The Fate of the Fast against the Slow

On April 24, eight mem­bers of the recent­ly rec­og­nized Local 33 rep­re­sent­ing Yale grad­u­ate stu­dents began a hunger strike, or “Fast Against the Slow,” that con­clud­ed dur­ing Com­mence­ment cer­e­monies on May 22. The strug­gle is not over; there is more to come. Yet it is fair to say the strike was not uni­ver­sal­ly well received. Detrac­tors include many soi-dis­ant Left­ists as well as alt-right trolls, a sur­pris­ing num­ber of fac­ul­ty, fel­low stu­dents, and most admin­is­tra­tors. The naysay­ing sur­round­ing the action by Local 33 was so loud, in fact, that it effec­tive­ly mut­ed any furor that might oth­er­wise have attend­ed a recent report on the fate of con­tin­gent fac­ul­ty at Yale. Based on vol­un­tary sur­vey data com­piled by the Fac­ul­ty of the Arts and Sci­ences Sen­ate, the FAS report fea­tured in an arti­cle on the front page of the Yale Dai­ly News along­side the arti­cle announc­ing the strike. The report received a ban­ner head­line; the sur­vey is now a foot­note to the strike. No doubt this is, in some sense, as it should be. Reports are pon­der­ous and dull. Strikes are con­flict­ual and momen­tous. And yet. The eclipse of the for­mer by the lat­ter is more than a lit­tle telling, not least because the sur­vey dis­clos­es the log­ic behind the strike so many find dif­fi­cult to coun­te­nance. Nor is that all. The fate of con­tin­gent fac­ul­ty at Yale and else­where also bears sig­nif­i­cant­ly upon the rela­tion of the Fast Against the Slow to ongo­ing strug­gles out­side the ivory tow­er.

What rela­tions? Pun­dits from the Right and the Left delight in point­ing out that these strik­ers were, after all, stu­dents, not work­ers, and par­tic­u­lar­ly priv­i­leged stu­dents at that. They are des­tined for good jobs and bet­ter things. Any mis­eries or obsta­cles they face are minor com­pared to the taut labor mar­kets, dead-end ser­vice jobs, wage stag­na­tion, gut­ted health care, debt, and swollen ranks of the unem­ployed that await the jan­i­tors, cler­i­cal staff, and food ser­vice work­ers greas­ing the tem­po­rary, ivy-graced pover­ty of stu­dent life.1 Such mis­eries do not even reg­is­ter on the his­tor­i­cal scales that weigh the fate of those entire­ly exclud­ed from the for­mal econ­o­my on a plan­et of slums. In the eyes of naysay­ers strikes are for work­ers, not diplo­mats and hedge-fund man­agers in wait­ing. Hunger strikes are for those for whom the mis­eries of work are but a dream. Grad­u­ate stu­dents at Yale had no right, there­fore, to orga­nize a hunger strike mere­ly because they see no future but the one in which their minor mis­eries are mis­eries nonethe­less. That tac­tic is not theirs to use.

There is some truth in that view; there is less log­ic. It is true that, hic et nunc, stu­dents at Yale elect­ing to go with­out food face no grave dan­ger. It is equal­ly true that many oth­ers do. Many, many oth­ers in many, many oth­er places face grave dan­gers like­ly to remain unknown to most stu­dents at Yale. Among the many that come to mind are Mar­wan Bargh­outi and the rough­ly 1,500 Pales­tin­ian pris­on­ers whose recent­ly con­clud­ed six-week hunger strike pre­cip­i­tat­ed a gen­er­al strike in Pales­tine. The nascent hunger strike in Fol­som Prison, recent gen­er­al strike in Brazil, world­wide May­day riots, and ongo­ing stu­dent revolt in Puer­to Rico sim­i­lar­ly join the fray. The list goes on. Among oth­er things, such lists make clear that Ivy League grad­u­ate stu­dents, con­tin­gent fac­ul­ty every­where, low-wage ser­vice work­ers, the chron­i­cal­ly unem­ployed, slum dwellers, and Pales­tin­ian pris­on­ers do not make easy bed­fel­lows in any sin­gle social move­ment or ana­lyt­i­cal frame. The Fast Against the Slow con­fronts us with this fair­ly obvi­ous fact. The world in which we live teems with antag­o­nisms. They leap forth one upon the oth­er, each worse than the last. It is antag­o­nism all the way down with­out end, his­to­ry says. And yet it is not clear that this set of facts authors a play­book assign­ing tac­tics to antag­o­nisms or issues forth some moral econ­o­my deter­min­ing who gets to do what when where and how. Nor is it clear why we might desire such a book­ish econ­o­my. If it is true that we face many antag­o­nists in any giv­en strug­gle, it is all the more unclear why this strug­gle must use these weapons and not those. 

