How Colorado State Graduate Workers Got Organized During the Pandemic


The pandemic has been brutal for graduate workers, but some have organized despite COVID. Case in point: graduate workers at Colorado State University, who, with help from the Emergency Workers Organizing Committee, demanded decent pay and treatment.

INTERVIEW BY Samuel Fleischman & Wen Zhuang

The higher-education landscape has been radically reshaped by the pandemic year. Universities have struggled to maintain enrollment numbers and fallen short on offering safe and viable environments for their students and graduate workers, both of whom they relied on to remain afloat during this crisis.

The Graduate Workers Organizing Cooperative was formed by graduate-student workers at Colorado State University (CSU) in the early months of 2021 to address these mounting problems, not only with the return to in-person classes but also with the issues of student fees and cost of living adjustments. The group was a natural extension of existing community relationships, including ones between mutual-aid groups in and around Fort Collins, local Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) members, and volunteers with the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee (EWOC), the organizing project created by DSA and the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America union (UE), which has helped guide the cooperative through the early stages of organizing.

Backed by a proposal written by the dean of CSU’s graduate school, Mary Stromberger, that detailed how the university is running far behind its peer institutions in regards to pay and support, they delivered a petition asking President Joyce McConnell and the Board of Governors to accept the proposal’s terms, as well as several other items including the end of additional fees for international students. The petition was ultimately not adopted, but that hasn’t stopped the group. In an interview with EWOC volunteers Wen Zhuang and Samuel Fleischman, members of the organizing committee and organizers from EWOC discuss the successes and failures of their nascent campaign, how this recent effort has proved more effective than previous organizing attempts, the uniqueness of their situation as a top-tier public research school in Colorado, and their plans for the summer.

SF: The focus of your fight has been around student fees. Can you give us a brief understanding of what the specific student fees are at CSU?

SB: Mary Stromberger and Colleen Webb, the dean and associate dean of the Graduate School at CSU, led research which revealed that our basic stipend is more than 20 percent lower than our peer universities and almost 30 percent lower than our aspirational peer universities. We have something like $880 a semester in basic fees, and then about $350 more on top of that per semester for miscellaneous things that differ by college and department.

They put together a package of recommendations about what the central administration could do to fix this. When this graduate working group was forming, it was clear we could pressure the president of CSU and the Board of Governors to take this research seriously and adopt those proposals.

DN: Even the most aspirational scenario proposed by Stromberger’s report didn’t consider the possibility of covering international student fees, an additional $125. So we added covering fees for international students, since they can’t hold another job. Our group worked a lot on collecting graduate workers’ stories, basically showing how paying these fees makes life really tough. We had stories of folks who had to go on food stamps because of it. Some of us who are not citizens cannot even go on food stamps, so we relied on food banks instead. That’s the reality of graduate students at CSU right now.

SB: Even the Graduate School admits that our compensation package is below a reasonable standard of living. It’s not livable, not only in terms of how much money we are paid, but also, I pay over 10 percent of what I take home back to CSU in the form of fees. So we’re not even being paid enough to live, and then we have to pay a huge chunk of that back to the university.

CW: As far as the question of what the fees are actually covering, most of it is fairly normal. A lot of universities use a fee structure to cover the kinds of things that aren’t otherwise covered by tuition: things like recreational facilities, printing labs on campus, some of the digital library access materials. What’s not normal is how high the fees are at CSU compared to other institutions. When you wrap in all these other fees that are little, like transportation, it really comes out to over $1,200, which is a lot when your first paycheck is around $1,600.

I moved into university housing and immediately had to pay $1,000 in rent. Then I got my first paycheck, and I owed three-quarters of it back to the school. So it just feels like we’re paying to be able to work.

The second thing that’s not normal compared to many universities is that other colleges have stipends for their workers, specifically to cover fees. The Dean has already shown where that money could come from in the university budget as well. They just need to do it.

WZ: Stromberger’s recommendations to the administration make your situation a bit unusual compared to a lot of other graduate-worker organizations in that you have some implicit support from management. Have any other leaders at CSU come forward recently, and do you see the assistance of people like Stromberger as crucial to your campaign?

SB: It might be too strong to say that we have the full support of Mary Stromberger and the deans. They did undertake this research because they knew there was a problem, and supposedly Joyce McConnell, the president of CSU, fully supported them and encouraged them to do this research. But they are also working within an institution that gives them limited power. In the recent Board of Governors meeting on budget for the coming year, Stromberger and the deans expressed their understanding of these problems and their support, but just one person in the budget strategy meeting brought up this group and our demands. This is why we think our working group being independent from the Graduate Student Council, the institutional grad student group at CSU, is really important, because they often get away with just words and empty gestures.

