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Unpaid work among graduate students: What can we learn from the movements Wages for?

Camille Robert
Doctoral student and sessional lecturer in history, Université du Québec à Montréal

When I was offered the opportunity to write a short essay on precarity, I had just turned down an invitation to work, without pay, as a consultant for a museum. Looking back, I saw this as an opportunity to explore an issue that has been nagging at me for several years, namely, the free work of graduate students in history. I propose to examine it here in light of my research on women’s invisible work and the struggles for paid student labor.

From Wages for Housework to les Comités unitaires sur le travail étudiant (CUTE)

I first became aware of Wages for Housework in 2013, when I read Louise Toupin’s manuscript Le salaire au travail ménager : Chronique d’une lutte féministe internationale (1972-1977) [1]. For this movement’s activists, the demand for a wage was less an end in itself than an opportunity to open debates on the importance of free reproductive work, essentially performed by women, in the functioning of capitalism. They also saw in it the possibility of negotiating the conditions and redefining the role of housewives, who moved from the periphery to the center of struggles. The perspective of wage labour in the home has left its mark on my imagination, even though it seemed at the same time implausible, almost outdated, but so current. When Louise Toupin’s book was published in the fall of 2014, the question of housework was an issue that had been practically abandoned in Quebec feminist circles, following very divisive debates in which the preferred option was the massive integration of women into the labor market. The Marxist feminist approach at the basis of this demand nevertheless resonated with me; it allowed me to take another look at capitalism as a social formation and at the centrality of reproductive work.

While consulting the archives of the magazine La Vie en rose for my master’s research[2], I came across a file from 1981 that presented the Wages for Housework movement and its “offshoots”, including Wages for Students. The manifesto of the same name, published in 1975 in the United States in the early days of the neo-liberal university, situated the role of the school in the training of disciplined workers, essential to the functioning of capitalism, and tackled head-on the issue of free student work. The university was not seen as a place of emancipation to be preserved, but as part of the “social factory”. The idea of demanding a salary for student work seemed equally unusual but appealing to me, after several years of being involved in the Quebec student movement. During the 2012 strike, we had defended a humanistic – and idealized, I must say – vision of free, accessible, non-commodified higher education. But on the margins of this mobilization were the student interns, overwhelmingly women, exempted and excluded from walkouts to pursue their internships and complete their training[3]. Student work and all the exploitative links that result from it, notably between professors and students, were not on the militant agenda.

The arrival of the Comités unitaires sur le travail étudiant (CUTE) in 2016 brought about a paradigm shift in the student movement. Reconnecting with feminist analyses of reproductive labor, activists demanded a wage for student labor, particularly in traditionally female fields where internships remain unpaid[4]. CUTE explained that this free work, performed by the interns, was also intended to train them in “vocation”: by accepting to work without pay, they would be used to not counting their hours and to accepting poor conditions once on the job market. The movement met with many objections, starting with some of the leftist students and teachers, who saw this demand for a salary as accelerating the commodification of knowledge and educational institutions. It must be said that the feminists of the Wages for Housework collectives had met with the same opposition 40 years earlier, when they were accused of commodifying maternal love and the domestic sphere, supposedly spared from exploitative relationships. But as wage activists have revealed, the home, the school and the university are places already traversed by capitalist and neoliberal relations. The non-recognition of the work that is done there only makes its conditions more precarious.

Free work that costs a lot
I followed the CUTE mobilizations with great activist and intellectual interest, even if I was not directly involved. Their reflections and my own position in 2017-2018, as I began my PhD in history with a great deal of performance anxiety, prompted me to ask the following questions: if the work of interns in care fields occupies a critical place in social reproduction, what about the work done for free by graduate students? Who benefits from this work, what are the pressures to do it, and under what conditions is it performed? I don’t assume that the CUTE struggles should have made this central – it is not “reproductive” in the same sense – but it is an issue that is largely unaddressed in Quebec and Canadian academia[5]. Perhaps because of my affinity with the Wages for movement, I am surprised that graduate student activities have been barely analyzed specifically as free labor.