The Fast Against the Slow

Many will know that Local 33 pub­licly declared that their strike was indef­i­nite at the out­set. Many will also know that the par­tic­i­pa­tion of indi­vid­ual strik­ers was not. Strik­ers reserved the right to swap out when com­pelled by declin­ing health. All did so; the longest indi­vid­ual fasts last­ed just shy of two weeks. Some saw this as self-defeat­ing. The pow­ers that be could wait out the clock with­out trig­ger­ing any real threat to indi­vid­ual strik­ers. The strike, on this view, was both a pure­ly spec­tac­u­lar form of pol­i­tics and spec­tac­u­lar­ly ill-con­ceived. It depend­ed entire­ly upon the moral sua­sion of media pres­sure and alum­nae dol­lars to force the admin­is­tra­tion to the table with­out con­tain­ing any real mech­a­nism for man­u­fac­tur­ing that sua­sion. Larp­ing on the quad is, after all, what stu­dents do these days. Media cov­er­age of rich kids keep­ing up with the oppressed will not threat­en Yale’s invest­ment port­fo­lio. Soon­er or lat­er even a his­tor­i­cal­ly inept Pres­i­dent will get around to appoint­ing a new Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board (NLRB) that will reverse its August 2016 deci­sion that stu­dents are work­ers in the eyes of the law. Time remains, as ever, on the side of the pow­ers that be. The strike was just a momen­tary glitch in the smooth oper­a­tion of things. Let them eat clicks. 

To see things this way is to view strug­gle from the van­tage of defeat, how­ev­er. Such a view  mea­sures suc­cess in this case in terms of whether Yale sits to the table by the end of the fast. Yale has not, there­fore the strike failed. It rec­og­nizes that fail­ure as an inevitable out­come of famil­iar­ly long odds and sees the strike as defeat­ed before it even began. And yet stuff hap­pens. Things change. It was just as pos­si­ble that the strik­ers might have changed course. They might have fore­gone swap­ping out. They might have been joined by the many oth­er work­ers and non-work­ers in New Haven whose lives Yale shapes in increas­ing­ly mis­er­able ways. They may yet be joined by crowds of non-stu­dents on anoth­er day. Those massed work­ers and non-work­ers might decide to mask up and riot. It has hap­pened before and increas­ing­ly and is increas­ing­ly hap­pen­ing where before we least expect­ed it.2 It also might have gone hor­ri­bly wrong. The Yale Col­lege Repub­li­cans might have grad­u­at­ed from cos­play­ing far-right Israeli youth bar­be­quing out­side the prison hold­ing Mar­wan Bargh­outi to open­ly embrac­ing the log­ic that ene­mies of the sta­tus quo deserve what­ev­er they get. Loy­al­ty Day is a thing again. Fas­cists now rou­tine­ly clash with anti-fas­cists beneath the ban­ner of free speech on cam­pus­es from coast to coast. It is hard to say what might hap­pen these days. All that is cer­tain is that the end of the fast was not the end of the strug­gle. It may mark the begin­ning of an unhap­py denoue­ment; it may prove a har­bin­ger of big­ger strikes to come or sig­nal the emer­gence of new forms of strug­gle. As the ban­ner at the head of the march that closed the cur­tains on the strike abrupt­ly announced, this was “Just the begin­ning, Yale.” New tac­tics and alliances may be in the off­ing. We don’t get to know the fate of this or any strug­gle in advance. 

Wait­ing out the clock is, more­over, what uni­ver­si­ty admin­is­tra­tors are doing any­how. There is a very real pos­si­bil­i­ty that the legal cli­mate will have shift­ed by Sep­tem­ber. The admin­is­tra­tion would like noth­ing bet­ter than for every­one to pack up their bags and set off to work on their unpaid research projects for the sum­mer. The unpaid life of the mind is, after all, the dif­fer­ence upon which naysay­ers depend when they insist that stu­dents are not work­ers. Thus the strik­ers have noth­ing but time to lose. If their strug­gle fails, the sit­u­a­tion will be the same as if they chose to do noth­ing. Yale has been per­fect­ly clear that they will fight tooth and nail against the recog­ni­tion of Local 33 no mat­ter the cost. They have, in fact, been entire­ly trans­par­ent on this front for decades. They remain so now in open vio­la­tion of fed­er­al law. Yale’s strat­e­gy is as sim­ple as it self-evi­dent. They ful­ly intend to wait out the nui­sance of cur­rent NLRB writ in hopes that Trump­ism will res­cue them from its man­date. Uni­ver­si­ty admin­is­tra­tors are more than hap­py to wage a war of attri­tion against their own stu­dents. Time is the col­lat­er­al on which Yale banks. No one doubts this. 

Still, the rebut­tal will be, sure­ly they did not need to do this. They could have done oth­er­wise. This tac­tic, the hunger strike, is the pre­serve of the wretched of the earth. It is sacro­sanct. It bears the weight of absolute pover­ty in its most abject, bru­tal­ly racial­ized forms, and car­ries the grav­i­tas of Gand­hi. Grad­u­ate stu­dents at an Ivy League Uni­ver­si­ty have no claim upon that his­to­ry. It belongs to those far more mis­er­able and pow­er­less than they. Stu­dents at Yale refus­ing to eat cheap­en the hunger strike for all. This tac­tic is not theirs to use because Ghan­di, as Dean Amy Hunger­ford went out of her way to inveigh. How dare they.

