I am a graduate student at the University of Oregon. I also teach writing classes and TA for literature and film classes there, so I am an employee of the University as well. I am also a member of the Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation, UO’s graduate student union, which represents about 1500 graduate student teachers. The union and University administration have been bargaining for about a year to update the grad teachers’ contract. About a month ago, the union declared that it had reached an impasse with the administration and, this past week, issued a letter of intent to strike.
No one is looking forward to the disruption and inconvenience of the strike. However, I intend to strike. Here’s why.
1. I am going on strike because I believe that the union’s demands for the contract are just. The union desires a living wage and paid leave for graduate teachers. The current rate of pay for many graduate teachers is more than $200/month below what the University itself estimates it costs to live in Eugene. Wages across the board are far below what comparable universities pay. Grad teachers currently have no paid parental and medical leave. If a student has a baby or a medical emergency, they are responsible for finding their own replacement teacher, who will not be paid. Sometimes this system necessitates students dropping out and losing their health coverage when they need it most.
The University has the resources to meet these demands. Paid leave would cost the university an estimated $52,000 per year. Ensuring a living wage could cost as little as an average of $110,000 per year. The University currently is running an annual budget surplus of about $65 million. UO’s previous President resigned earlier this year under a cloud and was paid $940,000 in “severance.”
2. I am going on strike because I think it will be effective. I believe that, in the long run, disrupting the operations of the University for a time will be worth the long-term benefits to students, teachers, and staff. However, I am going to strike because I believe that this disruption serves an even more important purpose than pressuring the administration.
3. I am striking because the disruption of a strike will make visible the educational disruption caused by the administration’s policies. The systemic consequences of these policies are persistently but often invisibly harmful to students’ education. They should be visible. I feel torn about striking because I do not want to disrupt my students’ learning. However, I believe the University is ultimately the cause of the disruptions and students’ lack of the education they deserve, which a strike will visibly demonstrate.
4. I am going on strike because the University has failed in its responsibilities to its students. In the sphere of education, a university has the authority and responsibility to instruct and educate its students. As an institution, UO provides its students with instruction and certification, as it should, but it offers them to students as commodities to be paid for, largely through unsustainable debt. The University reduces (and devalues) its educational role to an economic function.
Furthermore, the University is not committed to forming students to be whole persons of character and integrity oriented toward what is right. To the extent that it does form students’ hearts and minds, it is toward its own commoditized, individualistic, reductive worldview. The University fosters an anti-educational atmosphere centering around, from my observation, Greek life and a cult of athletics, especially football.
As an alum of Calvin College, I am grateful that I know what it is like for an institution to truly care about the formation and education of its students. Calvin’s administration has made some major mistakes, but I’ve never doubted its commitment to the best undergraduate education.
I do not believe that UO as an institution shares this care or commitment. However, many grad teachers and professors, including those in administrative roles, do care about their students as persons. Thus students at UO can receive a good education despite the orientation of the institution as a whole since some individual teachers take the University’s responsibility onto themselves.
Of course, Calvin is a small, liberal-arts, Christian, mission-driven institution, and the University of Oregon is a large, “secular,” state, supposedly-publicly-funded school, but the responsibility to educate remains the same. (I must say that I am SO thankful that Calvin has neither Greek life nor football!)
5. I am going on strike because the University has also failed in its economic responsibilities to its employees. In the sphere of economics or business, the University has the responsibility to steward its resources wisely, not to be wasteful, and to share its resources appropriately. I won’t detail the many ways the University flagrantly violates this responsibility, but I will mention one significant way. It does not adequately pay its teachers at any level even though it could. Not only does this prevent many talented professors and graduate students from coming to UO, but it also creates hardships for the teachers that the University delegates its instructional authority to. This contributes to unfavorable working conditions, which devalues and indirectly harms undergraduate instruction, not to mention education.
6. I am going on strike because the administration has not made a good faith effort to actually bargain with the graduate teachers’ union, and the administration’s proposals have been unjust. I attended many bargaining sessions in the past year, and the administration’s bargaining team, headed by a big-bucks, outside lawyer used by the administration for the first time, consistently treated the union’s team rudely and condescendingly. It was actually pretty shocking. The administration’s team was obstructionist, sloppy regarding attention to contract wording, and frequently unprepared.
The union has simply bargained itself down until if hit a bottom line. The administration has simply dug in its heels. Or it has proposed, for example, to end the graduate students’ Health and Welfare Trust, through which the union independently administers health care benefits to its members, often in ways that save the university money. The administration has proposed to “raise” wages to a level that, accounting for inflation, would actually be a decrease. The University’s best counter-proposals on leave amount merely to adding layers of bureaucracy to options that already exist without addressing the actual issues.