Completing a master’s or doctoral degree in history is a colossal project that takes up several years of a student’s life, often at the price of many psychological, social, family and financial sacrifices. Not only is this work unpaid, but it is becoming increasingly expensive to complete, while tuition fees are increasing year after year. There is no choice but to go into debt, hold a job on the side, or be financially dependent on someone else. A minority of students (including myself [6]) can escape the precariousness for a while thanks to grants. However, the granting agencies have done very little – if anything – to keep up with inflation. This is the case of SSHRC, whose grants have not been indexed for 20 years[7]. In order to receive this remuneration, even if it is insufficient, fellows must demonstrate excellence (maintain a good cumulative average, publish articles and present papers) and, ideally, social or volunteer involvement. In order to be paid, therefore, one must excel and do a lot of free work, and then spend many hours completing applications for scholarships, all with different requirements, interfaces and forms. These scholarships, of which there are far too few, also have the effect of accentuating competition and increasing inequalities between students. They reward those who perform according to ever higher standards and who often benefit from various privileges: coming from a wealthy class, benefiting from parental financial support, not having learning difficulties or mental health issues, not having children or relatives to support, not being subject to racist, ableist or sexist discrimination, etc.

Throughout their studies, students are also encouraged to volunteer with journals, museums, scholarly societies, and other organizations in order to eventually obtain employment. Many colleagues have been hired at publishing houses, museums, or even universities because of their volunteer experiences, which added a “practical” aspect to their history training. In practice, no one forces us to do this, and many of us engage in it with a real desire to contribute to a scientific, disciplinary or intellectual community. However, from the end of the bachelor’s degree and the beginning of the master’s degree, students are under implicit pressure to have an ever-growing curriculum vitae, and they multiply their experiences to add a “line on the CV” in the hope of standing out, winning a grant or obtaining a contract. And from one cohort to the next, this pressure is internalized earlier and earlier in the university career.

In Travail gratuit : la nouvelle exploitation, sociologist Maud Simonet draws on feminist thinking about household work to look at other forms of unpaid work, including that of volunteers, welfare recipients and web editors. These activities all have in common the denial of work in the name of values: commitment, citizenship or passion. And free work, she explains, operates both as proof – that we are a good citizen, for example – and as a promise – free work today will lead to a precarious job “in the field” and then to a coveted position in a few years. Conceptualized in this way, free labor is an essential tool for reflecting on graduate students’ experiences. Under the guise of passion for our research topic or intellectual curiosity, our work as such receives far too little recognition. Geographer Caitlin Henry argues that students, whether through volunteer activities or adjunct contracts, perform academic housework in the university: devalued work that is naturalized as non-work because of “learning opportunities” [8]. While completing a master’s degree or a doctorate, with the high demands that this implies, we have to prove ourselves as good students, good researchers or good historians by accumulating unpaid experiences that will perhaps fulfill the promise of a desired job. This free work, however, is less and less able to fulfil its promise to lead to a job as hiring in history departments slows down and course load offerings diminish from term to term. As for professional opportunities outside the university, they are too often considered a “plan B” and our graduate training does little to prepare us for them, still oriented to the faculty career model.

Recognizing student work and the fight against its gratuitousness

Some might argue that this free work is an individual choice: students choose to engage in graduate studies, for better or for worse, and would simply leave, like many others before them, if that choice no longer suits them. But in a context of sharply declining enrolment in history programs, can we afford to think like this? First of all, we must recognize the importance of free graduate student work in the development of our discipline and the reproduction of intellectual and academic communities. Could so many conferences and symposia take place without student papers and organizational work? Would so many journal issues be published without their articles or their involvement in the management of files? Would professors be able to maintain the same pace of publication without the support of their students’ research work? And would we be deprived of all the significant works resulting from doctoral theses? I leave it to you to imagine how our discipline would fare if students went on strike over free work, even if only for a few months.

In addition to their scholarly contributions, students do self-replicating[9] work that is essential to maintaining their place in the university. Without the self-help initiatives among us – collective cooking, food assistance, mental health workshops, emotional work, group writing sessions, editing grant applications or papers for colleagues – how many would be holding their own? For people living with various barriers and oppressions related to mental health, family responsibilities, sexual violence, poverty, racism, colonialism, or disability, the need to transform the university and make education more accessible adds another burden: we need to mobilize, work on institutional policies, and put services in place[10].

