Midwest Labor Group Inquiry

Agnes Martin, Untitled (1977)

VP: Introduce yourself to our readers. What was the Midwest Labor Group and what were the conditions that led to its formation? What did it seek to accomplish, and how did it intend to do so?

The Midwest Labor Group was an experiment in building a cooperative grad worker labor union, which took place from May to October 2020. Grad workers from seven unions across the Midwest participated in an attempt to build a new form of labor organization that would serve the interests of workers rather than business unions. It was a response to what we had experienced in our attempts to work with business unions and their bureaucrats, who seemed to just want media attention and an expanded pool of dues payers to line their own pockets.

By “cooperative labor union,” we meant an organization that would focus on building the power of rank and file workers by pooling our collective resources and knowledge to further on-the-ground organizing. We were tired of being subordinate to and undermined by business unions that weren’t interested in building the capacity necessary to take militant action and, frankly, didn’t care about our interests as workers. We also wanted to assist new organizing efforts of workers both inside and outside of universities in order to build a powerful working class base that could defend its own interests. The vision was to join workers from multiple Midwestern universities in one union or cooperative labor organization. We hoped to eventually expand to other universities in the region and beyond, and to include adjuncts and service workers as well.

By cutting out the top, executive layer of business unions, we sought to create a shared pool of resources to which we would have immediate access, and which could be used – without impediment by union staffers – for costs such as strike funds, hiring organizers from our own ranks, or legal fees. And by connecting organizationally across multiple public and private universities, we sought to build greater capacity for immediate, coordinated, cross-campus action.

The decision to launch this experiment resulted from numerous, concrete experiences and frustrations, many of which were shared across campuses. These included: the reduction of resources invested when legal conditions became hostile; exclusion from decision making while being expected to carry out those decisions; the suppression of militancy, including active counter-organization on the part of the business unions; organizing without the protection of labor laws like the NLRA; and the consistent siphoning off of dues money, out of the local and into the national union. In addition, we were contending with an academic jobs crisis only deepened by COVID, along with nationwide university austerity.

So we were being squeezed from both sides: on one side we faced an increasingly minuscule possibility of ever finding well-remunerated work or material stability in academia; on the other side, the unions with which grad workers had for decades in this country organized were proving uninterested at best, and engaging in outright sabotage of worker self-activity and militancy at worst.

Because of all this, the parent-union model no longer seemed viable. We needed to chart a new way forward.

VP: Rank and file workers have long struggled against business unions. Recently, rank and file union caucuses have directly waged this struggle, including within graduate worker unions. This is in addition to informal, horizontal networks between grad workers nationwide. Finally, some new graduate labor groups have affiliated with unions like United Electrical, which specifically advertises itself as a rank and file union, and whose record on respecting local autonomy is markedly better than that of other unions. Why were these sorts of options unattractive or unavailable to you? What were the specific obstacles posed that even a rank and file union movement seemed unable to transcend, outside a new organizational form? 

We weren’t opposed in principle to affiliation with a rank and file union, and yet we had concerns about resources. As a result of the anti-communist purges within the labor movement during the first half of the 20th century, these unions (of which few remain) often can only provide minimal material support for campaigns due to their limited resources. Having access to the resources necessary for major wins was just as important as having autonomy. Enormous amounts of money in the form of dues flow through graduate worker labor unions. So we wanted to find a way to capture the entirety of this revenue flow to use it entirely on building power and taking militant action.

Rank and file or democratic caucuses may make sense for workers within well-established or already recognized unions, but to us these caucuses always seemed to be facing uphill battles. The balance of power is often structurally tilted against workers even within their own unions. This is especially true for grad workers, because with the high turnover rate in our unions, it can be difficult to establish stable and expanding rank and file governance structures that can maintain power within our unions vis-à-vis the national leadership of a parent union. The lack of stable rank and file governance structures within grad union locals means that the national leadership of our parent unions often has the final say in decision-making, often through the attrition of more experienced members or the intimidation of less experienced members by labor bureaucrats posing as experts. In reality, most if not all of these labor bureaucrats have little to no experience with the extralegal circumstances that grad workers at private institutions (coming soon to a public institution near you!) find ourselves in.

Given that most of us were coming from unrecognized labor unions, it seemed unnecessarily masochistic to willfully jump into such a situation. On the other hand, national networks and coalitions, while providing important forums for short-term collaboration, hadn’t seemed capable of transforming into sustainable vehicles for repeated collective action, or of being a means of building collective power. This seemed to us to be a structural problem. The best case scenario when grad worker unions are affiliated to national unions is that you have two decision making structures: one at the level of the governance of your local and one, more informally, at the level of cross campus interaction. In contrast, we wanted to create a more unified, single structure for immediate collective decisions and actions that involved the maximum number of people at the maximum number of institutions. We wanted to hardwire cross campus coordination into the running of our own locals as well. While the “one big union” idea covers a bit more ground than what we had discussed as a group, we nonetheless hoped to create something in its mold. The Midwest Labor Group was to be a kind of workers’ council which reached across numerous institutions and workplaces.

