Graduate Student Strikes: Reasonable Demands or Cosmic Justice?

On Monday, academic workers at Rutgers University, including part-time faculty and graduate assistants, returned to their positions, effectively ending the university’s first-ever labor stoppage since its founding in 1766. After the university reached a framework agreement promising comprehensive pay raises, over 67,000 Rutgers students are now able to resume classes after a week of disruptions and cancellations.

Over the course of the next four years, according to the agreement terms hailed by three Rutgers unions as “profound victories,” full-time faculty and counselors at the university will receive a minimum 14% pay increase, while part-time lecturers will get a 43.8% increase in per-class credit salary. Additionally, postdoctoral fellows and associates will see a minimum 27.9% pay increase, while teaching and graduate assistants will be paid $40,000 for their 10-month salaries.

The Rutgers strike is the latest in a recent wave of work stoppages at high-profile universities, including Temple University, the University of California, Los Angeles, the University of Michigan, Chicago State University, and New York City’s New School. A common characteristic of these strikes is that negotiations for graduate students’ compensation and benefits have been center stage. In addition to free tuition, fee remission, and health care subsidies, Rutgers graduate teaching and research assistants (TA/GAs) have made the case that their part-time salaries, which pay at least $37.50/hour before the increases (20 hours per week for 10 months out of the year), are not a living wage. One disgruntled student complained:

As a graduate student, I quite literally CANNOT live on the salary provided for a TA/GA. Rutgers runs on TAs/GAs. How do you expect us to provide superb instruction to our students and high-level work in our GAships when we cannot afford to put food on our tables? When we regularly have to choose between paying rent or purchasing for our daily needs? This is shameful. You are forcing us to work in POVERTY CONDITIONS.

Considering that an average young American (25- to 34-year-old) with a bachelor’s degree makes about $36,000 working full-time, and that graduate students are also working toward obtaining higher degrees, part-time graduate student strikes seem more like an entitled temper tantrum. No, getting $37 an hour is not a sweet deal by any stretch, but it is by no means a poverty train. Yes, there are bills to be paid and there is inflation. But such is life for every other working adult—it is about making trade-offs. For those who choose advanced learning instead of full-time employment upon college graduation, it is about understanding the eventual goal of educational attainment.

[Related: “From Tenured Professor to Lumpenproletariat: The State of Higher Ed Faculty in America”]

These campaigns for “equitable pay,” no matter how righteous and well-intended they may appear, are what Thomas Sowell calls “the quest for cosmic justice.” Social justice proponents seek socially engineered outcomes that require specific, equalizing interventions to correct more than merely the deficiencies of the society, interventions which encompass “far more than any given society is causally responsible for.”

In no insignificant terms, graduate student strikers are pawns in a political game for power and influence by unions. For the three Rutgers unions involved—the Rutgers American Association of University Professors-American Federation of Teachers, the Rutgers Adjunct Faculty Union, and the American Association of University Professors-Biomedical and Health Sciences of New Jersey—this temporary agreement is just the beginning. They warned about resuming the strike if they do not secure additional gains soon and promised continual pickets to put pressure on the Rutgers administration. Beyond better pay across the board, the strikers demand affordable housing, child-care subsidies, affordable healthcare, promotions based on seniority (not merit), and more protections for immigrant and international workers.

In November 2022, the United Automobile and Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America represented University of California (UC) postdoctoral scholars, academic researchers, academic student employees, and graduate student researchers in a strike. This student-centered strike ended with the school system agreeing to salary increases, multiyear pay increases, childcare reimbursements, and dependent healthcare premiums. Similarly, during the six-week strike at Temple University in early 2023, the Temple University Graduate Students’ Association asked for pay bumps, healthcare coverage for dependents, paid parental leave, and a one-time $500 bonus for all union members.

These unprecedented strikes have also received broad support from progressive politicians and national union bosses. New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy intervened in the Rutgers strike by asking the university administration to delay legal action. American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten joined the Temple University strike and spoke about providing “righteous support.” The 2022 UC strike, in which 48,000 academic workers participated, was endorsed by the International Union of Operating Engineers, the Teamsters Union, the California Nurses Association, California Governor Gavin Newsom, and the Los Angeles Times, among other high-profile proponents.

Notably, most of the recent campus strikes took place in states where teachers’ unions are influential. At the state level, New Jersey, New York, Illinois, California, and Pennsylvania are all in Tier 1 of teachers’ union strength, according to rankings by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Among them, California is ranked #1 in “perceived union influence,” which means that state education leaders are often aligned with teachers’ union positions, and they agree that teachers’ unions need not compromise to see their preferred policies enacted.

