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About the Author

Caio Cesar Esteves de Souza is a third-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures. His work focuses on Colonial Luso-Brazilian literature and history, the French invasions in Rio (France Antarctique), and the representation of the Other in the 16th century. 

I would like to thank Rafael Rocca dos Santos, Ignacio Azcueta, Carlos Gonzalez and, above all, Alexander Okamoto for their comments and contributions to this article.

Disputing the meaning of a strike

by | Dec 9, 2021

I don’t know about my colleagues, but when I am not working, I usually watch a movie at home in my pajamas. I also tend to – whenever I am not feeling extra antisocial – meet with a friend for coffee to spend several hours chatting and laughing. Sometimes I even choose to go by myself to a calm place and read some of those books I never have time to read. What I never do, however, is wake up early in the morning and go to campus to walk in circles in the rain, chanting repetitive songs about my poor labor conditions, while being stared at by curious people or security officers. That is the kind of gruesome activity one only does when it is part of their job to do so.

Harvard graduate student-workers went on strike a few weeks ago. During that time, the university emailed a form to all students in which we should report whether we had joined the strike and withheld labor. They also informed us that the university might demand a refund for those days. This email sparked a heated debate, which even led Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley to publicly demand clarification from Harvard. It is still unclear whether graduate students will have to repay the university or not, and that debate is not even close to finished. Here, I want to highlight two intrinsic aspects of what constitutes an academic strike that seem to be missing from public discussion: the implication of the idea of striking as “withholding labor”, and the acceptable level of disruption a strike could cause.

Harvard Graduate Workers striking in Harvard Yard. Photo: Kathryn S. Kuhar 

While people are debating whether it is legal or ethical for an institution to demand its workers refund them for the time they withheld labor during a strike, I would like to challenge the idea that a student-worker strike constitutes withholding labor at all. As someone who comes from a young democracy that highly values labor laws and the collective right and responsibility to fight for better work conditions – in Brazil, our current constitution was written in 1988, after almost half a decade of the end of a right-wing military dictatorship, and the law that regulates strikes in the country was signed a year after that, in 1989 , I contend that striking is part of our job. Let’s imagine for a second that the university agrees with everything our union is demanding. If that happens, my colleagues and I will all benefit from our new contract. That self-serving reason to strike, however, has an early expiration date: in three or four years, most of us will have graduated and will no longer have access to the benefits of the strike, which will remain embedded in the institution. When Harvard sends out offer letters to new graduate students in 2022, the hypothetical victory of our strike will make those offers more competitive, helping the institution to recruit the candidates they want. The next cohort (and all future cohorts) of graduate students will benefit from our strike. Just like the whole academic community benefits from our work as researchers and instructors, they also benefit from our work as strikers. Striking is by no means withholding labor: it is simply reallocating collective efforts into one of the many aspects of our job. A strike is an administrative and political event. Every strike is always the result of a series of frustrated (and frustrating) bargaining meetings; in essence, it is nothing but a louder bargaining session. Would anyone dare contend that administrators should repay the hours spent on bargaining committee meetings?

Another point of the debate concerns the level of disruption a student-worker strike should cause. Some argue that any disruption to undergraduate classes is damaging to our pedagogical role – something that none of us want to see happen. Others believe that a strike should be as disruptive as possible, since without disruption there would be little left to tell strikers and street performers apart. But why are we accepting the idea that a strike is cause for disruption? A strike is by no means the cause of any disruption; it is simply transforming a previously existing disruption into a more visible form so that the whole community can collectively address it. Strikes are not lightning bolts falling from a blue sky on a sunny day. They are the result of months of what starts off as slightly upsetting elements of quotidian life for some individuals and build up to become a disruptive factor felt by a sizeable fraction of the academic community. Undergraduate students, Graduate students, Preceptors, and Administrators lead very different lives and face very different struggles, and it is difficult for us to remain aware of what is happening with the other groups. Strikers simply bring that disruptive reality to the spotlight for some time, making those struggles visible to others and reminding the whole community of our mutual interests and responsibilities.

I hope to at least have helped us understand how fundamental it is that we perform our jobs in all their dimensions. Our teaching and research are crucial for our development in graduate school and are vital for the smooth function of the university as a whole. Striking, whenever necessary, is likewise a fundamental part of our work; it is by no means a process of withholding labor, but simply performing it in an alternate form. It is also not the cause of any disruption, but simply a process of restaging an already existing disruption. A strike’s results, just like those of teaching and researching, benefit the whole academic community. Our role as a community is to make sure that such an important part of our labor is protected, supported and victorious.

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