More generally, with organized labor in general and university labor in particular in retreat, with increasing political instability, economic stagnation, and individual immiseration, we need a new model for an economically sustainable combat organization that can take part in the fight of socialism versus barbarism. Business unions are unwilling to engage in extralegal collective action because they don’t want to spend more money on our campaigns. Because the legal status of grad workers at private institutions as workers was liable to be overturned by any legal challenge on the part of campus administrators, we effectively had no legal protections as workers, as any attempt to wield the protections of the law would have resulted in our status as workers being overturned by the Republican dominated NLRB. Grad workers at public institutions were having their legal status as workers challenged using the example of grad workers at private institutions. Rather than immediately engaging on this new (or newly returned) extralegal terrain, business union leaders wanted us to wait for a Democratic majority on the NLRB, at which time we could file for new NLRB elections. But this wasn’t feasible, as grad workers had immediate workplace concerns (e.g. pay, healthcare, discrimination, etc.) and were already facing the possibility of having to return to in-person teaching. More generally, the oscillation of legal rights for grads over the past two decades shows that we can’t count on permanently favorable legal conditions and that we need instead a strategy that does not rely upon the law.

Despite the difficulties of being on new terrain, within the extralegal (or precariously legal) status of grad workers at private universities is the potential for bringing our struggles beyond the economic and into the political. The question of our legal status as workers forces us to reconsider our tactics, strategies, and our relationship with the legal labor movement. The experiences of taking collective action outside the protections of the law, combined with the structural positions of grad workers in the ideological apparatuses of civil society, like universities and the media, has the potential to change the opinions of those who engage these apparatuses. Even if this doesn’t necessarily create new revolutionaries, the idea that “unions are good” being spread by teachers, writers, scientists, etc. broadens the base of those willing to struggle in their workplaces (or at least support such struggles), and that creates further openings for revolutionaries.

VP: What were the factors that led to the conclusion of this experiment? What obstacles prevented its success? 

Ultimately we think the project foundered on a residual, and perhaps at times unconscious, investment in traditional organizing models. Here it was a problem of buy-in: a real belief in the labor group’s stated cooperative vision was probably required to motivate the time and energy spent on this project. However, this vision itself was shared unequally between the different groups (and here we have just one manifestation of the more general organizational difficulty of coordinating across different workplaces, universities or otherwise). Those who didn’t buy into this vision seemed instead to fall back on the default idea of traditional unionism. We don’t think the investment in the more traditional model was malicious – it may even have been partly unconscious, given that there was broad agreement on the cooperative principles of the group itself. Instead, it is likely that most who participate in the grad worker movement don’t really have any vision for their unions or their universities in the long run. It often feels like a lot of grad workers don’t really ask what their unions are trying to do, how they might achieve their goals, how they might secure hard-fought gains in the long run for both themselves and the industry as a whole, etc.

This was brought out most clearly to us with the sudden about-face of one of the unions constituting our group. In the initial stages of the experiment, this union – which was affiliated with a national union – participated fully and had even given our cooperative much of its impetus. However, after winning some gains in a COVID impact bargaining process, they abruptly changed course and started advocating against the idea of a cooperative labor union, which is where we had started. It seemed they didn’t want to risk the minimal protections that their own affiliation to a business union still afforded them. They sacrificed the achievement of long-term interests through broad industry-based solidarity for short-term benefits and risk-avoidance – following the pattern of an age-old strategy of management itself. While those of us more committed to the cooperative vision were distributed at multiple universities, we were nonetheless too few to hold the experiment together against centrifugal forces like these.

VP: How has this experiment and your other organizing experiences informed how you conceptualize academic organizing moving forward? What are the strategic implications of the successes and failures of your group? What is to be done, or else, what can be done and what cannot be done?

Our experiences with this project and grad worker organizing in general have led us to believe that grad worker organizing is overdetermined by (at least) two major structural factors.

The first is that grad work is very individualistic in nature: we are judged on the work that we produce as individuals. We’re also in direct competition with each other for the few remaining positions within academia. For the purposes of career advancement, grad workers need to curry favor with faculty members, which means that many are unwilling to confront or otherwise antagonize faculty for fear of hurting their imagined future careers. This results in a situation in which cooperation is the exception rather than the norm in our work. Our days are dominated by time spent alone working for the university, our advisors, and/or ourselves. Without much basis for cooperation in our everyday lives (and with plenty of incentives for competition), grad workers bring to mind the small-holding peasants described by Marx in “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte”: “an enormous mass whose members live in similar conditions but without entering into manifold relations with each other” and further, “whose mode of production isolates them from one another instead of bringing them into mutual intercourse.” This results in a mass that is “formed by the simple addition of homologous magnitudes, much as potatoes in a sack form a sack of potatoes”, which is to say that it results in groups of workers that are merely aggregates of individuals rather than collectives that understand their struggles to be shared.

