On Why University Worker and University Work: A conversation with student activists from Canada

The following was written in response to questions sent to us by comrades in the Student and Education Worker Industrial Organizing Committee of the Toronto Industrial Workers of the World. They also run a newsletter/blog, called ClassRoom. The document was prepared in May of 2015. We did this as a stocktaking exercise for The University Worker since it started in November 2013.

  1. Can you tell us a little bit about your project and the organization behind it (when your paper was founded, who is involved, how the editorial process works, etc)?

We are a group of about 20; all work in the university in various capacities; some of us even have more than one institutionally defined role (being both a student as well as an ad-hoc teacher/research assistant). We come from somewhat varied political experiences, although all were broadly part of the Left spectrum. We all had some engagements in university politics, especially anti-fee hike struggles, anti-sexual harassment struggles, or struggles around the ‘undemocratic decision-making’ at the universities. Some were part of student wings of CPs in India, some were autonomous. For some university-level struggles led to disillusionment with the transient nature of victories or shallowness of reform, and a sense of the overall impossibility of real change in the university through isolated struggles.

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The Problem of Accommodation – TISS, Mumbai

I am an M Phil student at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. The institute has a severe paucity of hostels. Usually hostels are only provided on priority basis mostly to students who are in second year of MA and M. Phil. Rental accommodations nearby are extremely expensive. 6000 per person for a room shared by 2 people is the average. These accommodations are unfurnished and are located in areas which are not considered very safe. For a relatively safe rental accommodation which has all the basic facilities, students have to pay around 13000-­14000 for a shared room.  Continue reading

Living Wage for All Researchers-Living Wage for All Workers!

OCCUPY UGC ON 26th OCT, 2 PM ‪#‎occupyugc‬ ‪#‎livingwageforallresearchers‬ ‪#‎livingwageforallworkers‬

As the protest against withdrawal of stipends provided to researchers moved into its 3rd day, students who were occupying the University Grants Commission (UGC) were detained by CRPF at 6 in the morning. They were then taken to Bhalaswa Dairy police station. Earlier, ABVP students pelted stones at the protesting students inside the UGC office. In support and to continue the protest another call was made to gather at the UGC office that was to culminate with a protest at 5 in the evening at Jantar Mantar.

What happened later during the day has happened quite often. UGC office was completely barricaded off by the police against which the students struggled. As the students broke the barricades, a brief lathi charge led to a couple of students being badly injured. As a follow up measure, voices came up to chakka jam (road block) the main ITO road against those who called for a sit-down to wait for a round of conversation with the UGC authorities. Ultimately, on the basis of a referendum, the chakka jam won. Due to pressure from the Delhi police, the road block didn’t last long. The students eventually settled to protest on the other side of UGC building while still cordoned off by the barricades. ABVP came to limelight again as a bunch of them were seen protesting with the same demands, albeit with a tweak. The police detained them, but unlike the morning detention, they were let off after the bus had merely travelled for 30 metres or so.

After this, in the course of the protest, a pattern that we have seen quite often now repeated itself. The language of “rising fascism” and “Modi Sarkar” began to dominate the question of continuation and increase in non-NET fellowship for researchers – a main concern of the protest. This rhetoric made connections, jumps rather, with fascist Modi government, communalization, etc. This in not to say that the main issue had been completely forgotten; students continued to raise their immediate concern. This language even connected the issue of stipends to living expenditures, research students working part-time outside course work to make up their living costs, etc.

Perhaps, just to say that research scholars demand the stipend back or even to go a step further and demand a stipend sufficient for subsistence, and for basic living is not enough to generalize the students struggle beyond the university. But is it possible to generalise using a liberal language vis-a-vis the university? In effect, this protest too had to borrow the language of anti-communalism- a language that is not of class struggle. It subtracts all mention of labour, capital and workers, and directs us back to fighting merely police repression, or merely this government. This language only seems to have a potential to maneuver the already happening struggle onto other grounds of struggle; in fact, it sidelines the issues of the students in the university. Why is it that students or university issues don’t have a language of their own that will allow a more real basis for generalization, and will simultaneously account for the specificities of student struggles? What if rather than the language based on invoking communal fears, the protest starts asking questions about why the university (and society) need and yet invisibilize researchers’ labour, and from there progress onto questions of a living wage for all segments of the university?

We need to learn from the ongoing struggle of the Anganwadi workers. They are asserting their right to a wage as “workers”. No radical force will deny that the ‘volunteer’ status of anganwadi workers – which means they used to get paid an honorarium much below the minimum wage of “workers” – was rooted in the notions of work that refused to see reproductive work as “work”. To top it all, these women are said to be doing tasks “natural” to them, and hence are seen as less deserving of a wage. No radical force will deny their claim to being workers.

To research is not just to consume knowledge it is also to produce knowledge. The student is also part of production of knowledge-commodities- research papers, seminars, theses and conferences. Research students, even more so. Universities – private and public – all brand and sell themselves on the basis of research work and the number of high-level degrees and alumni. In that case, are they not also key to a university’s production? Are they not workers?