This should no doubt give us pause. It is a seri­ous charge and war­rants seri­ous con­sid­er­a­tion. It will not do, for instance, sim­ply to observe that the admin­is­tra­tion itself has argued that the strike is “unwar­rant­ed by the cir­cum­stances” so that join­ing the cho­rus places us square­ly with­in the ene­my camp. That is true enough and no doubt damn­ing, but hard­ly log­i­cal­ly com­pelling. Nor will it suf­fice to note that gild­ed exploita­tion is exploita­tion nonethe­less. It will not even do, per­haps, to claim from the com­mand­ing heights of the­o­ret­i­cal abstrac­tion, as some have, that the Fast Against the Slow and Pales­tin­ian pris­on­ers’ hunger strikes are but two strug­gles waged in dif­fer­ent­ly try­ing times and far-flung places against a com­mon ene­my. The two strikes are as apt to be opposed to one anoth­er as con­joined in the eyes of pur­port­ed cham­pi­ons and sworn ene­mies of work­place strug­gles alike. Nam­ing the com­mon ene­my the law of val­ue, glob­al cap­i­tal, neolib­er­al­ism, or even racial cap­i­tal­ism offers lit­tle more than rote eva­sion these days. The claim wants proof. 

We might begin by recall­ing the course of this par­tic­u­lar strug­gle to date. It is long. The strug­gle to union­ize grad­u­ate stu­dents at Yale began in 1987; the first grade strike over work­ing con­di­tions by Yale grad­u­ate stu­dents occurred in 1971. It has been the object of much schol­ar­ly scruti­ny because, in part, it seems to offer a barom­e­ter of sorts for the fate of aca­d­e­m­ic labor.3 If there is to be a move­ment against the gut­ting of high­er edu­ca­tion in Amer­i­ca, so goes the log­ic, it will come from the quar­ters of grad­u­ate stu­dents car­ry­ing mas­sive debt loads while fac­ing cer­tain under­em­ploy­ment on the front line at pri­vate Uni­ver­si­ties. What­ev­er one makes of that log­ic, there is lit­tle doubt as to the com­mit­ment of stu­dents at Yale to the cause. Over the course of a quar­ter cen­tu­ry grad­u­ate stu­dents have orga­nized let­ter-writ­ing cam­paigns, peti­tions, sit-ins, civ­il dis­obe­di­ence of var­i­ous kinds, alum­ni out­reach, stu­dent out­reach, teach-ins, grade-ins, march­es, mock-elec­tions, walk-outs, ral­lies, meet­ings, email cam­paigns, and some ten or so strikes of vary­ing kinds, length, and feroc­i­ty. They have tried every tac­tic in the non-vio­lent play­book. Noth­ing has worked. What appears to many to be a reck­less act of impa­tience is quite the oppo­site. We have sim­ply turned our eyes to the field of play late in the game. 

We have also done so with­out grasp­ing the full bru­tal­i­ty of the game itself. As Yale’s own report on the Cam­pus Cli­mate Sur­vey on Sex­u­al Mis­con­duct recent­ly admit­ted, 54% of women in the university’s grad­u­ate and pro­fes­sion­al schools report expe­ri­enc­ing sex­u­al harass­ment at work.4 Only 5.7% took any sub­se­quent action. The same sur­vey indi­cat­ed 39% of under­grad­u­ate women report­ed expe­ri­enc­ing sex­u­al assault at Yale. The per­cent­age of grad­u­ate and pro­fes­sion­al stu­dents report­ing sex­u­al assault was notably low­er at 10%, but the num­ber express­ing grave con­cern vis-à-vis pro­fes­sion­al progress should they opt to report sex­u­al mis­con­duct by their supe­ri­ors was vast­ly high­er. The num­ber of report­ed assaults is stag­ger­ing; the real num­bers are undoubt­ed­ly far worse. Togeth­er those facts com­pelled Yale to admit in a cam­pus-wide email that the sur­vey “made it quite clear that the preva­lence of sex­u­al assault on cam­pus is high and that many expe­ri­ences go unre­port­ed.”

From its incep­tion, Local 33 has insist­ed that the preva­lence of sex­u­al assault on Uni­ver­si­ty cam­pus­es is also a labor issue. They have leant con­sid­er­able clar­i­ty to the wors­en­ing con­tours of that fact. Among the union’s demands is a more robust griev­ance pro­ce­dure to pro­tect grad­u­ate stu­dents vul­ner­a­ble not only to a col­laps­ing job mar­ket, but also to the increased pres­sures that col­lapse places on rela­tion­ships between grad­u­ate stu­dents and their supe­ri­ors. As Local 33 mem­ber Julia Pow­er has made clear, it is hard­ly sur­pris­ing that a ris­ing rate of sex­u­al assault on Uni­ver­si­ty cam­pus­es accom­pa­nies a declin­ing ratio of good to bad jobs, or that the for­mer is so wide­ly under­re­port­ed in light of the lat­ter. The less cer­tain the future, the more depen­dent stu­dents are on the whims of their supe­ri­ors. Only a boss could fail to rec­og­nize that fact or deny that it results from work­place hier­ar­chies. Indeed, the last­ing lega­cy of Local 33 may well be its forth­right insis­tence that there is no work­place strug­gle with­in the Uni­ver­si­ty that is not also a strug­gle against sex­u­al assault on cam­pus.