The second is that many (if not most) grad workers come from wealthy backgrounds, which provides them with material security before, during, and after grad school, and which removes a sense of urgency from their organizing, if they organize at all. Academia has historically been a bourgeois profession, and university labor becoming increasingly proletarianized doesn’t mean that such hegemonic bourgeois aspirations (and their attendant illusions about self-importance, etc.) have disappeared from the minds of grad workers, however reluctant they would be to admit it. Moreover, grad school remains, at least for a “lucky” few, a means to upper-level administrative positions with salaries comparable to those found within the corporate sector. While there are plenty of working class and/or militant grad workers, on the whole graduate student bodies are populated by large numbers of students whose career aspirations are – explicitly or implicitly, consciously or unconsciously – inimical to university workers’ interests as a whole.

Of course, there are many grad workers for whom organizing remains a real material necessity. But these considerations make us wary of placing too much hope in grad workers as a distinct political subject. The possibility of advancing workers’ interests at universities seems tied instead to the struggles of groups like service workers or undergrads, especially undergrad workers or those from over-exploited backgrounds. As for academic labor, adjunct organizing appears more promising than grad worker organizing. This is because the structural individualism we discussed above is somewhat weakened amongst adjuncts: with each passing year as an adjunct, tenure appears more and more out of reach, while recent adjunct organizing successes (which have been far greater in number than grad organizing successes) materially prove the advantage of collective action over individual “professionalization”. It’s difficult to see further, militant organization arising among grad workers outside of conscious, Herculean interventions on the part of committed political operatives.

VP: Stepping beyond your immediate experience in the labor group, what kind of university (if any) are you fighting for? What is the broader political vision that has animated your organizing, and what is the place of academic or intellectual labor therein? What should the university look like, and what is the role of academic labor in getting there? 

We think it’s important to view the university in terms of its relation to society, and not suppose that the university could be transformed in the direction we want without concomitant social transformation. So, on the one hand, we broadly agree with the call for the democratization of the university (which, while common today, is hardly a novel demand in the history of university struggles). Minimally this means that workers should make all decisions regarding their working conditions. This entails the abolition of boards of trustees. It also entails the removal of “tiered” system of academic and manual labor in universities, so that command hierarchies within segments of the university--e.g. hierarchies between tenured profs and adjuncts – and between segments – e.g. between upper-level administration and service workers – are transformed into horizontal distributions of labor.

On the other hand, we’re critical of approaches that stop at this call for democratization. If left there, without further political mobilization beyond the university, democratization would merely transform academic workers into the managers of their own exploitation. As long as universities are directly or indirectly subordinated to capital, a merely “formal” transformation of governance structures will do little to challenge the proletarianization of all academic labor. If we don’t want democratization to only further facilitate exploitation by providing a false sense of autonomy, it needs to be coupled with the actual overcoming of the value relation in society more broadly. The university is not a “kingdom within a kingdom.”

This line of reasoning affirms recent critiques of nostalgia for the supposed “Golden Age” of higher education in the post-War period. The argument that college reduces inequality by providing a pathway to middle-class jobs, and that access should therefore be dramatically expanded by way of tuition-free college programs, mistakenly supposes that the job market exists as it did in the 1950s and 1960s, and that college graduates today do not overwhelmingly end up pulling espresso shots or ringing up customers in H&M. (It also supposes that “middle class” jobs in capitalist society are a worthy end in themselves.) While free education will be a central component of any socialist society, and while such proposals are worth fighting for, to characterize the College for All Act as “revolutionary,” as some have done, is a capitulation before the parameters of education as they have long been set.

Yet even prior to the revolutionary sequence that would definitively free the university from capital, there are still roles for intellectual labor and students. For example, struggles to free the university as much as possible from the constraints of capital along with its attendant imperative of intellectual conformism will give intellectual labor the autonomy required to foster greater challenges to reigning ideologies. Doing so will help to cultivate socialist counter-hegemony in society more broadly, given the strategic position of academics and researchers in civil society, noted above. Rank and file workers’ organizations likely remain one of the most promising avenues towards such a goal. Additionally, by making education free or by abolishing student debt, students would be better positioned to interrupt their studies to take militant action, insofar as the disciplining function of exorbitant tuition and debt would no longer exist. Such trajectories would at least partially transform the university into a force aligned against class society, rather than a central institution for its reproduction, as it mostly is today. So even if we’re still fighting for a university that is neither a means of capital accumulation nor merely a credentialing institution to help individuals create enough surplus-value to live; and even if such a university is only possible in a world in which no one anywhere has to produce surplus-value to live – still, there are paths forward.

Author of the article

was an experiment in building a cooperative grad worker labor union, which took place from May to October 2020.