Op-Ed: Invisible labor

I have been a graduate student in English at Tufts for four years now. In that time, my colleagues and I have worked as teaching assistants (TAs), tutors, graders and (most prominently) graduate instructors in ENG 0001-0004 courses. You may have seen us.

Graduate students often take part-time jobs as well. This can include administrative work, re-shelving library books or lingering around Tower Café as a graduate writing consultant. Personally, I work in the back of Tisch Library. If you’ve ordered a book through interlibrary loan in the past three years, chances are good that I’ve seen your name on one of those purple slips – I’m the guy who puts those in the books.

When we’re not teaching and scraping together other work to pay our bills, you may see us reading, writing, revising, holding office hours, attending lectures, hosting conferences, flying to other conferences, trying to get published in the latest journals and constantly updating our resumes since we’re also writing fellowship proposals and looking for work as adjunct faculty.

Or you may not see us.

I’ve overheard enough tour groups to know what gets talked about — what Tufts’ selling points are — and what gets pushed to the brochure footnotes. I’ve had to explain that calling me “professor” isn’t technically correct. I know that many people — including some of our parents — don’t know exactly what separates graduate students from faculty, or even graduate students from undergraduate students. For those of us tucked in the middle, however, it’s a reality that we face every day.

The fact is that there are over 1,500 graduate students in the School of Arts and Sciences and the School of Engineering.

While some of us are old enough to be the parents of a Tufts undergraduate, some of us are in our mid (or even early) twenties. While some of us sport elbow patches and bow ties, some wear Tufts hoodies. You probably have seen us; you may just not know it.

That’s a shame, too. With such a large presence, we ought to be seen more, and not just seen but recognized. After all, we do a lot around here.

Please don’t get me wrong: I love teaching. I love reading, writing, meeting with students — heck, I even like putting those purple slips in your books. I’m sure my colleagues all over campus similarly love the varied and important work they do — it’s why we’re here. But make no mistake: It is work; it is labor; it is a vital part of what makes Tufts a university. And yet, for many, the term “graduate student” justifies our being overlooked, our blending into the background and not being talked about.

In an April 2004 Tufts Daily op-ed, “Our working conditions are your learning conditions,” another fourth-year English Ph.D. candidate, Joe Ramsey, laid out the case for graduate student labor better than I ever could. It’s worth a read, but his point is simple: Graduate student work is just as essential as the much more highly-compensated and stable work of faculty and administrators. We are not apprentices to the profession; we are doing the (highly-skilled) work.

Some things have improved since Joe wrote his article 12 years ago; much, however, has remained the same. Although my department has fought to increase stipends, some department fellowships haven’t been increased in almost a decade. Some things have worsened too; the job market has continued its decline as colleges and universities nationwide have replaced tenure-track positions with much cheaper part-time positions and — surprise! — graduate student labor. The jobs for which people often suppose us to be apprenticing simply aren’t there.

Joe’s article was a product of his time. In the early 2000s, graduate students at many private schools were voting to strengthen their positions through organized labor. You may be surprised to learn that Tufts was on the verge of forming its own graduate student union. The groundwork had been laid, discussion and debate abounded, votes were cast and then … the ballot box was sealed forever. In 2004, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) made a decision against the graduate students at Brown University, setting a precedent disallowing the organization of graduate students at private institutions.

A lot has happened in the interim. Readers of the Daily will remember the more recent labor issues at Tufts: the formation of a union for the part-time faculty at Tufts and the hard-fought negotiations with custodians. Amid sea changes locally, the NLRB also surprised almost everyone this summer when they reversed their decision and opened the door to those discussions, debates and actions that were put on hold 12 years ago.

I have been working with a committee under the Graduate Student Council since the NLRB ruled this summer. We have discussed our position at meetings; we’ve knocked on graduate students’ office doors; we’ve reached out to our peers at Harvard, Brandeis, Boston College and elsewhere; we’ve gone to a National Association of Graduate-Professional Students conference to hold a roundtable on best practices for incipient organization; with our fellow graduate students, we have scrutinized our vulnerabilities, considered our strengths and left no thought unexplored. Whatever decision we make as a graduate student body, we will not have made it lightly.

And that is why I’m asking for your support today.

Forming a union means an opportunity to take control of the conversation, to stop asking sympathetic faculty members to go to bat for us to defend the few benefits we have from cuts and instead make clear ourselves what it is we believe we deserve.

A strong union means a stronger community of workers. The sad truth is that, just as you might not know what I do, I don’t really know what my colleagues in computer science or engineering do. We are as separated from each other as we are from everyone else, and that’s by design. If I don’t know what the working conditions for the rest of the graduate school are, how can I know what the standard is? More importantly, if I don’t know who my counterparts are in other departments — what their aspirations, their anxieties and their day-to-day lives look like — how can I be expected to stand in solidarity with them and bring our collective demands to the administration? We are indeed strong only when we recognize each other and stand together.

A strong union means that we can win victories such as better health benefits, better pay, clearly-defined teaching roles and guaranteed access to what we need in order to be productive. A strong union means that we can negotiate for things that will make us better students, but these things will also make us better resources, and they will ultimately lead to a better university. A strong union means that we will be able to have reasonable, open and democratic conversations about what we want to achieve, and this will give us a better sense of who we are as a graduate student body.

Perhaps most importantly, a strong union means that we, the graduate employees at Tufts, will move out of the obscurity that keeps us weak. It means that you will finally, definitely see us.


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