The significant decline in enrolment in many history programs across the country is prompting departments to rethink the curriculum, course offerings and the linkage of training and professional opportunities. These reflections, however, take little account of the material conditions of students who engage (or not) in history programs. Their living conditions are increasingly precarious as the cost of living increases, many cities are hit by a housing crisis, and the prices of basic goods rise. Scholarship amounts and salaries, on the other hand, are stagnant or inadequate. Graduate studies, especially for those who wish to continue in academia, require more and more free work with unclear employment opportunities. In this context, is it any wonder that some people are no longer willing to spend several years to complete a master’s or doctoral degree? If some professors are sensitive to the precariousness of their jobs, others have a romanticized vision of the student who is free of all economic, professional or family responsibilities, who would have all his or her time to devote to research, and are surprised by the psychological distress or financial stress that some people feel. Education and awareness building are needed.

In addition to recognizing the importance of the students’ contribution and their material conditions, we must put an end, as much as possible, to the gratuity and precariousness of their work. This is where I turn to professors. If you have research funds, use these resources to support students, whether by offering them scholarships or remuneration for contracts that will also serve them, such as writing articles on their behalf. Also consider those who do not excel by the usual standards, but whose financial needs are just as great. Pay students generously to give lectures in your courses or research centers. Use your status to advocate for more and better scholarships from the granting agencies and your university. Get involved in transformations that will make higher education more accessible to marginalized communities, including institutional policies and universal funding for education. Call on your union to take a stand for students, adjuncts and lecturers, and support the struggles of precarious workers at the university.

The Wages for Housework and Wages for Students movements never conceived of money or wages as a sufficient solution to the exploitative relationships inherent in free labor. They have, however, opened up discussions – sometimes difficult ones – about the value that is attributed to it or denied to it, at whose expense and for whose benefit it is carried out, and to consider ways of reorganizing it. The Wages for movements have also made free and reproductive work a starting point, not an afterthought, of mobilizations. Demanding payment for this work is a crucial step in combating precariousness and burnout in our universities. I return here to the CUTE analysis: the free and unlimited work of students, rewarded and valued in academia, conditions them to accept these same conditions once on the job market. Their exhaustion today is the exhaustion of tomorrow’s lecturers or professors. In this perspective, free work must cease to be considered as a problem for students or an obligatory passage in their career. It must be seized upon as an essential political issue for the future of our discipline, our departments and our communities.

[1] Louise Toupin, Le salaire au travail ménager : Chronique d’une lutte féministe internationale (1972-1977), Montréal, Éditions du remue-ménage, 2014, 452 p.

[2] My dissertation focused on the debates among Quebec feminists surrounding the recognition of housework in the 1970s and 1980s. See: Camille Robert, Toutes les femmes sont d’abord ménagères. Histoire d’un combat féministe pour la reconnaissance du travail ménager, Montréal, Éditions Somme toute, 2017, 178 p.

[3] At the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at UQAM, this practice was so widespread that our strike proposals at the General Assembly always included a long list of courses that were exempt from the strike. Thus, students in sociology, history or geography were on strike while students in social work, psychology or sexology had to continue their activities.

[4] About this movement, see: Collectif, Grève des stages, grève des femmes. Anthologie d’une lutte féministe pour un salaire étudiant (2016-2019), Montréal, Éditions du remue-ménage, 2021, 395 p.

[5] On the European context, see: Léa Alexandre, « Vers l’autonomie des étudiant∙es ? Le salaire étudiant comme outil de lutte contre la précarité : comparaisons européennes », Academia, 2020. [Online.] https://academia.hypotheses.org/22973

[6] After having completed my Master’s degree without any grants from granting agencies, I obtained, as a doctoral student, a grant from the Fonds de recherche du Québec – Société et Culture (FRQSC) and then the Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship. This funding gave me many privileges and opened many doors that are still closed to my colleagues. Despite all that this scholarship has given me, I remain critical of the system of excellence in which it is embedded and the power relationships that it reinforces. All students, regardless of their cumulative GPA or achievements, should have access to financial security.

[7] Léa Carrier, « Études supérieures, revenus inférieurs », La Presse, 24 mai 2022. [Online.] https://www.lapresse.ca/actualites/education/2022-05-24/bourses-d-etudes-superieures/etudes-superieures-revenus-inferieurs.php

[8] Caitlin Henry, « Three reflections on Revolution at Point Zero for (re)producing an alternative academy », Gender, Place & Culture, vol. 25, no. 9, p. 7

[9] This term developed by Silvia Federici, which I use freely here, refers to the work necessary for members of a community or movement to meet their own emotional, physical and other needs.

[10] I would like to thank Géraldine Garceau-Pellerin, with whom I am working to develop a policy on student parents at UQAM, for reminding me of this essential aspect.