The question of the fellowship needs to be seen as a question of a wage, i.e. a wage in return for the work that a researcher contributes to the knowledge-productions chains of her university. This is needed for us to reproduce ourselves – to live. And, it needs to be seen as a question of a living wage – a wage sufficient for all social needs – not just to pay for fees, hostels and books, but to live comfortably.

The struggle to be recognized as workers, as in the case of the Anganwadi, is in order to be able to struggle against that work collectively. What the defensive struggle today proves is that the research student needs this stipend to reproduce her labor power. Insofar as the taking away of the stipend further immiserates the researcher, the struggle to defend the stipend, i.e. the struggle to be recognized as a worker, is actually a struggle against immiseration. By controlling our wages and stipends, capital controls our reproduction, our work, our lives. In this struggle the researcher potentially realises her worker-hood, and is trying to force the state to recognise that all researchers are workers who must get a decent living wage. This is an essential moment of the struggle against wage-slavery. The movement needs to decide if the enemy is (un)wage-slavery as a whole or just the fascist moment of capital.

And why should research scholars be privileged? They shouldn’t be! Everyone deserves a living wage. Insofar as this is a struggle against immiseration, it is important for us to recognize the possibilities of joint struggle in the university with others who face similar situations. Clerks, housekeeping, canteen, electrical and maintenance staff, especially those on outsourced contracts have all recently suffered wage cuts, some getting less than minimum wage. The generalized attack produces the opportunity for generalized struggle.

Let the university shut down
Let’s all strike
Let’s all get what we want!
We need to turn this defensive situation into an attack –
A decent living wage for all!

Living Wage for all Researchers!

On 7th Oct. the UGC decided to scrap the Non NET Fellowship from the next academic year. This fellowship provides the much needed monthly stipend of 5000 and 8000 to MPhil and PhD students respectively, and is applicable to all research students who are not covered by any other fellowship. Other than this, the UGC provides the JRF fellowship which covers a minority of the total students who qualify the NET. While not confirmed, it appears likely that given the existing UGC fellowships, and the scrapping of the Non NET fellowship, there will be no financial support for the majority of research students, barring those who qualify for JRF and a handful of other fellowships.
This news came out on 20th Oct (the UGC failed to broadcast the decision), via newspapers. Students in Delhi and Hyderabad have organised protests. The Hyderabad Student Union has demanded the reinstatement of the Fellowship with higher stipends. A demonstration has been organised in the campus.
In Delhi, students from AUD, JNU, DU and JMI went for a demonstration to the UGC office on 21st early evening, breaking into the complex. Talks with UGC officials failed when they made vague offers to review the issue at the next meeting. Students decided to stay the night and occupy the UGC complex till their demands are met, and this occupation is ongoing. Primarily, 4 demands have emerged: Reinstatement of the non-NET Fellowship; increased stipend given the price rise; its application in all Central and State universities; and the more general call to stop differential treatment of students and the privatisation of education. Students have also been demanding increased stipends prior to this decision.
Given that many families can’t/won’t fund research work, students who undertake MPhil and PhD are forced to do paid work alongside, increasing their working hours immensely. The demands on researchers are extremely rigorous as it is, and there is the addition of paid work, reproducing oneself, and in many cases, one’s family (either monetarily or in terms of housework). Paid work at this level is also short-term: 3 month to 1 year long contracts, resulting in the added insecurity of getting a sustained wage. On top of this, we have to pay the university!
In the university, the research scholar is clearly a worker, something both the state, and to an extent the research scholar does not recognise. Fieldwork and theses crucially feed into the cycle of knowledge production. Rather than being paid for our work in producing knowledge, we are forced to do unwaged work in the hope of securing a decent paying job sometime in the future. The system progressively eliminates those who do not have the means to remain unpaid researchers/students at each level of education. Rather than providing decent housing, and proper stipends, the burden of reproducing ourselves to work is being shifted onto us, heightening insecurity and precarity of research work.
This is an interesting moment of time in the university. Because this tiny stipend was called a fellowship, or a scholarship what was hidden was the fact that it was a wage. What the defensive struggle today proves is that the research student needs this stipend to reproduce her labor power. Insofar as the taking away of the stipend further immiserates the researcher, the struggle to defend the stipend, i.e. the struggle to be recognized as a worker, is actually a struggle against immiseration. In this struggle the researcher potentially realises her worker-hood, and is trying to force the recognition on the state that all researchers are workers who must get a decent living wage– but this is an essential moment of the struggle against wage-slavery.
Furthermore, insofar as this is a struggle against immiseration it is important for us to recognize the possibilities of joint struggle that open up with those others in the university also facing a similar situation. For example only recently the wages of contractual staff at JNU were struck – now they get equal to or less than 12,000. The generalized attack produces the opportunity for generatized struggle. We need to turn this defensive situation into an attack – a decent living wage for all.