DN: A lot of what we are doing this summer is charting and mapping our support across departments and faculty. The Graduate Student Council at CSU, the GSE, all formally endorsed our petition. We’re putting together a working group with the faculty council to discuss those ideas further with the GSC. We definitely have a lot of individual support from faculty and professors. The Department of Economics and some other departments agree with a lot of our demands. But at the same time, when it comes to the Board of Governors or to people who actually have the power to change the budget, our communication with them, and our pressure on them, hasn’t been as successful in terms of actually getting a response.

SB: We do have much stronger support from the faculty than we do among administration, which makes sense. Faculty also haven’t gotten raises in forever; our adjuncts are paid horribly. I was an adjunct briefly, and when I became a PhD student, I had to clarify that I was going to be paid as a teaching assistant, not as an adjunct, since TAs actually get paid more.

SF: What does the general demographic of your organization look like, across departments and faculties and backgrounds?

DN: A lot of support for the undergraduate student community came from the one-on-one conversations we’ve had, either in private or through our social media channels. We also meet every week. More than five hundred graduate workers at CSU signed our petition. There are some problems regarding how many graduate students actually work at CSU, because the positions are all so different, with a lot of different positions depending on which college you’re from. But I think that the overall number is around three thousand students. We have folks from chemistry, economics, a ton of folks from political science, and engineering. We also have some international students like myself, which is kind of tricky — when we previously tried to organize graduate workers in 2018, convincing international students to join was difficult, since our presence in this country depends on CSU recognizing us as workers.

SB: We’re growing rapidly, with almost fifty people talking about formally starting a steering committee. The EWOC training has been really helpful for that. We’ve done two or three different trainings in our different channels, including one for one-on-one conversations and one about press preparation.

WZ: There’s been hopeful news coming out of NYU, as well as other higher-publicity organizing efforts at Kenyon and Columbia. At a publicly funded university like CSU, how do these similar organizing stakes differ and change? What do you see, as an organizer, as the potential benefits and the evident setbacks that you have to face, because of the status of CSU as a public land-grant institution? How does organizing in publicly funded universities factor into the national conversation around an uptick in grad student organizing?

DN: CSU prides itself on being one of the leading institutions offering classes and resources for first-generation students and veterans. These classes are taught mainly by graduate workers, who also do the majority of the grading, so it’s another way CSU depends on our labor.

In the past few years, CSU has been trying to increase the number of international students. We all know that it’s because of higher tuition, but then CSU offers a very unideal benefits package to those workers when they come. Part of our goal is of course immediate actions and demands, but there is also an aim to change the structure of the university to make it more engaged with the public and the local community that it is an extension of.

SB: It’s just about treating us like human beings, which seems extremely obvious. But even in the dean’s report, the focus is on things like the return on investment if they increase graduate stipends. We’re talked about as a commodity. That’s just not acceptable. Part of the fight is to be seen as humans who deserve to live like any worker and have a seat at the table about the things that run our lives as graduate-student workers and run the school.

CW: I can speak from my own experience. I dropped out of school as an undergraduate because of financial issues. Between finally finishing and going into grad school, I was briefly homeless, living in my van between classes. I’ve also worked throughout my life in the service industry and in construction, and endured all of the bad workplace treatments. This fight isn’t just that we theoretically believe we should be more taken care of. We’re almost militant about what we want and what we believe we deserve, because we know what it’s like to not get treated well.

This militancy is maybe more specific to us and our demographic than at an elite university. We also do have some specific challenges. We can’t legally form a union in Colorado at a public university and are in support of the legislation underway to change this. And, of course, the PRO Act, on the federal level. All these things would decrease the barriers of entry to organizing.

WZ: Since COVID hit last April, the appeal of elite universities and education at large has drastically changed. Many students chose to forego going to elite, expensive universities like Harvard or Yale, and go to their local college instead, if the school was going to be online anyway. What does your organizing work mean alongside the kind of future of education post-COVID that many have been talking about?

SB: CSU’s attendance is way above what they thought it was going to be for next year. They’re only a little below normal attendance. They were planning all these crazy budget cuts based on this fear; now that’s apparently not a problem, which is more fuel for us to ask for that money to be redirected to graduate students.