Ironically, UO’s current interim president Scott Coltrane’s academic career has been on researching and showing how paid leave and paid replacement, including paternity leave, benefits institutions, families, and communities. He has written extensively on the topic, yet when he has a chance to offer it to those under his authority, he has refused, on “principle.” This is utterly hypocritical.
7. I’m going on strike because I believe that instruction at UO is indeed valuable, and not just monetarily. The administration has sent a number of emails to undergraduates and the entire campus that contain specious arguments, obfuscating and misleading rhetoric, and blatantly inaccurate information. These emails are insulting to students whom the University purports to be encouraging to develop critical thinking skills. Additionally, the UO Senate voted overwhelmingly to rebuke the administration regarding how it has handled the strike. It called the administration’s plans to deal with the strike a “dilution and degradation of teaching standards.” I have been severely disappointed with the administration at every level.
Were I not a UO grad student receiving excellent instruction and guidance, it would be hard for me to view the administration’s claims about a UO “education” as anything but meretricious.
8. I am striking because graduate teachers deserve to be recognized as employees. Graduate students teach about 1/3 of class credits at UO (31.5% at last count). Frequently, they teach small classes, labs, and discussion sections—the educational situations where teachers actually get to know and mentor undergraduates.
The administration has consistently refused to acknowledge that GTFs are employees, saying that they are students. What the administration fails to recognize is that education and economics are two aspects of the University, but they are separate spheres that are integrated but still irreducible to each other in the life of the University and the lives of graduate student teachers. Even as the administration reduces education to an economic function, it justifies its economic injustice towards graduate teachers by reducing their economic role in the University to their role as students. Situations like this are why Abraham Kuyper developed the notion of “sphere sovereignty.”
9. I am going on strike because graduate students deserve to be recognized as whole persons. Graduate teachers have lives outside the University; they are not just “parts” that make up part of the University as a whole. Being a student and a teacher are only two aspects of grad teachers’ complex lives, and the University fails to honor the integrity of their personhood by treating them as if they were only one aspect of their lives.
10. I am going to strike because I believe that it is my responsibility to resist injustice when I can. Just as government that fails in its responsibility to provide public justice must be resisted, so the University’s administration must be resisted. Striking is the best legal way to do this as things stand.
11. I am going to strike because I want to stand in solidarity with those who are suffering from the status quo that needs to be changed. As a Christian, I am encouraged by the voices of the Biblical prophets and Jesus, who consistently spoke out on behalf of those without power. It’s hard to let go of these injustices and inequalities because they benefit some of us so much. I acknowledge my complicity in our unjust system, and I repent to the extent I can of those evils done on my behalf that benefit and privilege me at the expense of others.
12. I am going on strike because I have hope. I am especially encouraged by the words of Paul in Ephesians 6 about resisting evil. After recounting how Christians should act with love in ways counter to the norms of the various oppressive institutions of the Roman Empire (slavery and patriarchy in particular), he earnestly declares,
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might. Put on the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore, take up the full armor of God, so that you will be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. (Ephesians 6:10-13, NASB)
I have been at University of Oregon long enough to know that God is at work in it in beautiful ways despite its being a “secular” institution. I have been at UO long enough to see that the spiritual forces of evil and darkness are alive and well here, too.
Our struggle is not against any person, including the administrators of the University, many of whom are committing injustices because they are being forced to by their superiors. Although I have suffered a great loss of trust throughout this process, which isn’t over, I know I can forgive where reconciliation is necessary. I can forgive the administration, my own administrative superiors, “scabs,” even the lawyers and the administration’s “bargainers.” God has mercy.
Instead our struggle is against the authorities who misuse and abuse their power. Our struggle is against the evil that enslaves the world and is manifested in the actions of the University administration. It’s the same in the American Empire as in the Roman Empire. Our struggle is against the idolatry/ideology of greed and pride, which say that money and control matter more than health, education, love, beauty, community, and people. In the face of evil, in the face of everything, we will resist. We will be strong and stand firm for what is right.
My hope and faith is that someday God, the ultimate authority in every sphere of life, WILL fully and finally put to rights all the injustices ever committed, including here and now at UO. And that hope motivates me to work toward that vision, to do something about it right now. That is why I am going on strike.
For more information, visit the GTFF union website http://gtff3544.net/
Originally from a vegetable farm in rural northwest Indiana, Rob now lives with his wife Hope in Eugene, Oregon, as he pursues a PhD in English at the University of Oregon. He teaches undergraduate writing courses and studies religion, secularization, and environment in nineteenth-century American literature. He graduated from Calvin in 2007 with a major in history of religion but returned the next year to complete the English major. “Glory be to God for dappled things—”