The following article was written at the beginning of university campus closures and stay-at-home orders in the United States. Since then, the United States has been swept by a wave of protests ignited by the brutal murder of George Floyd. These protests were met with ruthless repression, exposing the domestic police state that undergirds U.S. empire. Universities have begun mass layoffs and many are planning to bring students and workers back onto campus despite the fact that COVID-19 cases continue to rise. It’s truly a dystopic time to be alive. What happens in the fall will set the tone moving forward. If student and worker deaths become normalized in the name of continuity and profits, there will be no end to the dangers university administrations will impose on students and workers. Graduate students will play a decisive role in what happens next. Whether through strikes or other forms of collective action, something historic will need to occur to stop the absurdity.
The Social Welfare Strike is meant to be adapted to one’s specific position and working conditions. The idea is to reallocate all or some parts of one’s work time to social welfare in the midst of the global pandemic. I speak particularly to academic workers, yet this may scale to a call to all the workers who make this world run to reimagine the conditions under which we labor.
In university contexts, academic workers must ask: what are our priorities? In March 2020, as the global pandemic laid bare hollowed university and government safety nets, the UC Irvine COLA (cost-of-living-adjustment) campaign announced a Social Welfare Strike. The COLA movement began because the University of California system refuses to address the poverty wages it pays us, causing almost all grad students to be rent burdened (paying 30% or more of ones income on rent), with many people forced to pay upwards of 80% of their stipend on rent. In response, grad students at UC Santa Cruz engaged in a full labor stoppage, to then face brutal policing, surveillance, and retaliation. When strikers at UC Santa Cruz were fired, the strike/COLA movement spread to all the other UC campuses.
As a graduate student at the University of California Irvine and alum of Pomona College, I myself witnessed how the swift nation-wide campus closures left the lives of students and workers in disarray. We cannot afford to normalize this scenario as “business as usual.” We cannot allow our administrations to react to crisis conditions expeditiously in ways that leave behind the most vulnerable students and workers, with the promise that our administrators will work out the details later.
Students have been thrust into housing insecurity, they have lost their jobs and can’t pay rent, they have been forced back into unsafe or abusive homes, are living in cramped conditions where “social distancing” is not possible, and face many other difficult scenarios. They’re watching politicians and elites debate how many of them should die for the market. Because it’s not just old folks that are particularly vulnerable — immunocompromised folks (which due to medical racism disproportionately affects black, indigenous, and people of color) make up a larger portion of seemingly healthy young folk than many seem to understand. It is obvious that our national leaders want us to go back to work and die, but it would be foolish to think our employers, including universities, are not governed by the same logics. This pandemic has seeped oxygen onto the already massive fires raging within the university, which are not at all disconnected to the conditions of our gravely ill society,
Striking in a Pandemic
Workers go on strikes for all types of reasons, often for higher wages or workplace protections, but also in solidarity with other progressive struggles. The first step is to listen and learn the needs of one’s community. As a grad student worker, this will mean using designated class time to check in on my undergraduates and find out what I and fellow grad students as a collective can do to help. Here in Irvine, students have already begun a mutual aid program to deliver food and medical supplies, ease the isolation of social distancing, and address other community needs. Get creative though: Hop on zoom and have “tea and chill” with students who are able! Rethink your typical grading practices, and perhaps consider a universal grading system. And what about the on-campus workers putting their health and lives at risk on the ‘front lines’? How are they being compensated? What protections are they being given? Undergrads, I would hope that your teaching assistants and professors are not creating excessive workloads for y’all, and if so, I encourage all those who can to resist in individual and and collective ways. We must make time to pause ourselves, because universities are not providing that time to their students or workers.
Those of us engaging a social welfare strike will not means-test aid. Universities feed on the trauma of students for all sorts of applications and competitions. We refuse to force students to recount their trauma, and we will work to meet as many of their needs as we have the capacity to do during this crisis. We also realize that what is being termed a “crisis” has been the daily reality for many, and has exposed the fine and fluid line dividing those who exist in perpetual terror and many others who are compelled by our socio-economic system to sway back and forth at the edge of the abyss.
University students, both undergraduate and graduate, are more vulnerable to conditions of poor health in a number of ways, including mental health issues from stress and overwork, social isolation, and a host of other problems that too many are familiar with. I find it disturbing how universities are not acknowledging that many students, in addition to the likelihood of falling ill themselves at some point, will now be the caretakers for members of their family, and how these labors of caregiving fall disproportionately on women. The physical and emotional toll of this work is not something that can be quantified because of the many dimensions of suffering and sacrifice it has and will continue to entail.
Students are being forced to fight for their survival and organize for themselves, which isn’t new but feels especially callous at this moment. Administrations across the country have failed. Or, rather it’s more accurate to say that they’ve been exposed. The thin veneers of “diversity and inclusion” language have melted to the ground in the face of the twin crises of public health and capital.
Might we be punished for this Social Welfare Strike? We know that groups like the Black Panthers and others were targeted more for their social aid efforts than anything else because this sort of work exposes the hypocrisy of the contemporary work regime, which is made so much worse in this era of neoliberalism. An era where your co-workers are supposed to be your “family”, your boss your “friend”, and your home is turned (now quite literally) into an extension of your office. This language mystifies reality, and prevents us from questioning decisions that are meant to preserve the logic of institutions and the power of capital amidst mass sickness and death, instead of promoting your health and well-being, or contributing to collective struggles at a grassroots or community level.
All the administrative and faculty emails at my university come with virtual smiles and the sentiment that “we” are in this together. The university demands that we work with them until the crisis is over. But as sympathetic faculty have explained to me, crisis measures don’t go away. And for every penny that universities lose, students will pay in austerity. The biggest fear of any administration is that these changing conditions will expand our imaginations and embolden us to demand better. And now, after a couple months of staying at home, pundits insult our intelligence as workers by promulgating “both sides logic” and stating how they “know that there are people who are eager to return to campus as quickly as possible,” while begrudgingly acknowledging that others are reluctant.
One of the greatest intellectuals and activists of the previous century, W.E.B. DuBois, teaches us that the general strike must include organized groups and communities, but not necessarily a fully coordinated movement. That’s how enslaved people won their freedom in the US. The small acts, from work slowdowns to stoppages, fleeing the plantation, and breaking tools. Time and time again students and workers have imagined together in order to transform the university. Another university is possible, and I’m ready to work change this place, but we can’t do that if we’re sick. If we’re leaving behind the most vulnerable folks, whose dreams tear at the fabric of our dystopian reality, then change will always be superficial. A young black UK woman Kayla Williams died the other day because she was told by a healthcare worker that she was “not priority.” Care has to be our number one priority in this moment, not continuity. Not working for non-life saving institutions. We must slow down yet move with purpose. This is your strike. Envision. Care. Love. Reflect.
Tagged: #Abuse #Child care #Class #Colonialism #Economy #Elder care #Emotional labour #English #Gender #Geopolitics of care #Mutual aid networks #Quarantine #Race #State power #Surveillance #Welfare state
Semassa Boko is a cultural worker, freelance writer, and PhD student in sociology and critical theory at the University of California, Irvine. He is driven by the need to pose rigorous and generative questions regarding social change, violence, war, black music, and aesthetics through his scholarly research as well as through music reviews, poetry, speeches, and various forms of community involvement. Black study is his way of life and black liberation defines his dreams. He can be found at @themumblinggriot on Twitter and Instagram.