Here’s a quick primer on how the University of California (and California State University) is completely fucked. This year’s state budget is cutting $650 million from a system already emaciated from a 20% cut last year, with a bonus $200 million in cuts if revenues come short of projections. Tuition has risen 67% for residents in the last five years, but it hasn’t been enough to prevent reductions in course offerings as well as the axing of various support services. Although this agenda of privatization started long before the present economic downturn, the current rhetoric of austerity and “shared” sacrifice is providing good cover for the destruction of the world’s finest public universities.
I knew all this before I came here. In fact, at other schools I had been warned that the Berkeley was “on the border of collapse” by some professors with ulterior motives. What I have seen so far seems to debunk that claim: by and large, the university appears to be educating students and conducting research, if not undeterred, at least undaunted. Still, though, the cuts are visible. The department sent out an e-mail today noting that, because they have been forced to cut classes, there won’t be enough graduate teaching positions for all who need them. And on our library tour, our guide informed us that it was still up-in-the-air as to whether the libraries would be open on Saturdays (though, here the cuts might be a blessing in disguise).
This is all pretty real, you might say, given that I have tethered my future livelihood to the continued existence of institutions of higher learning. And so, today, I did what millions before me have done in the face of an assault on their livelihoods: I joined a union.
I would love to hear the story of how this came to pass, but Berkeley graduate students are represented by the United Auto Workers (yes—the guys from Detroit). Admittedly, I have my doubts about the efficacy of what the UAW is trying to do. Given that the root of the problem is California taxpayers who have decided that education should not be a public good, feuding with the university administration—who probably don’t much like the cuts either—over the size of our medical insurance co-pays feels a bit like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. It doesn’t help that certain unions, like that for California prison guards, are part of the problem. But, to be honest, I didn’t just join the union to be an anti-neo-liberal activist.
Ever since I decided to pursue a career in academia, I’ve been acutely attuned to how little value most people place on my chosen field and profession. I see this not just at the macro level of politicians deriding intellectuals and cutting higher education budgets, but also on a more quotidian scale. It’s evident in constant questions about “What are you ever going to do with that?” and casual remarks about how I am putting of the “real world” for another six years. I’m not so self-absorbed as to equate this with true persecution. Rather, it has all simply added up to the realization that most people don’t quite get the point of studying sociology.
And that’s why I love being in a union. I am a worker. I have moved on from the passive consumption of being a student to the active production of new knowledge. What I produce is easily as real and valuable as the spreadsheets of an investment banker or power point slides of a management consultant, even if I am not renumerated like them. While I still have grandiose aspirations for what I will eventually do with my degree, for the time being, what I really want people to acknowledge is the simple fact that I have a job. And how can anyone deny it, when I’m represented by UAW, the granddaddy of unions?
There is power in a union.