administrators had publicly acknowledged that the new tax law seemed not to
renew the tax exemption for graduate students' fee remissions, they
repeatedly said that the university would "take care of things."
3. But in October 1986, university lawyers, in an error born of a
zealous attempt to protect the institution, decided that Congress would not
restore an exemption accidentally left out of the revised tax code and told
the payroll department that they must withhold from the four remaining
paychecks due to associate instructors [IU's title for teaching
assistants], income tax on fee remissions for the entire calendar year.
Some associate instructors received pay checks of only $4.00 or less in
that month. This shock galvanized many of us to activism; the Graduate
Employees' Association increased its membership from c. 30 to c. 330 in
that one month.
4. This crisis and the recruiting it enabled led to the "critical
mass" of membership which Ed hopes to achieve again through hard work and
education. For five years following this event, GEA had a large enough
cadre of active leaders and a mass less active, but interested membership
to allow us to make some advances.
5. Some time in the 1970s, a previous generation of graduate students
won the right to elect three representatives to the 45 member Bloomington
Faculty Council. Beginning in the 1987-88 academic year, GEA followed a
strategy of using the existing governance structures to achieve our goals.
We elected three GEA members to the AI spots on faculty council for several
years in a row. This automatically put union members on the campus AI
policy committee and made us the "usual suspects" to be appointed to other
committees to represent graduate students. It was through this avenue that
we gained faculty council support for our health insurance benefits; after
several years of work, BFC voted 40-4 to demand that the campus fund this
benefit, taking money from faculty salary budgets if necessary.
6. While I think Ed and Curt are aware of more of the details of this
effort than they mention in this brief essay, much of the detail of the
tactics and alliances which gained this advance have been lost as most of
the people involved graduated and left Bloomington. Their claim that "GEA
dissolved once its goal was realized" suggests that, as the group had
achieved only one major goal, they see it as a single-issue organization.
This was not the case. The GEA faded out as its most active members
graduated or ceased to be AIs and could not raise sufficient interest in
others to carry on.
7. The GEA of the late '80s was a chapter of the faculty/staff local
of the American Federation of Teachers; it was labor organization with a
full range of goals and activities, not simply a single-issue health
insurance advocacy group. While our alliance with AFT was a source of
strength and funding, it was also a weakness. AFT forced GEA to share a
local with the faculty chapter, even though faculty are the direct
supervisors of graduate assistants. Clearly, these two constituencies have
many issues in common and some in direct conflict. Also, hard as it is to
believe, the reputation of the faculty who led the local at IU marginalized
GEA even more than our own activism did. Clearly, while the clerical
workers with whom GEU is affiliating may have less in common with the
academic concerns of the AIs, neither group will ever hold hiring/firing
and grievance settling authority over the other.
8. Ed and Curt's point about the anti-union climate in Indiana is
something I remember well. Not only is Indiana a "right to work" state in
terms of collecting representation fees as one of the other forum
participants describes, Indiana public employees (a classification which
includes AIs as employees of a public university) are excluded by state law
from the NLRB; thus, no matter how many members a graduate student union
might get, they cannot force recognition by the trustees. CWA was able to
gain status as the bargaining agent of the clerical staff only by the
"consent" of the trustees.
9. Another problem which GEU faces because of the failure of
institutional memory is the problem of getting payroll deduction of dues.
As a part of the AFT local, GEA had payroll deduction of dues from 1985
until I left the organization in 1992. I can understand the
administration's interest in not aiding the GEU, but if there was a way for
student labor organizations to retain some membership over the long term,
they might remember that this right had once been held and could avoid
having to spend time and effort to win it again.
10. Do I have a solution? Not hardly. I certainly don't advocate anyone
delaying their degree more than is already often the case for student
activists. And while I happen to remain at the university where I was
active and am willing to share my personal memory with the group, this is
an unusual and incomplete solution. All of the organizations represented in
this forum and their peers face the problem that their institutional memory
is crippled by the very nature of their constituency. Documenting
activities can help, but organizations fade and grow, and new cohorts
rarely have the time or inclination to read old activities reports. We are
likely stuck with an oral tradition and must simply do our best to remember
the strategies and tactics, the alliances and structures which have worked
in the past and may again in the future.
Alan Kalish, Indiana University