The University of Maryland (UMD) sprawls within the suburban nest of College Park. Its central mall of colonial brick buildings sporting white-columned porticos recalls the university’s origins: UMD is a land-grant institution built on both the exploited land of the Piscataway people and the foundations of a former plantation. At the campus edges, collegial standards are overthrown by contemporary flights of capital imagination—the “glass castle” of the Iribe Center, the spaceship of the engineering department’s “IDEA Factory,” the lush golf course forbidden to students and staff unless they shell out over $1,700 a year for a membership.
Something is rotten beneath that facade of glass, concrete, and grass, something that only labor and care can heal. In contrast to its visible loyalty to capital, the University holds within its own archives the records of the AFL–CIO, of Asa Philip Randolph, of Frederick Douglass. But labor is a touchy subject here. The contempt UMD’s administrators and the University System of Maryland’s (USM’s) Board of Regents have for university workers is barely concealed beneath a veneer of politick. Year after year, they have testified in public hearings and lobbied the Maryland General Assembly, with Governor Larry Hogan’s brother as their leading lobbyist, to prevent state employees from receiving collective bargaining rights.
The staff union AFSCME Local 1072 itself organized and fought for decades to receive recognition and a contract from the university. Even then, university management has exploited contingent staff while giving itself budgetary flexibility to pay $5 million in severance to its recently-departed basketball coach. Following trends across the US, the university has hired more administrators at the expense of every other category of employee. Undergraduate resident assistants keep their fellow students safe without support or pay. When community assistants at UMD’s on-campus, public–private partnership dorms won a rare pay increase to $15/hr last year, the university used the raise to justify slashing shifts in half. Poorly-paid adjuncts are hired to take on teaching duties for tenured faculty under increased pressure. Graduate assistants teach classes for stipends that are nearly $20,000 below the living wage for Prince George’s County while working for 40, 50, 60 hours per week to make sure the university meets its obligations to students and research grants alike.
In the 1970s, student protests against militarization and Vietnam forced cops off campus and caused a flourishing ecosystem of student co-ops. All of that is lost now. A strategic partnership announced in 2010 cemented the University’s relationship to Lockheed Martin. The University closed the Maryland Food Co-op in 2019, claiming it couldn’t support the space anymore. They opened a food pantry instead. With a pro-labor Democratic Governor (finally) and a Democrat-controlled General Assembly, the university should no longer be able to skate by on a slick of anti-labor, pro-economy platitudes. Their argument has to fall apart. The workers of the University System of Maryland cannot be exploited to benefit the people of Maryland—they are one and the same.
I’m here, writing to the Washington Socialist as a member of the unrecognized grad union Fearless Student Employees. We, grad workers and adjuncts, have tried 10 times in the last 20 years to fight for collective bargaining rights, for the right to unionize, only to be outmaneuvered by a state institution with funds to burn on anti-labor lawyers and pro-capital management.
In some cases, we have lost due to backroom deals made by unions with the USM and the Maryland governor’s office. The University itself rigorously follows the routines of what communication scholar Thomas Discenna calls universities’ “discourses of denial,” the idea that academic labor is special or strange, that it isn’t labor at all. UMD’s policy that grad workers are students “first and foremost” is a kind of sleight of hand: it imagines that the hands that type and write, point and ask, aren’t hands at all. It’s exactly this fiction that lets the corporate university continue to profit from our work. That fiction has to be shown to be false. As a result, academic laborers’ success at organizing will be determined by the extent to which we stand in solidarity with all workers at UMD.
Through hard conversations and shared struggle, grad workers have been trying to form a broader coalition with labor groups on the UMD campus, including staff, undergrads, and faculty. After a second annual labor picnic to bring the UMD labor community together, the undergrad workers in United Students Against Sweatshops Local 54 are leading a protest for living wages on December 9th at McKeldin Mall on campus in College Park. In the new year, grads will be campaigning for collective bargaining rights and better working conditions for higher-ed workers across Maryland. The time is now ripe for College Park to become a union town—if the people of Maryland make it.