Mean­while some five gen­er­a­tions of grad­u­ate stu­dents have come and gone. Most have not met with the good jobs they were promised. Even at Yale, only a few even both­er to dream that dream these days. Few­er still get the goods. Many suf­fer sex­u­al assault while fac­ing those long odds. The hunger strike, that is to say, is as ever a tac­tic of last resort. We need not be glib to say so. What “last resort” looks like for grad­u­ate stu­dents at Yale is obvi­ous­ly not what “last resort” looks like for Pales­tini­ans in Israeli pris­ons. But there is no point in being delud­ed either. That stu­dents in New Haven are dri­ven to take such mea­sures, and are com­pelled to do so in a rear­guard strug­gle for the most basic pro­vi­sions cap­i­tal pur­ports to offer work­ers, is not an indict­ment of the strike. It is an indict­ment of a world that rou­tine­ly with­holds basic neces­si­ties from those in need and, increas­ing­ly, does so via exclu­sion from sta­ble employ­ment in high-income coun­tries while else­where exclud­ing oth­ers from the wage alto­geth­er. The specter of grad­u­ate stu­dents on hunger strike at Yale does not dis­com­fit us because grad­u­ate stu­dents at Yale. It dis­com­fits us because it dis­clos­es a hard truth. It is only a mat­ter of time before we and/or those we love suf­fer a fate worse than theirs.

The Fate of Academic Labor

Con­trary to pop­u­lar wis­dom, this is in many respects as true with­in as with­out the ivory tow­er. The Amer­i­can Asso­ci­a­tion of Uni­ver­si­ty Pro­fes­sors Annu­al Eco­nom­ic Report on the State of the Pro­fes­sion has put tenured fac­ul­ty at 21% of the aca­d­e­m­ic labor force in 2015-16.5 Tenure-track fac­ul­ty — the stra­ta of good jobs osten­si­bly promised to grad­u­ate stu­dents at Yale — made up 8%. The remain­ing 71% of the aca­d­e­m­ic labor force in the Unit­ed States is com­prised of con­tin­gent fac­ul­ty with no pos­si­bil­i­ty for secur­ing tenure. More­over, the per­cent­age of con­tin­gent fac­ul­ty in the aca­d­e­m­ic labor force has grown by some 10% since 2013. In the past three years, in oth­er words, the share of the aca­d­e­m­ic labor force that falls to con­tin­gent fac­ul­ty has absorbed more posi­tions than remain in the stra­ta of tenure-track posi­tions avail­able to recent grad­u­ates. The for­mer is rapid­ly approach­ing ful­ly three-quar­ters of all fac­ul­ty in high­er edu­ca­tion; the lat­ter has already fall­en below 10% and is unlike­ly ever to recov­er. The ten­den­cy is abysmal­ly clear. There are no more good jobs for any but the lucky and they are a dying breed. Tenure is a thing of the past. Con­tin­gency rules.

The sit­u­a­tion of con­tin­gent fac­ul­ty at Yale fur­ther clar­i­fies things. “Con­tin­gent fac­ul­ty” is, after all, a slip­pery term. To the extent that it means “non-lad­der” it tells us lit­tle oth­er than that tenure is not in the cards. It is also noto­ri­ous­ly dif­fi­cult to obtain reli­able data on con­tin­gent fac­ul­ty since pri­vate Uni­ver­si­ties jeal­ous­ly guard those num­bers (hence the need to rely on vol­un­tary sur­veys). With good rea­son, the pow­ers that be do not want word get­ting out that the brand name fac­ul­ty who attract tuition do pre­cious lit­tle of the teach­ing. Per the FAS Report, the fac­ul­ty at Yale is com­posed of 456 tenured fac­ul­ty, 199 tenure-track fac­ul­ty, and 410 non-lad­der fac­ul­ty.6 There are more than twice as many con­tin­gent as tenure-track fac­ul­ty at Yale, in short. That share has grown by 50% since 2003. The FAS Report notes that Uni­ver­si­ty lead­er­ship have repeat­ed­ly made it per­fect­ly clear that along­side the expan­sion of the under­grad­u­ate body sched­uled to begin in Fall 2017, “the major­i­ty of addi­tion­al teach­ings needs cre­at­ed by the Yale Col­lege Expan­sion will be met by hir­ing fac­ul­ty into the non-lad­der ranks” (3). The FAS Dean’s office antic­i­pates hir­ing 20 new non-lad­der fac­ul­ty in Fall 2017 alone. The total num­ber of lad­der fac­ul­ty, mean­while, has decreased since the 1970s. Even at Yale the ten­den­cy is clear. Yale is not only unable to make good on the promise of deliv­er­ing good jobs else­where for its own grad­u­ate stu­dents these days. Yale is no longer in the busi­ness of offer­ing good jobs even to its own fac­ul­ty.

