The Only Living Wage Is Everything

Editor’s Note: This list of theses was dreamed up by a crew of disaffected grad students whose main dream is to strike back against the academy, and take back our lives.

The expert fuckers who broke this world never get to speak again.
—Godspeed You! Black Emperor

On March 29, 2023, graduate student instructors and graduate student staff assistants with GEO3550 (AFT) at the University of Michigan began an illegal strike for a living wage, increased healthcare coverage, workplace protections from ICE, the funding of a municipal non-police, unarmed emergency response, and an end to restrictions around the childcare subsidy. After months of bargaining with HR, grad workers seemingly had enough, and walked out of their classes and departments to march through the university campus.

Since September 2022, GEO members had adopted a “bargaining narrative” that would guide the rhetoric and basic principles behind their bargaining platform, both in their presentations to academic HR and to the public. The narrative was centered on issues of affordability: grad workers can’t afford rent, the university can afford to pay them money, grad workers should be able to afford to live in the city that their institution is in, the university can’t afford to go any amount of time without grad labor. For a labor union affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers with more than fifty years on the books, this narrative seems to work. It seems reasonable, approachable, important. Yet the narrative created a very narrow scope of political possibility for the union—a union that had previously adopted abolitionist, anti-policing demands, and had taken the radical leap of striking against COVID-19 policies and campus policing. The affordability narrative constrained the framing of our demands—what can we demand, and what kinds of actions and risks can we take when we are politically constrained by a single issue (the wage)?

This group of rabble-rousers celebrates the strike, not just because we want a living wage (and lord knows we’d breathe more easily every month if we did), but because we want everything. For us the strike is just the beginning of our struggle: we want a life free of exploitation and work, and we want it for everyone. We want time for our families, lovers, friends, and comrades. We want to dream, conspire together, play and party together. We want a blunt in every hand and every cop run out of town. We want the end of the university as we know it, and we want to dedicate ourselves to whatever the fuck we think would be cool (for the night, for the week, for the year, for our lifetimes). We want so much more than the union contract lets us bargain for, and we want it now, not just when this strike eventually ends and we accept a contract for the next 3 years. We want everything. Everything we want is “permissive,” and we are the only ones who can give ourselves permission to take those things.

And so we strike—striking not only for wages, but for life. The picket lines breathe life back into us, after all of the breaths we’ve expended for an institution that could never love us back (and to pretend that it will is a fool’s errand). We strike against business as usual, and we strike to take back our lives:

1) We began bargaining with the “reasonable” request that the university only be allowed to steal $170 million worth of our labor from us every year ($200 million in profits – $30 million to cover our demands). What if, instead, we had asked for everything?
2) In the MIT calculator for a living wage, we live alone (one adult, no kids) and we spend less than $11 a day on food or drink ($4,010/365 days = $10.99 per day). Is that living? (and also, what does it mean to count such a value. We are not asking for all the money they can give us—although that wouldn’t be bad, but it isn’t really like a UBI demand).
3) It seems often that people want to be told they are being reasonable. This is a fear, the fear of being unreasonable. It is an old fear, a modernist fear, a fear of being labeled one of the “crazies” like the mad, like the colonized, like women, like queer folks. Often, we feel compelled to prove that we’re “not like them,” we present elegant arguments, we read books, we’re getting our PhD—we’re reasonable. But maybe we shouldn’t be. Maybe being reasonable, having reasonable demands, only means being like the University. And the University is our enemy.
4) How did they convince us that we were supposed to suffer? Was it the promise of some pretty bourgeois future in the capital? We beg those of you who believe in that future to look at academic job reports. Maybe you believe there’s some salvation in industry. We beg those of you who believe in that future to look at climate change reports.
5) We could say that there is no future. In some sense this is true. For some people, the future is bright, it’s shiny, it has flying cars, and we’re living in some miraculous post-scarcity world. But we know that future isn’t coming. The minerals required alone would destroy half the globe, and Elon Musk would need to destroy the atmosphere, cooking us with solar radiation, in his cockamamie schemes to get off the rock. But there are other futures. There are futures together. There are futures spent growing food, cooking, and building homes with people we love, like people used to. There are futures where we wake up and work together to make clothes, sing silly songs with each other’s kids, take care of each other while we grow old. There are futures where everything we make is ours. There are futures where we demanded, and took, everything.
6) What is everything? Everything is not some abstract totality, the dream of state-makers and capital. It’s always having a cool place to sleep and hang out with your friends; it’s having fresh vegetables from the community gardens and farms, good cuts of meat from the chickens, goats, and whatever else we want, and homemade wine and beer made by and for those you love; it’s clean, fresh water; it’s never being forced to do work that doesn’t directly make your or your community’s life better; it’s communities of care where no one ever gets to tell you what sort of healthcare you need; it’s summer nights with a blunt in hand, tripping on mushrooms, and watching a meteor shower with your friends; it’s working with your friends to deck out one of those beautiful lowriders and going cruising down the open road; it’s no more cops on campus, in our cities, in the world; it’s more than you can imagine. Communism is just this: skipping class to go swimming, but for a million years.
7) Demanding everything also means the abolition of the wage. It is the ending of a way of life that decides if we live or die based on how much value we generate for someone else. It is the end of a world where bargaining over wages is not necessary for our day-to-day survival. Our dignity and our lives shouldn’t be rhetorically or politically reduced to a question of affordability, nor can it be reduced to a debate on if we are deserving of anything.
8) Neither the university, nor their lawyers, nor the labor contract process, nor the specifics between permissive and mandatory subjects of bargaining, nor the distinctions between hard and soft pickets, nor the courts and their injunctions can contain or repress this demand for everything. The demand for everything exceeds the existing processes and beckons us out of these containers of repression, respectability, and rules. We can choose to heed the siren song of a life where we have everything, or we can limit our imaginations and our actions to cut ourselves off from possibility.
9) University politics cannot be understood if the university as a site of desire for common life is ignored. Herein lies its contradictory character. Especially in the humanities, the secular collapse of the capitalist economy drives anyone who minimally hates work to the university, seeking in study a respite from the malaise that infects every other job option. At the same time, here we are more overworked than most people doing what David Graeber has called “bullshit jobs.” Yet the bullshit cannot hide that in between class, teaching and research, there is sometimes a brief moment of actual thinking. It is in the strike that we seek to expand these moments—small prologues of a life worth living. Both macho chatter about weak grad students as opposed to brutish workers outside the campus, and cosmopolitan Jacobin-esque punditry about the enlightened student organizer both ignore this crucial fact.
10) “We need your ideas, we need your insights, and most of all, we need your dreams.” This is it: in the highest stage of capitalist nihilism, the biggest lies are always shouted out as they were everybody’s aspiration. This sordid little incantation is what drives the contemporary university’s factory of unwept tears. The fact that this industry works on an image of a continually extended sameness into the linear future should foment distrust—distrust felt deep in the pits of our stomachs. The appropriation of every struggle, every radical negation, every true dream to break free from this hell-world, speaks to how pernicious liberalism’s adage can be. First, it demands that every collective aspiration be reduced to whatever makes one a “decent living”. Second, it ensconces it in the puerile and sanitized language game of ambitions, dreams, in sum, change. Everything is to be made a little bit better; nothing is to be destroyed. These cowards hate above all our hatred, our anger, our force. And the wish to dismantle this war-affect will come not only from outside, but also from within our movement.

To be clear, this critique comes from within GEO, from within the university—in but not of it, if you’ll forgive the cliché. We have no quarrel with the friends we make on the picket line, nor do we have beef with the rank-and-file folks we haven’t met yet (we don’t like the reactionaries in and around the union, but who does?). We echo the calls of the disaffected communists and disillusioned anarchists in so-called California against the UC, and we salute the brave folks who ran up on and attacked rapist frat houses in Nebraska, Kansas, Massachusetts, and elsewhere. We celebrate and honor the dropouts, the proles, the fellow travelers trapped behind bars and murdered by the state. We’re hungry for more than what union politics can give us, we’re sick of the university containing our rage. Let’s take action that pushes our demand for everything to its fullest extent: let’s feed each other, whether in expropriated dining hall food or in our strike kitchen. Let’s take campus back from administrators and security. Let’s make the football field a fuck forest. Let’s have dance parties in North Quad and print zines together in Mason. Let’s take naps in lecture halls on purpose. Let’s cut class. Let’s enjoy spring. Let’s demand everything.

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