But in terms of COVID, I hope it will lead to a reckoning over the things people have been fighting for for so long, about the flexibility and accessibility of things like working from home or learning remotely, things many who have needed to seek alternate forms of education have depended on for years. COVID has made it clear that we can do a lot of that if we want to.

CSU has pushed hard to get bodies back into seats in the fall for tuition money, so my class, which has been online for the last year — which I put an enormous amount of time into totally reorganizing for online — is now going to in-person again in the fall. We live in a country where anti-intellectualism is so strong and so profoundly bad, so I think just talking about education anywhere and the rights for grad workers at any university, that a student should be well taken care of at any university anywhere, is an important part of the conversation.

SF: A lot of graduate workers who are also organizers often say they’re burnt out, and can forget why they’re doing the work they’re doing and why they’re in their programs in the first place. What brought you guys to CSU initially and what attracted you all to become graduate students in the first place?

SB: I’m from Colorado and managed to get a great scholarship here as an undergraduate. Then I came back for a masters. It wasn’t my first choice, but after undergrad, I was living in the Pacific Northwest and ended up with serious health problems, and decided that I wanted to be closer to home. So CSU was the comfortable, more affordable place to be.

My master’s program did not have full funding, as most master’s programs don’t, and being able to get in-state tuition was really important in the decision (though even then I had to take out student loans). It is difficult, at this stage of academic burnout, to reflect back on what brought me to being a graduate student at all. I’m an applied anthropologist — I study the power dynamics of political and economic systems. My goal is not to stay in academia. But I want to. It needs to dramatically change for me to feel good about my place here.

Practically though, graduate school is the way to get into some of those jobs that I would like to do. And at the end of the day, it’s great to have a job that is just researching and thinking about things that are interesting to you, which is what graduate school is at the core. But not being paid enough will make this impossible.

DN: I did my undergrad in Brazil and part of it in Mexico. I also come from a family of a single mom who struggled a lot through life, and I always wanted to change things for the better. When I finished my masters in feminist economics, I felt discouraged and abandoned academia for a few years, until my former adviser told me that there are amazing people in the United States doing feminist research, and there’s a group of people that actually go to the World Bank and try to change things. So I decided I would study with Elissa Braunstein, who was the chair of my department and my advisor. I only had money to apply to one PhD program, because the exchange rate really binds us. So I only applied to CSU, and they accepted me.

I love being in the classroom, I love being a student, and I love being a teacher, and I think that that’s a way that I can directly see change. Especially here at CSU, a lot of people feel very unaware of the rest of the world. It’s important for people like me to occupy those spaces.

SF: Can you take us through how you initially came to reach out to EWOC, what working with organizing leaders has been like, and how EWOC’s ethos factors into your own organizing efforts?

DN: Compared to the organizing efforts we did in 2018, when a small group of us gathered some data on how different the situation of graduate workers is from different colleges and even at different departments within the same college, EWOC has helped us move forward. We didn’t take any further actions in 2018, but it was a valuable effort to start seeing what common struggles we have and recognize the need for organizing among graduate workers.

It’s precisely because we made the effort to reach out to EWOC for guidance, and especially to keep us on track, and also to make people feel comfortable doing the work, through the different trainings — just talking to their peers about joining efforts or knowing how to speak with the media and faculty, and how to gain momentum — that we’ve gotten so far.

SB: It’s also been really helpful with labor-specific expertise, because many people in our group have done all kinds of other organizing and community work, but very few people in the group have specific labor-organizing experience. It’s nice to be given tons of information and education and to have people to workshop things with us if we’re nervous about speaking in a meeting or drafting a press release. It’s also important to know that we have this bigger group that has our back, because it can be tough and feel like we are doing this in a vacuum, with all the pressure working against us.

CW: It’s also been really rad to engage with all the digital organizing tactics EWOC uses because of COVID. I’m writing or grading or something, and I can pop into a meeting, knock out an agenda, and go right back to work.

WZ: What’s the game plan from here on out?

DN: Our game plan is to unite all the workers of the world. But for now, we are focusing on building coalitions and engaging graduate workers, so we can continue to grow as an organization and build a structure that allows us to keep our democratic principles, establish priorities among our goals, and coordinate strategies to fight for those goals. GWOC wants to truly represent graduate workers at CSU. To do that, we need to be representative and democratically organized, so we can build our demands and plans of action from there.

This article is republished with permission from Jacobin.

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