As the night darkens, students file in to Stephens Hall Lounge. It’s close to midnight, yet two dozen graduate student instructors, activists, union stewards, and even a couple of undergraduates are hard at work writing papers, studying for exams, and grading. Welcome to a Berkeley graduate student sleepover!
The sleepover spills over from the grade-in during the Lounge’s regular 9am-7pm hours, and follows Monday’s Bring-a-Friend-to-Stephens Day, which beat the lounge’s previous daily record, attracting 70 visitors to the lounge.A graduate student coalition planned the day-long events to draw attention to the amount of work students perform, and the basic needs required to support that work, such as workspace, food, and housing. The coalition draws together four branches of campus organizing that have been working to defend graduate student interests on campus this year. The UC academic student workers’ union UAW 2865 has been trying to negotiate a contract with the University since last July; Students for Engaged and Active Learning have been trying to protect from development the Gill tract farm, which serves as a research station for the University; the University Village Residents’ Association has been fighting a proposed rent increase targeted at students with families; and students from across campus have been fighting the closure of Stephens Hall Lounge, one of the few graduate study spaces on campus.
Vanessa Raditz, first year graduate student in the School of Public Health and organizer with Students for Engaged and Active Learning expressed how the various branches converge. Private interests are superseding public interests, education, and people. Connecting the union contract negotiations to the Lounge closure, rent increases, and farm development, she observed:
“not only is the University not respecting our academic workspaces, they’re not respecting what we do as labor. Student families living in University Village have high rates of poverty, yet the school is raising their rent and increasing the pollution burden on already burdened families by developing Gill tract farm. Repeatedly in these decisions, our lives as students is disrespected and the loss of Stephens Hall Lounge is emblematic of that disrespect.”
Helping to organize the sleepover, Elise Youn represented the union as a geography head steward. Focusing on the overlap of union and Stephens Hall campaigns, she identified the primary two goals of the day’s actions as emphasizing the importance of keeping Stephens open or finding an alternative space, and reaching an “agreement in contract negotiations with a wage increase that matches our competitor institutions, smaller class sizes, and compromise on outstanding demands including protecting undocumented student workers.”
Youn is optimistic that the developing coalition could emphasize commonalities in the four campaigns to help student organizers understand how the University is inspiring such grievances. Rhetoric PhD candidate Amanda Armstrong views the Lounge closure as part of a campus-wide “pattern of closing off spaces,” of converting educational space to private, profit-generating space.
Sociology PhD student and Stephens Lounge organizer Matty Lichtenstein emphasized the celebratory nature of the sleepover, bringing students and movements together while recognizing gains won over the past semester. Fellow organizer from Anthropology David Marcus enthusiastically related the progress in saving Stephens: “it felt a few weeks ago like we were a hopeless cause, and now we’re at the table with the Dean – and all of you!”
On March 31st, Dean Szeri announced that the Lounge would close permanently on May 16th, 2014. Following student protests, including a petition with over 640 signatures, as well as endorsements from the UAW and Graduate Assembly, which passed a resolution “in Support of the Defense of Accessible Graduate Student Workspace and Transparency in its Management.” In response, Deans Szeri and Steele offered to keep the Lounge open another six months and appoint a facilities planner to search for an alternative graduate study space.
Organizers will reconvene with the two Deans in July, by which time the Gill Tract Farm and University Village Residents’ Association will have had further meetings with the Administration as well. UAW organizers hope that bargaining sessions in the intervening weeks may yield a new contract. Then, the coalition will meet again to discuss further steps.
In the meantime, Elise Youn has an idea inspired by her experience as a master’s student at Columbia University:
“there was a graduate student lounge and the Dean of graduate students used to actually serve the students tea and cookies every day. So when I heard that Dean Szeri was going to close this space, I thought… Dean Szeri should consider coming out and serving tea and cookies some day!”