More­over, as the FAS pre­vi­ous­ly report­ed, Yale’s con­tin­gent fac­ul­ty per­form teach­ing duties that are “already among the most inten­sive in the uni­ver­si­ty.”7 So much so, in fact, that the most recent FAS Report express­es grave con­cern for the fate of con­tin­gent fac­ul­ty who will bear the bur­den of “increased class sizes, stu­dent men­tor­ing, and advis­ing duties” (3). That con­cern is not idle. It stems from the fact that con­tin­gent fac­ul­ty are “already doing work that is not part of their job descrip­tion and for which they receive no addi­tion­al com­pen­sa­tion, a sit­u­a­tion com­pound­ed by job inse­cu­ri­ty, low recog­ni­tion, and rel­a­tive­ly low salaries” (3). The com­pound­ing fac­tors are bru­tal. Near­ly a third of con­tin­gent fac­ul­ty at Yale are on one-year con­tracts. The vast major­i­ty teach in the Human­i­ties. There most receive the same pay for the same work as grad­u­ate stu­dents. They do so with­out any pos­si­bil­i­ty for a raise in keep­ing with the cost-of-liv­ing much less mer­it. Yet most hold a PhD and aver­age upwards of sev­en years teach­ing expe­ri­ence at Yale. The fate of ful­ly one-third of the fac­ul­ty at Yale is, in short, ever more inten­sive labor cou­pled with job inse­cu­ri­ty and wage repres­sion. Such are the con­di­tions the major­i­ty of fac­ul­ty teach­ing at Yale will face in the com­ing years.

Mean­while dur­ing their time at Yale, grad­u­ate stu­dents are ever more open­ly treat­ed as work­ers no mat­ter how one looks at things. They are com­pelled to research, write, present research at con­fer­ences, orga­nize con­fer­ences, attend admin­is­tra­tive meet­ings, orga­nize admin­is­tra­tive meet­ings, orga­nize and admin­is­ter work­ing groups, and pub­lish pro­fes­sion­al­ly before even enter­ing the job mar­ket. Even dur­ing semes­ters when they are not required to teach they are com­pelled, in short, to do every­thing their advi­sors do except the thing their advi­sors do least. And they are com­pelled to do so in exchange for the mon­ey they need to pay rent, buy gro­ceries and, yes, beer and lattes. We need not quote Marx in order to state the obvi­ous. The form of the rela­tion — labor com­pelled by its exchange for income — is what mat­ters. It does not mat­ter if we call that income wages, a stipend, fel­low­ship, or avo­ca­do toast. It does not mat­ter that their advi­sors some­times feel fond­ly towards them and hate the word boss. It does not mat­ter if they nev­er teach a day in their life in spite of the fact that most do. Out­side Yale, most teach far more while doing vast­ly more of all of the above for far less pay while acquir­ing ever increas­ing debt loads. All do what they need to sur­vive while fac­ing a job mar­ket that every­one knows will reward them not with good jobs and bet­ter things but no jobs and a fate worse than stu­dent life. 

Even at Yale, in short, it is clear that what awaits grad­u­ate stu­dents today is more of the same with less in return. This is espe­cial­ly true in the Human­i­ties where, not sur­pris­ing­ly, sup­port for Local 33 is strongest. The over­whelm­ing major­i­ty of those stu­dents will grad­u­ate to per­form the same work for the same pay with few­er ben­e­fits and few­er pro­fes­sion­al devel­op­ment oppor­tu­ni­ties than they enjoyed as stu­dents. With­out (and, increas­ing­ly, with­in) Yale, the vast major­i­ty will do so with unbear­able debt loads. This is what the unpaid life of the mind looks like today. It involves lit­tle to no leisure­ly research. Instead, it fea­tures end­less grad­ing, meet­ings with stu­dents led to expect inten­sive guid­ance from those scram­bling to make ends meet from week to week, and the admin­is­tra­tive labor of des­per­ate­ly try­ing to secure employ­ment for the next term. The unpaid life of the mind looks less like an endowed chair than rou­tine pre­car­i­ty with library priv­i­leges there is no time to use. His­to­ry has spo­ken; there is no turn­ing back the clock. The unpaid life of the mind is just anoth­er debt-sad­dled hus­tle.  

