Second update: the strike was settled on its 8th day, December 10, 2014. See here for information on that.
This article was originally posted on December 4, 2014. There has been an update. Scroll down to the end for the update.
Today is the third day I’ve been on strike for and with the University of Oregon GTFs (Graduate Teaching Fellows). My updates from the front lines are here: Day 1, Day 2. I hope, and believe, that there will be a settlement today, Thursday, December 4. But if there is, if there isn’t, I did a lot of thinking about the strike and its related issues last night, and I thought I would post them for the record. They may also serve as a primer for anyone interested in why the strike happened and, more importantly, what it means.
First, some background. GTFs (they are often called “TAs,” Teaching Assistants, on other campuses) are graduate students who also have paid jobs, up to half-time (0.49 of full time–that number is important), teaching classes, grading papers and assisting full professors in their duties instructing undergraduate classes. For instance, I work in the University of Oregon history department, and I’ve taught discussion sections in U.S. History, World History, Modern Europe and others; I have taught my own class (unsupervised) on the Iraq War; and I’ve graded papers for classes that do not have discussion sections. Though it’s supposedly 0.49 of a “Full Time Employee” job–the other part of my time being taken over by my scholarly research, which you’ve heard very much about on this blog–it’s definitely a full time job. I would say I easily work 40 hours a week on GTF duties, with my research (and book writing, and blog writing) on top of that.
I took this amazing video last night, of the GTFF marching across the University of Oregon campus. It was truly an inspiring sight.
Thirteen months ago, in November 2013, our union began negotiations with the UO administration to renew our CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement). At this time the UO administration was in transition, having just fired a previous university president, and during the course of negotiations our next president “resigned” in part due to his non-handling of an infamous rape case that made national headlines. The negotiations between the UO administration–soon headed by Interim President Scott Coltrane, a sociologist by trade–and the GTFF soon focused on two main issues: paid leave, especially for GTFs who were parents, and a living wage. The UO administration, when presented initially with the GTFF’s proposal for a living wage, mocked the request as “inappropriate,” and tried to change the subject. That was where things stood as of the summer.
In the fall, the GTFF and administration made progress, and in fact almost agreed on everything–except those last two issues, paid leave and living wage. As things drew toward their climax this November, it became increasingly clear that a strike was likely. Then the UO administration did something that totally changed the debate: in preparing for the possibility of a strike, they issued a “secret” memo (leaked to the press within 24 hours) which indicated that their plan to weather the strike was to replace tests graded by GTFs with “scantrons”–multiple-choice tests capable of being graded by computer–and replacing classes taught by GTFs by downloading podcasts from the Internet and assigning them to students in lieu of genuine classes.
Many union members have brought their dogs to the picket line. Here’s one of them.
Since that time, mid-November, the UO/GTFF clash has become about more than benefits; it is now about the quality of education. Interim-President Coltrane is forced, in all circumstances, at all costs, to insist that the quality of education at UO is not, cannot be and never will be impacted by the absence of GTFs teaching classes and grading papers; to suggest otherwise would open him up to the obvious argument, “You must settle with the GTFs to avoid degrading the quality of education at the University of Oregon,” which obviously he doesn’t want to do. But where, logically, does this argument lead? If scantrons and podcasts are quality university education–as Mr. Coltrane insists they are–then they must be so all the time, not just when GTFs are on strike. If the quality of education at the university is uninterrupted (as the administration claims) by having to resort to scantrons and podcasts, this must be at least the minimal level of quality and competence to justify the tuition the university asks its students to pay. Thus, what’s to stop UO from applying the “scantrons and podcasts” approach as a general guideline, as opposed to an unusual exigency?
If this argument sounds absurd, that’s because it is. The University of Oregon Faculty Senate passed, not long after, a resolution condemning the administration’s “scantrons and podcasts” plans. One faculty member after another has come out strongly opposed to it. Students mock it openly, as have GTFs on the picket lines. But Interim President Scott Coltrane continues to insist, as of Wednesday night, that plan to weather the strike is working just fine, and there is no significant degradation in the quality of education at UO as a result of the strike–an official line that no one believes.
As the strike continues into its third day, picket activity is growing, not shrinking. Here is one demonstration in front of the library and art museum on the UO campus.
As soon as the GTFF went on strike, classes at University of Oregon began to disintegrate. With final exams approaching in a few days, professors are unwilling and/or unable to take on the extra burden of grading them, not to mention assignments in many classes that were returned just before the strike whose grading was not yet finished. Numerous undergraduates went to their classrooms this week to find that no instructor ever showed up at all. Faculty members have told the administration that they cannot, within the boundaries of their ethical obligations as educators, proceed to assign grades to students without the assistance of GTFs, all of whom (including me) want to return to work immediately upon the agreement of a reasonable contract.
So this is where we stand as of today. The immediate flash points of the strike concern benefits in a CBA, but its broader context is a discussion about what kind of education we want in America today. Disinvestment by government in educational infrastructure began in earnest in the 1980s, and here’s where the United States is 30 years later: a third-rate nation, educationally speaking, supplying far fewer scientists, mathematicians, entrepreneurs, thinkers and intellectuals than it did a generation ago. If we want to arrest this decline, we, as a society, must decide that we again value public education, as we once did. But until that shift occurs, the quality of the education that is still provided in this country, in tiny little enclaves like the University of Oregon, however beleaguered by economic distress (or corporate greed), must be maintained. And those who provide it–like the GTFs on my campus–are the lonely platoon, holding down the front line until the cavalry will one day, God willing, arrive.
We’ll keep holding that line.
Update, December 9, 2014
The UO GTF strike has now stretched into its 8th day. As I write this, administration officials and GTFF agents are in a mediation session, having gone until 2:00 AM last night with no resolution yet–but the dialogue continues.
The issues I highlighted in this article have, if anything, gotten worse, sharper and more explosive in the past five days, and what was once a battle between the GTFF and the UO administration is now an all-out war between the administration and the faculty. As I stated above, the Faculty Senate voted to condemn the administration’s efforts to dilute and abandon academic standards in an attempt to enter grades, any grades, on students’ records as quickly as possible. (The real issue, so we believe, is the eligibility of football players to play in NCAA bowl games; the NCAA must have certified grades by December 26 or key players will be out of the game. Incidentally, one of my students is an Oregon Ducks football player). The administration decided it would get revenge for this act of insolence by stripping the Faculty Senate of all its remaining authority. There’s a motion to do exactly that on the table at an emergency meeting today, Tuesday December 9th.
Some University of Oregon students have fought back against the administration’s abandonment of standards with regard to their grades, placing notices like these on their exams–which are, as of today, piling up, ungraded.
The Eugene Register-Guard has a terrific article, here, explaining just how bad the situation has gotten. At a raucous 3-hour meeting last night, faculty hurled abuse at Scott Coltrane and some flatly refused–to his face–to go along with the plan:
Mann [a philosophy professor] said she is philosophically opposed to doing what she considers “strike-breaking work.” In a letter to undergraduates explaining her refusal to enter grades, Mann explained that she is one of seven children of a Boise Cascade millworker, whose plant unionized in an extremely risky and volatile process when she was 10 years old. University officials quizzed her repeatedly on her refusal to enter grades, which she eventually discovered was laying the groundwork for the administration to take disciplinary action against her, Mann contends.
Even if the strike is settled today–which, God willing, it will be–the issue of academic integrity and who ultimately has the power to control students’ educational future is not going to go away. As I said in the main article, this is no longer about benefits for the GTFF. This is about the quality of education. Nothing could be more important.