How Social Justice Unionism Helped Spark Mizzou Protests

University of Missouri TurmoilAn anti-racism boycott by Black football players at University of Missouri may have been the final straw for the teetering Mizzou president, who resigned on Monday, but student activism on campus started months ago when the university abruptly eliminated health benefits for all of its thousands of graduate students.

Two days before the start of the semester, grad students were left reeling, wondering how they would pay for their medications, or how they would deliver their babies, recalls Ph.D. student Eric O. Scott. And so they met, in the hundreds, to talk about what actions they could take to ensure that they would have a voice in their working conditions.

“I was speaking, and I didn’t say the word ‘union.’ But people were shouting the word ‘union’ from the audience,” Scott recalls.

Since then, the graduate students in that room have become the Coalition of Graduate Workers, a unionizing group with the support of the Missouri National Education Association (MNEA). They seek to improve the teaching and learning conditions for students, and also have become a force for social justice on campus, aligned with Concerned Student 1950, a group that was formed to address institutional racism on campus.

“Eric and I are firmly committed to social justice — and everybody we’ve talked to about the union has been on the same page,” said Connor Lewis, a Coalition organizer who is seeking a Ph.D in history. “People really respond to the idea that this isn’t just about workplace benefits. It’s also about your students.”

Graduate students — or graduate assistants (GA) — are employees at universities who often teach undergraduate classes and conduct research, even while completing their own Ph.D degrees. And yet, despite their critical role in teaching and learning, they have little job security, not much access to health benefits, and are paid poverty-level wages: an average $15,455 per year, according to the NEA Higher Education Advocate.

And yet, the Missouri GAs aren’t unique in their broad view of unionism. In fact, GA unions rarely focus solely on salaries and other contract-negotiating issues, experts say. Instead they “function as social movement unions that link the struggles of graduate employees to the pursuit of social justice,” wrote Deeb-Paul Kitchen in 2014 in NEA’s journal of higher education Thought & Action.

And, of course, NEA also has a long history of promoting racial equality and justice — from its historic mid-20th century work around desegregation to its current work to end the school-to-prison pipeline. This week, NEA’s Advisory Committee of Student Members issued a statement commending University of Missouri students “for their courage in speaking out against ignorance and institutional racism.” The committee also promised to “continue to fight institutional racism and advocate for positive change for students who are marginalized within our educational systems.”

Walking Out for Justice

In August, after the revocation of GA health benefits was announced, the Coalition of Graduate Workers staged a one-day voluntary walkout and a rally involving more than 1,500 students and faculty. Scott recalls that Jonathan Butler, who commanded the nation’s attention this month as the hunger striker who said he would die for the cause of racial equality, was in the front lines of the rally, working a handheld megaphone.

Within days, the university had reversed its stance. It would continue providing the same level of health benefits to its GAs through the academic year, officials said. The then-chancellor also provided a personal guarantee that GAs would have subsidized benefits in the future — but, of course, the chancellor is gone now, Lewis notes, and his abrupt departure provides more evidence that a collectively bargained contract would be far more useful to graduate students than a personal pledge.

A second Coalition of Graduate Workers walk-out was held on Monday and Tuesday, this time for two days and in direct support of the racial equity protests, Scott says. “The concerns and difficulties that Black graduate students face, those are our concerns as well,” he says.

“Our feeling was we needed to contribute an extra push,” Lewis says.

Many of the students protesting anti-racism at Mizzou also see themselves as part of a continuum of activism, taking place across the country, aimed at racial equality. They have linked their efforts to the Black Lives Matter movement, and to the community protests that followed the deaths of Black men, like Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Freddie Gray in Baltimore, at the hands of police.

At the University of Missouri, their efforts are paying off: Not only have the president of the university system resigned and the campus chancellor stepped down, but the university’s governing body, the Board of Curators, has announced the hiring of a new diversity, inclusion and equity officer. The university also has promised to require diversity and inclusion training for all faculty, staff, and students, and to create a task force to improve inclusion.

Photo: Matt Hellman/Missourian via AP