[Related: “The Rise of the Pseudo Faculty”]

Academic instruction and research suffer as a result of work stoppages. During the UC strike, most scientific research fully stopped. Due to some 200 professors pledging solidarity and canceling final exams to support the strike, thousands of UC undergraduate students did not receive their fall 2022 grades until spring 2023. Before an agreement was reached, adjunct and part-time faculty members at the New School who joined a strike organized by the United Auto Workers saw their pay and benefits withheld. The school, where part-time professors made up 87% of the teaching force, also asked students to take on voluntary, self-directed assignments and prepare self-reflections of their courses. Students’ confusion and anxieties over the negative effects of the Rutgers strike followed a concurrent technological malfunction in the school’s online registration system. A study by the International Journal of Educational Development found that Colombian students who experienced more strikes during secondary school scored, on average, 41% and 29% of a standard deviation lower in math and reading, respectively.

In every recent strike, Marxist ideals of solidarity, unity, equity, and justice have been invoked to rally the troops. But even with pay increases—over 50% in cases like UC—dissatisfaction lingers. Part-time graduate assistants with increased pay may still not be able to afford living in major cities if they don’t supplement their university work with additional income sources, or if they don’t find innovative ways, such as co-living and budgeting, to reduce expenditure. Out-of-state students will not see their additional fees completely wiped out. Childcare assistance from these universities will not cover all costs. The sky is the limit when it comes to socialist-style labor demands.

Higher education institutions cannot be everything for everyone, especially when, as businesses, they are miserably failing their paying customers by infusing higher learning with far-left ideological mandates and bloating their operations with wasteful bureaucracies. These systemic failures will ultimately depreciate the value of graduate degrees in American universities and colleges, devaluing graduate students’ tradeoff between degrees and formal employment.

Not too long ago, I accepted an $18,000 annual graduate assistant stipend from my alma mater (in a major US city) and lived frugally, even managing to save, without any other support. I know first-hand the compromises and sacrifices one must be willing to make for educational excellence and appreciate the privilege of being financially supported by the institution that awarded my hard work with two advanced degrees. I am also thankful that I did not get imbued with the agonizing anger of (cosmic) injustice. As a result, I was able to devote my precious time to actual learning, and I did so with gladness. Between living with roommates, cooking at home, and commuting via public transportation, $18,000 stretched a long way. It’s amazing what gratitude and discipline can accomplish.

Image: Adobe Stock


  • Wenyuan Wu

    Wenyuan Wu is Executive Director of the Californians for Equal Rights Foundation. Twitter: @wu_wenyuan

12 thoughts on “Graduate Student Strikes: Reasonable Demands or Cosmic Justice?

  1. So why is no one mentioning the incredible admin bloat at universities? I was making 4k a year plus free tuition in my top ten social science program back in the early 1980s. But I had done factory work and managed to (almost) live on it, and the free tuition and lots of mentoring by professors made it a good deal. Our professors bragged about our 100% placement rate, so I saw this as a four year project and then I would have a job doing what I wanted. I think the problem now is that you have distant faculty off chasing grants and not mentoring/teaching students, so students might be in doctoral programs for YEARS with no likelihood of a job at the end, or even having a decent advisor who puts your interests on par with theirs. And then you have the idea now that everyone is a victim, plus administrators making 300k who treat students and faculty alike like dirt, so naturally the students just want to get their share of a very corrupt system before it collapses. 21st century academia has copied the worst aspects of capitalism and socialism. Someone should do a gini coefficient for universities, comparing what chancellors make to what instructors make. Higher ed progressives may be the most stingy, hierarchical people in the West. Slash their pay and give it to instructors and grad students.

    1. This is the correct answer, and the article author seems to be unaware that at these institutions where people are striking administrators outnumber graduate students by an order of magnitude. Increasing grad student pay to the yearly minimum wage or minimum cost of living in terms of a university budget would be a paltry sum compared to the salaries that individual administrators are given.

      I am currently a PhD student and simply want FAIR payment. I understand that being a PhD student is not the same as a full time job elsewhere. The situation is maddening when administrators that do very little for an institution’s actual educational mission are paid substantially more.

  2. An utterly tone-deaf article that falls into simple, two-dimensional thinking. Striking graduate workers are overwhelming on the left, therefore according to the author of this article asking for a just wage somehow belongs to the political left. Some of the comments here are saying graduate students are getting a good deal in exchange for 20 hours a week. Many of the students in these programs are working effectively full time as teachers, handling large sections of sometimes one hundred students. These courses are not in “grievance studies” either, as American institutions have systematically defunded humanities and social sciences. The graduate students that suffer the most are those in STEM and also psychology who have to balance long hours in a lab or handling the above-mentioned teaching load. If these students only worked 20 hours a week, the author’s argument may have credit, but this is rarely the case.