The Proletariat is Nothing if not Divided, And Yet

As work­ers, we might thus be tempt­ed to say, grad­u­ate stu­dents belong to the ranks of the exclud­ed. They are exclud­ed from what they need to sur­vive save by sell­ing their labor-pow­er like work­ers every­where. They are so exclud­ed, more­over, while con­fronting a future where the jobs most were promised in exchange for unbear­able debt bur­dens are no longer on offer. The only sure­ty on which most can depend is the uncer­tain­ty of a life­time of debt and unsta­ble jobs shot through with peri­ods of under- and unem­ploy­ment. Many will default. Some will drag their par­ents down with them, either because their par­ents co-signed stu­dent loans or are forced to help pay the rent for grad­u­ates hold­ing degrees for which there are no jobs. Already dubbed the first gen­er­a­tion to be worse off than their par­ents since the onset of the post­war boom in the pop­u­lar press, today’s grad­u­ate stu­dents are less the future pro­fes­sion­als of a flour­ish­ing soci­ety than cash cows near­ly bled dry by a soci­ety in which only cyn­ics believe things will improve. Total stu­dent loan debt sur­passed cred­it card debt in 2010 and now stands at $1.4 tril­lion; that total grew by near­ly 40% dur­ing the 2013-2016 peri­od that saw con­tin­gent fac­ul­ty absorb more jobs than remain on the tenure-track. 

If the ascen­sion of Trump has taught us any­thing, it is that even to ride the pop­ulist tide to elec­toral vic­to­ry on a red sea of MAGA hats you must admit what every­one already knows. Things are worse even for the best-off work­ers today than a gen­er­a­tion ago and they are dai­ly wors­en­ing for all. 

Small won­der, then, that Trump’s infa­mous­ly job slash­ing, pen­sion gut­ting job czar Stephen Schwarz­man is the finan­cial archi­tect behind the expan­sion of Yale’s Stu­dent Cen­ter. The Schwarz­man Cen­ter will accom­mo­date the expand­ed under­grad­u­ate pop­u­la­tion Yale plans to absorb by hir­ing more con­tin­gent fac­ul­ty. An exec­u­tive dur­ing the 1980s at the dis­graced Lehman Broth­ers invest­ment firm, he left Lehman in 1985 to co-found the Black­stone Group; Black­stone famous­ly cap­i­tal­ized on the lever­aged buy­out mar­kets that brought Lehman Broth­ers down along with the glob­al econ­o­my in 2008. Yet Schwarzman’s great­est claim to infamy is not his finan­cial acu­men, appoint­ment by Trump, or even the dodgy ori­gins of his $150 mil­lion dona­tion to Yale. His great­est claim to infamy is his com­par­i­son of the 2010 Dodd-Frank stop­gap cur­tail­ing trades of the sort that made his for­tune to Hitler’s inva­sion of Poland. The writ­ing is on the wall. Yale is open­ly and unapolo­get­i­cal­ly rely­ing on the ris­ing tide of Trump­ism both to bankroll the expan­sion under­writ­ing the growth of con­tin­gent fac­ul­ty and to break the grad­u­ate stu­dent union formed in oppo­si­tion to the polit­i­cal econ­o­my that helped ush­er Trump into pow­er. On one side of those dynam­ics stand Yale, Schwarz­man, and the prospect of a Trump-appoint­ed NLRB. On the oth­er, the stu­dents.

There is no doubt there­fore that stu­dents are not only work­ers but work­ers fac­ing a decid­ed­ly pre­car­i­ous future. About this only ide­o­logues brook debate these days. And yet this will not quite do. It is bet­ter to say that stu­dents join hands with work­ers as pro­le­tar­i­ans. There are rea­sons for say­ing so. Some will be famil­iar. Pro­le­tar­i­an, as Marx­ists are fond of remind­ing us, means those with­out reserves. In a cap­i­tal­ist world, this is often con­flat­ed with the fate of work­ers. To have noth­ing to lose but one’s wages is to have no reserves but the labor-pow­er with which one runs to meet one’s more or less gold­en chains. This is not quite right, how­ev­er, ety­mo­log­i­cal­ly or his­tor­i­cal­ly. At its root, pro­le­tar­i­an is a Roman legal term. It refers to those with noth­ing to lose but their chil­dren, or pro­les. Con­crete­ly, it described the fate of those with no way to secure their debts save by pledg­ing their chil­dren to bondage. The res­o­nance is inescapable. Debt-sad­dled stu­dents com­pelled to labor for gro­ceries and rent while strug­gling to enter a mar­ket­place with few good jobs and noth­ing bet­ter to offer are the pro­les of our age. They have been pledged to a future of debt and pre­car­i­ty to prop up an econ­o­my fail­ing in the present. His­tor­i­cal­ly, more­over, pro­le­tari­at gath­ered togeth­er — how­ev­er rude­ly, and with no short­age of inter­nal divi­sions too numer­ous to enu­mer­ate here — all those both shack­led by and exclud­ed from the wage rela­tion. A pro­le­tar­i­an is not a wage-labor­er per se. The pro­le­tari­at encom­pass­es all those for whom the fate of more or less mis­er­able and immis­er­at­ed wage-labor is the only avail­able dream.

