“It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win.”
Two months ago, every worker at our University came under attack as a small number of highly-paid KU administrators attempted to force us back on campus without even a pretense of our consent. Since we as workers have an inherent right to a voice in our working conditions and because we all have agency and autonomy over our bodies, the cruel overreach of KU administrators broke faith with all of us, and none more so than Graduate Teaching Assistants, some of the most vulnerable and exploited workers on campus. As unionized workers, GTAs have not only an ethical right to determine our own conditions of work, but Kansas state law specifically prohibits changes to our working conditions without our consent. By acting in violation of basic moral principles and the laws of our state, KU administrators not only broke faith with University workers, but with the entire state of Kansas.
Next, KU administrators unilaterally cut pay and undermined access to healthcare benefits for our faculty workers, doubled the International student fee, illegally non-renewed dozens of GTAs without notice, and attempted to terminate at least 15 International workers for “tax reasons”. All of this as Chancellor Doug Girod received a $50,000.00 raise.
In response, faculty and adjunct workers, graduate workers, and students stood in solidarity and repelled this attack on our rights and our bodies. Together, we forced KU administrators to respect our right to determine our own conditions of work, successfully rescinded the carelessly xenophobic increase in International student fees, and took the first steps to filing suit against KU administrators for their illegal non-renewals and terminations of GTAs.
These shared victories follow years of GTAC triumphs, from achieving a 2.5% cost of living adjustment for all KU workers to expanding the non-discrimination policy to include Queer, trans, and International workers to achieving raises, parental leave, and childcare grants for GTAs – benefits which are still largely denied our faculty colleagues. Again and again, GTAC has demonstrated the power of solidarity and the power of our union.
Now our fight expands to a national battleground as we are assaulted by an ICE-proposed rule change which seeks to force our International workers and students, including many GTAC members, to choose between the autonomy of their bodies and their life’s work. Although I am a US “citizen”, I say that “we” are being assaulted because International workers and students are not separate from “the rest of us”. This is not something happening to “them” that GTAC wants to help “them” with – this is happening to us because an injury to one is an injury to all.
In several communications from new Provost Barbara Bichelmeyer, we have seen rhetoric implying this proposed rule change is immutable, and the best way for KU to “help” International students is to force faculty and graduate workers to teach in-person courses amidst a raging pandemic. These attempts to coerce faculty and graduate workers to sacrifice their bodies in service to her unrealistic budget model are unconscionable. Instead, the best way to for KU to help our students is to stop this proposed rule change.
Defeating this proposed rule change is not as unlikely as KU’s emails make it sound. In fact, this is third time that we have faced this “rule change” tactic from the Trump administration, including the 2017 Justice Department attack on Dreamers and a 2018 USCIS assault against F-1 visa holders. The 2017 DACA rule change was defeated by lawsuits brought by our labor union with the NAACP, and universities including Princeton, University of California, and others, while the 2018 proposed rule change was thwarted by a lawsuit brought by our labor union in concert with four other universities because when we fight, we win. But why is it always AFT/GTAC and other universities fighting for us?
Just as in 2018, the coercive emails from KU administrator Barb Bichelmeyer and the useless sentiment of KU administrator Doug Girod show us that we cannot depend on the moral sense of KU administrators to guide them towards our defense, unlike the administrators at Harvard, MIT, Rutgers, Northeastern University, the University of Michigan, and even the University of California. Instead, because power concedes nothing without a demand, we must stand together again to force KU administrators to take definitive, specific, and visible action to defeat this distinctly White nationalist policy change.
In the next few days, watch your email for information about how we will stand together to defend workers who are being intimidated and/or harassed into working without pay over the summer; workers who are being coerced into teaching in-person components in Fall 2020; workers who are being non-renewed or terminated during a global pandemic; and for our next steps in the fight for our basic human rights against ICE and key KU administrators.
Rest assured: GTAC will not just make words to defend our International comrades – we will take action to defeat this racist and xenophobic assault by engaging in direct action against ICE in coordination with graduate worker unions across the country, and by forcing KU administrators to use their immense political capital and lobbying power to defend our comrades.
Neill Kennedy, GTAC President