Graduate Student Organizing in the Age of Neoliberalism: Some Musings from the Frontlines

For UConn graduate assistants (GAs), the one-year anniversary of the recognition of our union on April 17 causes both celebration and frustration. We celebrate our solidarity and continued work to improve the university for students and employees, but we are frustrated by our lack of a first contract due to an administration that has been dragging its feet in negotiations and resistant to even the most standard contract language to protect workers’ rights.

Our union — Graduate Employee Union-UAW, Local 6950 — represents over 2,200 teaching and research assistants who provide quality instruction to thousands of undergraduates and conduct cutting-edge research that helps bring $150 million into the university and state economy in the form of grants and contracts each year. Despite these economic benefits provided by the hard work of GAs (at a deeply discounted rate), the university has been steadily reducing our standard of living by allowing wages to stagnate, by increasing our fees, and by cutting our health benefits.

Last year, UConn GAs earned an average of $18,000 and were charged $2,270 in mandatory fees, accounting for more than 12 percent of our salaries (and, in some cases, as much as 23 percent). Among its peer institutions, UConn ranks the highest in mandatory fees. These fees have risen by 40 percent in the past 10 years, while graduate assistants have enjoyed just a six percent increase in wages over the same period. Before you presume the University is strapped for cash, you might consider that the University President, Susan Herbst, was recently awarded an 11.4 percent raise in salary for this year alone, bringing her annual salary up to $525,000 (not including a $40,000 a year performance award; a $125,000 retention incentive for 2015; a $75,000 retention incentive if she remains at UConn through the end of her new contract; deferred compensation payments of $80,000 at the end of each contract year; $38,000 per year toward a supplemental retirement plan; and the free use of two residences).

Meanwhile, for the average graduate employee — after the $2,270 in fees are subtracted from their salary — take-home pay hovers right around the poverty level in Connecticut, with many GAs qualifying for food stamps. In addition to rising fees and stagnating wages, we have also suffered major cuts to our health benefits in recent years — including significant out-of-pocket increases, rising deductibles, and reduced coverage — making health care prohibitively expensive for many. New co-insurance alone costs as much as 25 percent of our annual salaries. These health costs are even more burdensome for those with children and disproportionately affect women. Beyond these increasing economic hardships, we have also experienced unilateral increases to our teaching loads and increased precarity in our terms of employment.

To be sure, these kinds of changes are not unique to UConn and are not reserved just for GAs (adjunct professors are treated just as poorly, if not worse), but they are part of an ongoing trend in higher education that is commonly referred to as the “corporatization” of academia. I see it as just another symptom of neoliberalism and the intrusion of market logic into ever more realms of social life. Regardless of the title you choose for the phenomenon, when GAs lack job security and have to balance their next rent check and money for groceries with health expenses and paying for administration fees, their research and teaching responsibilities are bound to suffer, which is bad for students, bad for the university, and bad for the state.

Commodification of a Public Good

According to Fairclough (1992, p.207), commodification is the process by which “social domains and institutions, whose concern is not producing commodities in the narrower economic sense of goods for sale, come nevertheless to be organized and conceptualized in terms of commodity production, distribution and consumption.” For students, this means that education is an economic good for sale in a market filled with competing goods — high- ticket goods that are most often purchased with credit and paid off with interest. For instructors and institutions of higher education, this means they become defined in terms of their productive capacity. For administrators, this means their role as managers of labor begins to mirror the role of managers in profit-seeking firms, with a focus on bottom lines, returns on investment, and absolute hierarchical authority — practices that conflict sharply with the traditional mission and leadership model of higher education.

Once turned into a commodity to be shopped for and purchased in the “education market,” colleges and universities begin to compete with each other by offering fancier dorms, exquisite dining halls, top notch gyms, winning sports teams and other amenities in order to raise their rankings and attract more students. This competition is not just a matter of choice for universities, but it becomes a necessity when the market logic embedded in the neoliberal model takes hold. In short, higher education is now a competitive business and universities compete for students the same way that other corporations compete for customers (and the rise of collegiate sports represents the advertising wing of this budding industry). As in any other industry, one of the largest production costs in this “business” (and also coincidentally the source of surplus value) is labor; hence the squeeze on GAs.

Austerity for Students and Workers; Raises for Managers

The neoliberal logic associated with commodification has led to increased tuition costs for students and increased exploitation of workers. Exacerbated by the larger neoliberal project taking place at the state and federal level, public higher education is becoming increasingly unattainable for many. Between 1976 and 1996, the average tuition at public universities increased from $642 to $3,151 and at private colleges from $2,881 to $15,581. Much of this cost at public universities is a result of state budget cuts to higher education due to a long series of tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy accompanied by chronic recessions and economic crises. The share of tuition at public universities paid for by state governments declined from 56 percent to 50 percent on average between 2003 and 2008; by 2012, in-state students were paying more than half of the full cost of education in 24 out of 50 states (this number was just 3 in 2000).

