This month’s issue of FORUM covers the topic of labor as it relates to the University of Oklahoma community. The purpose of higher education is ostensibly to promote learning, but in a capitalist society like our own, the most prominent function of a university is to train skilled workers. At the same time, universities exploit student workers, particularly graduate students, and refuse to recognize student labor unions. In fact, most student laborers are not even classified as workers. Nevertheless, the university is completely reliant upon the labor, usually either unpaid or underpaid, of students and faculty who are made indebted, financially and otherwise, to the institution.
All non-faculty student employees have capped wages (which at OU is $10 per hour, although many make less), and additionally, student workers’ hours are limited. The cap, usually 20 hours, is nowhere near enough to cover the costs of tuition or student housing. For graduate students, reaching a weekly work quota does not mean their work is complete, but rather that the rest of their labor, from grading papers to conducting research and attending a training session, is compensated only by the hope of one day achieving their career goals and paying off their tremendous student debt.
Nowadays, students who hope to attain salaried positions are usually expected, in addition to their wage labor, to complete internships, the vast majority of which are unpaid. Under the assumption that all students can afford to spend hundreds of hours doing unpaid work, some programs even list this as a requirement for graduation. It is no wonder, then, that so many of our millennial peers have no expectation of ever being financially stable enough to own homes, have children, or enter retirement.
For those who opt to remain in academia, prospects have become increasingly limited. Full professorships, and particularly tenure-track positions, are extremely scarce, and competition is fierce. Universities now prefer to hire adjunct and associate instructors rather than tenure-track professors, and these non-tenure track positions, which are disproportionately filled by women and people of color, are low-paying with a heavy workload. Apparently, intellectuals should be so grateful for the privilege of laboring for the benefit of the university that they have no reason to expect fair compensation. In Oklahoma, the state with one of the worst wage gaps in the country (and some of the lowest teacher salaries), prospects for educators are especially grim.
Meanwhile, conditions for workers who labor outside of academia face even worse conditions, and usually, even more meager wages. We at FORUM have sought submissions that reflect the experience of subjugated workers of all kinds, including sex workers, international student employees, food service and retail workers, disabled workers, and people who perform uncompensated feminized labor, especially emotional labor. This is not an exhaustive list, but we have made an effort to acknowledge laborers from other sectors of the economy from which we were unable to garner submissions, including imprisoned laborers, agricultural laborers, domestic and factory workers, and many more.
We recognize that the university is a space of privilege, and that these most marginalized of groups are underrepresented within the university community. Nevertheless, we acknowledge and despise the backbreaking coercive labor and the unjust working conditions upon which so much of American society is built. We ask that the next time you eat a piece of fruit, step into a rideshare vehicle, put on an item of mass-produced clothing, or pick up your smartphone, you give thanks to the exploited working people who make our lifestyles possible. We hope that this publication will give our readers insight into the unfair and exploitative system of wage labor.
As you peruse this issue, consider the ways in which you can help transform our twenty-first century capitalist gig economy into a more ethical and humane system, dismantling the structures of oppression that force human beings to sell the finite hours of their lives at unfair prices in order to survive. We give thanks to the labor movement, to the people who gave us the weekend and the minimum wage (inadequate and unequal as it may be) and to the workers and the thinkers and the writers who have made this issue possible, both those featured in this issue and those who came before us. We give special thanks to student activists who put their lives, livelihoods, reputations, and freedoms on the line to bring fairness and safety to our schools and workplaces.
Finally, we suggest, perhaps at our own peril, that the workers who maintain at great cost the institution of the university (including graduate and undergraduate student employees, maintenance, custodial, and other staff members) join together to form a union in order to bargain collectively for fair compensation and improved working conditions. This will be difficult given the state of labor laws in Oklahoma, but without our labor, the university could not exist at all. Recognizing and harnessing the power we hold is the first step in achieving liberation.
— The FORUM Team