    In addition, the cost of living in the cities in which significant research universities are located has skyrocketed in the past 50 years. Stipends from decades ago when adjusted for inflation were worth more and a modest apartment appropriate for a graduate student was generally affordable. Unfortunately, it appears that the assumptions that this article is based on are the classical liberal economics type (which are a species of liberalism, not conservatism) which regards man as a purely economic unit.

    This article also endorses, essentially, the disastrous commercialization of American higher education: “they are miserably failing their paying customers.” Education is not a business, especially not higher education. Conservatives continue to attack an outdated strawman that universities are producing underwater basket weaving degrees and so-called useless disciplines. In reality, the 2008 recession made job-training degrees the focus of higher education. The job-market, student-as-customer education system conservatives want is already here, save for the ballooning costs which are the cause of massive administrative bloat.

  3. The UMass Graduate Union movement started in 1991, in no small part in response to a truly incompetent administrator (even by UM standards) and a truly offensive letter which she sent to all graduate students. Labor relations people need to have a scintilla of civility and diplomacy — she had neither and thus built a broad base of graduate students (of all races and genders) supporting the union.

    By the end of the decade there were very few straight White males who still had assistantships, and all of those were in the STEM fields. The union and the admin had colluded to achieve quota goals for race and sex that would otherwise have been illegal.

    It’s not that there are fewer grad students in many of these programs but how many fewer White males there are. And it’s leading to fewer males in general respecting higher education and I’m not sure where that is going to lead over time…

  4. My pay as a graduate student from 1971-1976 was 7200$ per semester plus tuition. That calculates to 54k in 2022 dollars. Not bad. Like Patti Smith says one a used to be able to work at a bookstore and live NYC. Lower paid jobs have not kept up with costs (in higher ed because state subsidies to state schools have shrunk to nearly nothing.)
    So economically I can understand why grad students feel pinched BECAUSE most millennials are being underemployed and underpaid.

    This can all be debated. But this really not the author’s agenda.

    The author attributes words like justice, equity … to Marxism. is capitalism’s goal injustice and inequitable. But of course the real point of the article is to continue right wing anti-woke argument what I call the ASLEEP ideology. How do we know this? Because the author gratuitously asserts that “many” of these already reasonably paid graduate students are teaching “ absurd, grievance-studies classes”

    Couldn’t hold back could you?

    1. Actually capitalism’s goals are equal opportunity (as opposed to equity) and meritocracy (as opposed to [social] justice).

      The fact is many of these graduate students ARE teaching “absurd grievance-studies classes” and ARE reasonably paid. I submit they are actually overpaid given the work they do. At my university TAs only teach undergraduate labs and grade homework. They are limited to at most 20 hours per week although few actually do that much (but still claim 20 hours). The pay, benefits and tuition wavers are great considering they are part-time employees.

      It’s like the public school teachers. We constantly hear them moan about how little pay they make. Yet they are part-time employees. School usually starts by 8AM. Ever drive by an elementary school at 4PM? Empty except for the cars of the office staff who are required to stay until 5PM. The teachers are long gone. And please, don’t insult our intelligence by claiming Mrs. Smith, who’s been teaching the 3rd grade for the past 7 years, goes home and every night spends hours and hours grading and preparing for the next day. How many employees, unlike teachers, get nearly 3 months off each summer? Ever seen the pensions for elementary school teachers? The health care plans of retired elementary school teachers? You should check it out.

      Where did this idea come from that part-time work should pay enough to cover all of one’s living expenses and then some? What is missing is gratitude. These pampered graduate students of today are the entitled adults of tomorrow who think taxpayers should pick up their student loans.

      1. “Actually capitalism’s goals are equal opportunity (as opposed to equity) and meritocracy (as opposed to [social] justice). “

        It’s even simpler than that — It’s the difference between the American and French Revolutions.

        The American Revolution was largely based on John Locke’s concept of Individual God-Given rights — the right to Life, Liberty, and Property. (Jefferson changed the latter because property had two meanings then, much as man does today which is why we call these human rights and not rights of man.)

        The French Revolution was based on the rights of “Liberty, Fraternity, and Equity” — it’s a concept of group rights rather than individual rights, and that’s what I think you are confusing with capitalism — which can exist with either.