Accompanying the tuition hikes for students has been the increase in workloads and the reduction of salaries for GAs and adjunct professors. These increasingly exploited, contingent positions have been slowly replacing full-time, tenured faculty positions in higher education over the past several decades. Overall, non-tenure-track instructors now account for 76 percent of the instructors at non-profit colleges and universities across the country (this number was just 22 percent in 1969). Despite these adverse changes in academic employment, there is one group that has not been feeling the squeeze … In fact, they’ve been making out quite well —administrators.

In 2011, 42 private college and university presidents received an annual salary of more than $1 million. Among public colleges and universities, there were 9 top administrators who brought in more than $1 million each, with the best-paid receiving more than $6 million (E. Gordon Gee of Ohio State University). In addition to their formal compensation, most university presidents also receive many generous perks, such as free luxury cars, country club memberships, and lavish presidential housing. It would appear that higher education is now competing with the private sector for CEOs and the universities’ Boards of Trustees, the entities who set administrative salaries, are increasingly stocked with corporate capitalists who justify these salaries because it’s what they make.

In addition to their tremendous salary hikes, administrators also seem to be multiplying. According to U.S. Education Department data, universities employed more than 230,000 administrators in 2009, which represents a 60 percent increase from 1993. This rate of growth is 10 times greater than that of tenured faculty over the same period. The surge of administrator income and sheer number of administrators has unsurprisingly led to their consuming a greater share of campus budgets, which has led to a reduction in the percentage spent on teaching and research.  In sum, in true neoliberal fashion, university administrators have been redistributing resources into their own pockets and then balancing the budget on the backs of students by increasing tuition and on graduate employees and adjuncts by reducing pay and increasing workloads. This transfer of wealth to the top in higher education mirrors the increased income inequality in society at large, perhaps best illustrated by the ever increasing ratio of CEO to average worker pay, which was 331:1 in 2013. At Ohio State, the president earns 333 times more than the average GA.

What Do We Do when Neoliberals Attack? We Organize! Stand Up! Fight Back!

In response to these adverse changes to our working conditions and livelihoods, we chose to organize a union at UConn. We are not alone. Our brothers and sisters at universities and private colleges across the nation have been increasingly choosing to take the same steps in order to confront the neoliberal austerity-for-workers-but-raises-for-bosses agenda. As of 2014, there are 31 recognized and 18 unrecognized graduate employee unions in the U.S. Each one is governed by different labor laws—some at the state-level (public universities) and some by the National Labor Relations Act (private universities)—permitting and restricting various forms of collective action. At UConn we cannot lawfully strike, but we do have the option of invoking binding interest arbitration, a process whereby a neutral arbitrator considers the last best offers from each side and makes a binding decision on each unsettled item. However, despite the deliberate foot-dragging by the administration, I am still hopeful that we can recoup our losses and maybe make some gains at the bargaining table. Our repeated displays of solidarity and slow ramping up of militancy have certainly gotten under the skin of the administration, a group that is unaccustomed to dealing with political dissidence and collective action.

Collective bargaining is obviously not a radical response to neoliberalism. It is “institutionalized class struggle” at best. However, for a previously non-politicized population it represents a significant step in the right direction. From an aggregation of 2,200 atomized workers spread across dozens of isolated departments to a solidaristic union that plans to occupy a building during the last week of the semester, we have come a long way. Grads from very different disciplines now know each other and wear their blue UAW shirts with pride. We speak openly and without fear about our employment conditions and wages and those of the top managers who wield tremendous power over our lives. Most importantly, we realize that our individual struggles are in fact a common struggle. Moving forward, it is my deepest hope that the growing GA movement and the adjunct movement can come together with undergraduate students and their debt-laden families to aggressively confront the neoliberal assault on education as a unified, class-based movement. Our somewhat isolated, but parallel actions thus far have just been shots across the bow; it is only when all of the exploited groups realize their shared interest and come together in struggle that real change can be made.


Here are some highlights of our contract–all things we would not have received without organizing:
  • We will be placed on the state employee health plan
  • 3% raise each year for each of the next 3 years
  • Reduction in fees ($500 reduction in first year, $700 in second, and $900 in third)
  • Reduced parking rates (1/2 our previous rate)
  • Child care subsidies
  • Family leave provisions


Sources and Additional Reading:

Brody, Leslie. 2014. “Rensselaer Polytechnic Chief is Top-Paid Private-College President.” Wall Street Journal.

Fairclough, Norman. 1992. Discourse and Social Change. Cambridge: Polity.

Flaherty, Colleen. 2014. “Professor Pay up 2.2%.” Inside Higher Ed.

Hladky, Gregory B. 2014. “UConn Board of Trustees Boosts Herbst Salary, Extends Contract to 2019.” Hartford Courant.

Lee, Jaeah, and Maggie Severns. 2013. “Charts: When College Presidents are Paid like CEOs.” Mother Jones.


Todd Vachon

is a graduate teaching assistant in the sociology program at the University of Connecticut and a member of the GEU-UAW, Local 6950. The views expressed in this piece are solely those of the author and not necessarily those of any organization with which he is affiliated.

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