As pro­le­tar­i­ans, then, stu­dents do not only join hands with work­ers. They also join hands with those for whom entry into the for­mal econ­o­my is but a dream. They do not do so eas­i­ly. Nor do they do so on the basis of a shared iden­ti­ty. Their fate will not be that of those locked out of the wage rela­tion alto­geth­er. And yet. It is hard to see, on this view, how fight­ing where they are as they deem fit harms those com­pelled to fight by sim­i­lar means under worse cir­cum­stances else­where. Indeed, it is hard to see how say­ing that their fight harms oth­ers else­where helps any­one oth­er than the admin­is­tra­tors of Yale’s invest­ment port­fo­lio. In fact, it is hard not to see what ought to have been obvi­ous all along. What­ev­er vic­to­ries, tac­ti­cal mis­steps, strate­gic mishaps, or forms of repres­sion met­ed out by the Uni­ver­si­ty await these stu­dents, in this sit­u­a­tion they alone are on the side of the Pales­tin­ian pris­on­ers. They are not on the same side by dint of some rhetor­i­cal fram­ing. Nor are they on the same side by virtue of occu­py­ing sym­met­ri­cal posi­tions or iden­ti­cal lots in the present state of things. Still less are they on the same side by virtue of a shared iden­ti­ty as work­ers dreamt up by nine­teenth cen­tu­ry fac­to­ry inspec­tors. They are on the same side mate­ri­al­ly by virtue of the fact that they joint­ly oppose the dis­pos­sess­ing sta­tus quo. “A free uni­ver­si­ty in the midst of a cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety is like a read­ing room in a prison,” as some friends once said.8 If we want to over­come the mate­r­i­al divi­sions between pris­ons and Uni­ver­si­ties, stu­dents and work­ers, work­ers and the exclud­ed, we will have to pro­ceed on all fronts. 

The need to pro­ceed on all fronts was acute­ly evi­dent dur­ing the march that marked the end of the hunger strike. In a care­ful­ly planned affront to the tra­di­tion­al pageantry of Yale’s Com­mence­ment cer­e­mo­ny, Local 33 mem­bers and sup­port­ers con­front­ed the grad­u­a­tion pro­ces­sion in the streets of New Haven. Grad­u­at­ing stu­dents were clad in black; union sup­port­ers wore orange. The Elm City, as New Haven is col­lo­qui­al­ly known, deployed some 200 cops to direct the chore­og­ra­phy where Col­lege and Elm Streets meet. The polit­i­cal econ­o­my gov­ern­ing the spec­ta­cle was per­fect­ly clear. On one side, a black mass of grad­u­ates march­ing into labor mar­kets with few good jobs. On the oth­er, an orange crush hold­ing their ground against Yale’s refusal to rec­og­nize the bad jobs they have as jobs. In between, a sea of cops. 

Black is the new orange; there is no oth­er way to put it. The fate of last week’s grad­u­ates will be worse than their lot as stu­dents in many cas­es; it will be worse in part because of the crush of stu­dents behind them crowd­ing into taut labor mar­kets with few good jobs. Beyond the spec­ta­cle of future and for­mer grad­u­ates con­fronting one anoth­er in the street spreads a bru­tal­ly seg­re­gat­ed town that employs a small army of cops. With­in and beyond those divi­sions, of course, lie still oth­ers. It is antag­o­nism all the way down. 

Indeed, if we widen the frame slight­ly things are clear­er still. For cities with pop­u­la­tions greater than 50,000 the nation­al aver­age of cops per capi­ta is 16.6/10k. The ratio of cops per capi­ta in New Haven is 32.2/10k. Yale is both by far the largest employ­er in New Haven and one of the largest land­lords. As a result, Yale effec­tive­ly sets both wage and rent rates in New Haven.9 While hold­ing ful­ly one-fourth of the grand list in New Haven, Yale is also exempt from pay­ing prop­er­ty tax­es per the Con­necti­cut state Con­sti­tu­tion. Instead, Yale makes a vol­un­tary pay­ment of approx­i­mate­ly $8.5 mil­lion per annum to the city of New Haven. $8.5 mil­lion is a pit­tance com­pared to what Yale would owe in prop­er­ty tax­es were it no longer tax exempt. Not sur­pris­ing­ly, Yale has repeat­ed­ly and vocif­er­ous­ly resist­ed attempts to alter its tax sta­tus. It has done so explic­it­ly in the name of “strengthen[ing] neigh­bor­hoods.” Mean­while New Haven ranks among the most racial­ly seg­re­gat­ed cities in the Unit­ed States with one of the fast­ed grow­ing rates there­of. It is also home to one of the largest and fastest grow­ing wealth gaps in the nation. New Haven, in brief, is home to one of the worst, most swift­ly wors­en­ing, and bru­tal­ly racial­ized wealth gaps in the nation as well as a police force twice the nation­al aver­age in size. It also hap­pens to be home to an espe­cial­ly wealthy pri­vate Uni­ver­sity that ran a bud­get sur­plus of $37 mil­lion in fis­cal year 2015-16. There is no mys­tery as to why a town where the sec­ond-wealth­i­est pur­vey­or of gowns in the Unit­ed States is both the largest employ­er and one of the largest land­lords requires twice the nation­al aver­age of cops per capi­ta to keep the peace. Nor is it espe­cial­ly mys­te­ri­ous why so many cops were on hand to direct the chore­og­ra­phy of the con­fronta­tion between the orange crush and black mass. Yale rules New Haven with an iron fist while flaunt­ing its wealth in the face of immense and intense­ly racial­ized pover­ty. It does so even while fur­ther immis­er­at­ing its own fac­ul­ty and send­ing its grad­u­ates into labor mar­kets with few good jobs. The greater mys­tery is why every­thing in New Haven is not on fire. 