        For a good example of the distinction, imagine two wolves and a lamb having a vote as to what they will have for dinner. Under the French model, it’s a 2-1 vote and the lamb *is* dinner.

        Under the American model, it’s still a 2-1 vote, but that doesn’t matter because minorities have rights. The lamb can’t demand that the wolves teeths be pulled, but they also can’t eat him — and this is the equality of opportunity as opposed to outcome that you mention. The lamb’s probably never going to be as successful as the wolves, but the lamb has the right to try.

        Read some of the stuff Jefferson wrote about the Yeoman Farmer — and Jefferson never imagined that the frontier would close less than a century later.

    2. “… state subsidies to state schools have shrunk to nearly nothing.”


      In inflation-adjusted dollars, state subsidies to state schools have remained constant and when you include various new forms of subsidies (eg state-funded merit scholarship programs) have actually *increased* significantly.

      The state subsidy has decreased as a percentage of the whole because the state schools are spending MUCH MORE than they used to spend.

      Let me give you an example — if your total budget is $20 and the state is giving you $10, the state is subsidizing 50% of your operation. But if you then increase your total budget to $100, with the state still subsidizing you the same $10, it now drops to the state now subsidizing only 10% of your total operation.

      Now let’s say the state is really generous and decides to *double* your allocation — it gives you $20 — while it would have been 100% of your operation back when your annual budget was only $20, now that you have a $100 annual budget, it’s only 20% now.

      If you look only at percentages of the whole, you can claim that the state is only giving you a fifth of what it used to give you while in reality it is giving you TWICE what used to give you. Now I’m using small dollar figures and presuming 0% inflation to keep the numbers simple — but it’s a lie to say that state legislatures are giving state schools less than they used to. The problem is the largess of higher ed!

      Forty years ago, then ED Secretary Bill Bennett warned about the then largely expanded student loan program’s likelyhood to merely inflate college costs — and he was right. Higher ed sucks up all available money and then demands more…

  5. When I attended Columbia in 1986, I got a $10,000 stipend; I I did not have to teach, but I had to do research assistant work, which was generally clerical. Adjusted for inflation, $10,000 is about $27,000 now. I had given up a job as a lower manager at an S&L, where I was earning about $45,000, which in today’s dollars would be about $122,000 now. Ironically, at my current associate professor job at Brooklyn College, which has union representation, I make $117,000, so I have not received a raise in 37 years despite the pathetic union at CUNY, but I had to pay union dues until the last few years. The $117,000 is inadequate to cover my costs, but I worked a second and third job for many years to be able to afford to live in New York. My arithmetic suggests that the Rutgers students are getting at least $32,500 (37.50 x 20 x 10/12 x 52). That seems roughly to be a market rate, for it is not much different from what I got 37 years ago. At $40,000 or higher they are overpaid. The economic value to society of much graduate education is questionable, so rather than accepting above-market rates, New Jersey might consider encouraging Rutgers to close its graduate programs. New Jersey would be better-off economically without expensive graduate programs that indoctrinate rather than educate.

  6. Hearing about threatened or actual grad student strikes reminds me of the scene from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (original BBC series) where Vroomfondle and Majikthise, as representatives of the Amalgamated Union of Philosophers, Sages, Luminaries and Other Thinking Persons, demand that the computer Deep Thought be shut down and prevented from coming up with the answer to “the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything.” When their demands were not immediately met:

    MAJIKTHISE: We’ll go on strike!

    VROOMFONDEL: That’s right. You’ll have a national philosopher’s strike on your hands.

    DEEP THOUGHT: Who will that inconvenience?

    MAJIKTHISE: Never you mind who it’ll inconvenience you box of black legging binary bits! It’ll hurt, buster! It’ll hurt!

  7. “teaching and graduate assistants will be paid $40,000 for their 10-month salaries.”

    And $21,000 in tuition and fees being waived — which after taxes would probably be at least $30,000.

    So they get (a minimum of) $70,000 a year for what is a half-time (20 hours/week) appointment. Looking at it a different way, this is like paying adjuncts $140,000 a year and
    I can assure you that adjuncts don’t get even half of that.

    It’s a sweet deal which will inevitably result in there being far fewer TAs — and more graduate students (only grossing $36,000) now having to also struggle to come up with the $21,000. But sucks to be them — so much for social justice…

    1. Fewer TAs and fewer grad students in most programs is probably a good thing. It is amusing how upset some of the strikers are now that the financial consequences of this are coming into view, but this could be a welcome re-evaluation of bloated grad programs that only feed the desperation of the academic job market.

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