Monthly Archives: April 2014

A letter to my students

Dear amazing new students,

welcome! welcome! welcome!
i look forward to getting to know all of you
and engaging in critical dialogue around the topics of this class

i cannot wait for our journey to begin
HOWEVER, i regret to inform you that i HAVE TO wait

certain decisions made by the university in the previous months
have created a situation in which i literally have to wait to begin this course
which is to say,
our first meeting tomorrow (Week 1, Thursday April 3) will be cancelled

Why Class is Cancelled Tomorrow

I am a graduate Teaching Fellow in the University of California school system. I work for the university. I am a worker. As an academic worker i belong to a Union – UAW2865, the union of graduate student teachers and tutors at the University of California, which has over 13,000 members.  We formed a union more than 15 years ago at the UC in order to ensure that as workers we A) got paid a competitive wage for our labor (or a wage at all, for that matter); B) had safe and amenable working conditions; and C) had the ability to collectively bargain with the university over working conditions and wages.  Every few years our union (your TAs) renegotiates our contract with the university. We do this every few years, because inflation changes, benefits change, the university changes, and new issues arise which must be accounted for. This is a standard practice with any union in any industry anywhere – management and workers sit at a bargaining table and hammer out a new contract. This academic year we are collectively bargaining with UC administration to secure a new contract for ourselves.

In the course of negotiating this contract the University has committed, what US law calls, “Unfair Labor Practices”. Basically this means that the university violated labor law and acted illegally in certain circumstances.  The violations the university committed are at least 3-fold: A) They sent an email to international students informing them that if they participated in a strike (which is a legal political activity that they can engage in if they so choose) that their student status and visas would be revoked and they would essentially be deported; B) They ordered police to surveil and videotape union members and threaten them with arrest for engaging in political activity; and C) They refused to bargain with our union over classroom size, saying that the number of students we teach in any given course is none of our concern.

The first two instances are clear violations of labor law, as an employer can’t intimidate or threaten an employee for their political beliefs or legally protected political action. Neither can they use the police (UCPD) to do so for them.  The third violation is perhaps the most odious, because it shows how little university administrators care about not only our workload and livelihood, but your own quality of education.  It should come as no surprise that when you are a student in an overcrowded classroom you receive very little attention from the instructor. Indeed, your learning as a whole suffers in overcrowded classrooms. That just stands to reason.  Overcrowded classrooms mean that we, as teachers, can’t provide the quality of education you came to UCLA for. If i am overworked, i simply can’t help you as much you need, and as much as i’d like to.  We have cases of TAs who are responsible for grading and giving feedback on papers and exams for more than 60 students at a time. How good do you think your feedback is going to be in such a case? Yeah, probably not that great. How much time is your teacher going to dedicate to helping you outside of class, when you are competing with 60 other people for that teacher’s time? Yeah, probably not that much.  In other words, as teachers, OUR working conditions are YOUR learning conditions. This is why it is absolutely necessary that the university negotiate with us over how many students are assigned to a single teacher. Yet, they have refused to do so. And in refusing to negotiate over our workload have violated labor law. In refusing to negotiate over our workload they have undermined the quality of your education.

Because of these violations of our rights as workers, our Union has decided to go on Strike.  This means we will be withholding our labor – refusing to teach. The Strike, as we will discuss later in our seminar, is the most effective form of collective action workers can take against their employer when they have been wronged. Our union is choosing to exercise our right to Strike.  Thus, class is cancelled tomorrow. In fact, numerous classes across campus will be cancelled tomorrow.  However, you may find that your other classes are not cancelled tomorrow, as not all professors, TAs, or instructors are choosing to observe the Strike, even though the university’s labor violations clearly affect them.  But as you will no doubt have learned from doing 1960s polling research in your course last quarter, not everyone who is hurt by any particular injustice chooses to take action.

Some people are scared to take collective action because they fear the repercussions that may occur when they stand up for themselves and others.  Some people may be scared to take collective action simply because we live in a society where we are afraid to “ruffle feathers”, especially the feathers of those with Power.  Indeed, fear often trumps taking action.  Some people may choose to not take collective action because they think doing so won’t have any effect.  Indeed, pessimism often trumps action. Some people may choose not to take collective action because they simply don’t feel like it or have other things to do. Indeed, apathy often trumps action.  Some people may choose not to take collective action because they don’t want to take any personal risk or stand up for others. Indeed, selfishness often trumps selflessness.  For all of these reasons, many teachers will not be Striking tomorrow.

But not me. I am choosing to take collective action against injustice, in spite of fear, in spite of pessimism, in spite of apathy, in spite of risk, in spite of selfishness.  I couldn’t live with myself if i didn’t take action. In fact i would be a fraud of a teacher if i didn’t take action. I couldn’t look my students in the eye and teach about social injustices in the 1960s if i didn’t honor the subject matter by standing against injustices myself. I would be betraying this class.  I would be betraying my fellow workers. I would be betraying my obligation as an educator. I would be betraying the sacrifices of those who came before me. I would be betraying myself. And, perhaps most importantly, i would be betraying you, my students.

Therefore, i am Striking.