On this view there can be only one con­clu­sion. If you oppose the uncer­tain future we all face, you sup­port the stu­dents. If you oppose ram­pant sex­u­al assault in work­places both with­in and with­out Uni­ver­si­ties, you sup­port the stu­dents. If you oppose the bru­tal­ly racial­ized wealth gap between town and gown in New Haven, you stand with the stu­dents. If you oppose both the long march through insti­tu­tions and the more vir­u­lent pop­ulist forces of Trump­ism, you stand with the stu­dents. If you oppose the forced peace bought by dra­con­ian labor poli­cies and munic­i­pal armies of police at home upon which Amer­i­can impe­ri­al­ism rests, you sup­port the stu­dents. If you oppose the indef­i­nite deten­tion of Pales­tin­ian polit­i­cal pris­on­ers in Israel, you stand with the stu­dents. If you sup­port the efforts of those com­pelled to labor for­mal­ly or infor­mal­ly for what they need in order to sur­vive beneath the rule of cap­i­tal, you sup­port the stu­dents. If you want to see the fate of the Fast Against the Slow become what it must in order to abol­ish all of the above, join them. 


  1. On the ris­ing pre­car­i­ty accom­pa­ny­ing a long down­turn in cap­i­tal accu­mu­la­tion and ten­den­tial uptick in unem­ploy­ment since 1973 see Aaron Benanav, “Pre­car­i­ty Ris­ing,” View­point, June 15, 2015. 

  2. See Joshua Clover, Riot. Strike. Riot: The New Era of Upris­ings (Ver­so: Lon­don, 2016). 

  3. Social Text devot­ed a spe­cial issue to the nation­al­ly watched, water­shed strug­gle at Yale in 1996; sev­er­al land­mark essays on grad­u­ate stu­dent orga­niz­ing have since been devot­ed specif­i­cal­ly to the strug­gle to union­ize grad­u­ate stu­dents at Yale. See, for exam­ple, “The Yale Strike Dossier,” Spe­cial Issue, Social Text 14, no. 5 (1996); Gor­don Lafer, “Land and Labor in the Post-Indus­tri­al Uni­ver­si­ty Town: Remak­ing Social Geog­ra­phy,” Polit­i­cal Geog­ra­phy 22 (2003): 89-117; Gor­don Lafer, “Grad­u­ate Stu­dent Union: Orga­niz­ing in a Changed Aca­d­e­m­ic Econ­o­my,” Labor Stud­ies Jour­nal 28, no. 2 (2003): 25-43; Ben John­son and Tom McCarthy, “Grad­u­ate Stu­dent Orga­niz­ing at Yale and the Future of the Labor Move­ment in High­er Edu­ca­tion, Social Pol­i­cy 30, no. 4 (2000): 11-18. 

  4. All data in this para­graph is tak­en from Yale Uni­ver­si­ty 2015 AAU Cam­pus Cli­mate Sur­vey on Sex­u­al Mis­con­duct (Sep­tem­ber 21, 2015). 

  5. All data in this para­graph is tak­en from “The Annu­al Report on the Eco­nom­ic Sta­tus of the Pro­fes­sion, 2015-16,” Acad­eme (March-April 2016): 9-23. 

  6. Unless oth­er­wise indi­cat­ed, all data and quo­ta­tions con­cern­ing con­tin­gent fac­ul­ty at Yale are from Yale Uni­ver­si­ty Fac­ul­ty of the Arts and Sci­ences Sen­ate, Report on the Sta­tus, Pay, and Con­di­tions of Non-Lad­der Fac­ul­ty in FAS (April 13, 2017). 

  7. Yale Uni­ver­si­ty Fac­ul­ty of the Arts and Sci­ences Sen­ate, Report on the Expan­sion of Yale Col­lege (March 10, 2016), 17. 

  8. Research and Destroy, Com­mu­niqué from an Absent Future (2009), 15. 

  9. See Lafer, “Land and Labor in the Post-Indus­tri­al Uni­ver­si­ty Town.” 

Author of the article

is working on a book of literary history, The Long Downturn and its Discontents: Poetry, Culture Wars, and the New Left, about the ins and outs of poetry, social movements, and political economy after 1960. He is currently a Lecturer in the English Department at Yale University.