by Eli Nadeau September 17, 2016
In the clear, critical light of day, illusory administrators whisper of our need for institutions, and all institutions are political, and all politics is correctional…Politics proposes to make us better, but we were good already in the mutual debt that can never be made good. We owe it to each other to falsify the institution, to make politics incorrect, to give the lie to our own determination. We owe each other the indeterminate. We owe each other everything. (Moten and Harney 2013, 20)
The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) decision in the Columbia University case is being hailed as historic, and it is. In recognizing student workers as employees of the universities that compensate their labors, however, the Columbia decision names a particular, lived reality that daily and nightly, bi-weekly and quarterly writes itself into the bodies and minds of the student workers acknowledged by its language. We didn’t need a ruling to tell us we’re workers, and after our tireless drives to get cards signed, to keep students talking, to keep the pressure on our administrations, our majority is manifest, we’ve got unions already. The question here is what are we going to do with them? That question can be broken down in a number of ways.
What’s being produced by student workers in university settings? (‘Public’ and ‘private’ are technical distinctions, just ask their constituents and their shareholders.) What’s in circulation? What’s the collective and for what will it bargain? What’s the deal? What’s at stake? What claims are we in a position to make upon the wealth of the universities, we students, we privileged few, when we are invited to share our diligently-struggled-for and joyfully-won knowledge in the classrooms, labs and offices of these hallowed halls?
We do not claim recognition that our projects are “special” or our relationships to those with whom we work “unique”— on the contrary, these labors strike us as necessary to maintain the conditions of our existence, to reproduce ourselves.
So then, is it the universities and governments and loan agencies to whom we are in debt, or might we recognize, with an undercommon kind of sense, the way Randy Martin (2014) and Fred Moten (2013) read Marx, that it’s our mutual debt that matters; matters so much we can’t afford not to come together, we can’t stop meeting and teaching and reaching beyond ourselves and the context of our study because if we do, we lose. Not only do we lose the contract, we lose the whole context -- indexed by the (now denuded) phrase “solidarity.”
Don’t get it twisted: we know the privilege we bear, and we value the opportunities this privilege affords us to come together as student workers, to share the site of our commodity production, our study. We care so goddamn much about what we do that we’re willing to put it aside in order to have these conversations with each other, to build unions from shared stakes in order to keep the whole thing up.
Our union building is a way we prioritize the struggle to keep up the struggle; to teach these sections, write these papers, formulate these questions, question our answers. Our work, as student workers, is our life, and for Columbia, for the New School, for the University of Chicago, for the University of California, for Miami University of Ohio and for the University of Florida, Miami, our scholarship creates surplus value, our labor is the wealth of these institutions.
But there are limits to what we can do within these institutional settings, these universities, these unions. As Moten and Harney remind us, all institutions, by way of politics, are correctional, and the commons is always enclosed.
So then the question becomes not only what is up for grabs — knowledge? wealth? time? security? — but how do we work through these institutions to grab it, and then what will we do with it? Keep it, distribute it, set it in motion, set it on fire?
How do we break into the enclosures, if we’re not raised within them, and break out again after we’ve participated, collected and shared the benefits — study, rest, recognition, survival — they permit? It seems also a question of consciousness: recognizing that the things we’re up to, the university-education-project, the becoming-union movements, are inherently conservative and correctional, and that if we’re going to be together well, as a collective force inside and outside, around, through and under, it means standing as and standing with those who won’t be corrected. Who don’t need correction.
And this is how union mobilization with universities as student workers can maybe meet up with the Movement for Black Lives, with the Fight for 15; with the mothers and brothers and dancers and fighters who may not want any part of our institutional correctionalism, but with whom we want to stand anyway, because we need to, because there’s more at stake than a livable wage and health care, but both of those things are necessary to get there. Because there is a nurses office where the love is, there is a counter where the food is, there is an occupation where the freedom is if we get out of the way and let it move us, let it move through us; take us under.
How do we take up collective bargaining, this task of (false) representation, and still make it out alive, to share in the life that escapes the limits of these discourses? Framed another way, we’re collecting in the hope of gaining access to, and understanding “issues” proliferating around our campuses when these campuses were founded on inequalities that still manifest as “issues” at every turn — the Matters of indigenous land theft — claims to the space we occupy —the Matters of slavery that stain all the glass through which we strive to peer. But glass, as Corey Menafee courageously demonstrated, can be broken. And spaces can be reclaimed.
We need to withstand this organizing moment, this triumphant ruling; the overturning and returning of Brown and Columbia, this restoring “rights” of workers to bargain collectively, because as good as they are, they cannot be ends in themselves. But in our with-standing, in the claims we make when we #SayTheirNames and when we say “Solidarity Forever” and mean it no matter who’s holding the papers, what the papers say, these claims go along with others, claims to dependent benefits, or grievance procedures, or whatever allows us to occupy the institutions, to work within them if we so choose, and then get the fuck out in order to preserve the more precious energy that we can steal away with; the more nourishing relationships that teach us a different kind of collectivity, a different kind of learning, a different kind of work, a kind of uncommon, undercommon sense.
So the NLRB makes historical proclamations, and we celebrate. We celebrate and we keep working and meeting, within and across unions, as workers among workers. Collective bargaining is hard because it gives us the responsibility of holding resources in consideration of others — and even at the best-endowed institutions, resources are limited. And this is why we cannot lose sight of the institutional limits of our struggle.
At schools across the country, private and public, student workers are meeting up with non-student workers and we’re having conversations about resources. It’s a kind of collective, a kind of solidarity. Maybe we’ll see you around.
Harney, Stefano and Fred Moten. 2013. The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study. Wivenho: Minor Compositions.
Martin, Randy. 2014. “What Difference do Derivatives Make?” Culture Unbound, Volume 6. 189–210.
Moten, Fred. 2013 “The Subprime and the Beautiful” African Identities, 2013, Vol. 11, No. 2, 237–245, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14725843.201