The University of Toronto is not known as a particularly progressive institution. Like many universities, it has adopted neoliberal thinking and practice, becoming part of Academia, Inc. But two seemingly unrelated events during the 2014-2015 academic year showcased the increasing political activity of the school’s graduate student body.

In October 2014, Toronto graduate students launched a campaign in support of the global boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, calling on the school to divest from companies that facilitate and profit from Israel’s violations of international law, including war crimes, in its treatment of Palestinians under occupation. Then, the following March, graduate student workers in the Canadian Union of Public Employees’ Local 3902 mounted a near four-week strike to demand that university funding packages no longer leave them below the city’s poverty line. These events point to trends—the increasing reliance of universities on graduate students, adjuncts and untenured faculty to teach classes and the growing embrace of BDS by those same precarious academic workers—that make up a common political-economic reality, one that takes seriously the polemic that universities today are no more than hedge funds that grant degrees.

More and more, precarious academic laborers are drawing connections between the local and the global: their own economic plight and how their universities are implicated in—and financially benefiting from—the ongoing oppression of the Palestinians. These insights are not surprising to students of political economy or those well versed in the workings of university endowment funds. But less obvious is how precarity and political economy analysis often fuse with race and racialized struggles at the university. This fusion suggests that university actors concerned with different social justice initiatives are finding common cause. Cross-cutting solidarities offer a critical way forward for those seeking to advance the BDS movement while also combating economic violence and structural racism.

Linking Precarity and BDS

A range of interrelated criticisms has been directed at university economic policies and practices. Some critics point to large annual increases in administrators’ salaries and the propensity to hire more full-time managers than full-time educators. (One of the more innovative chants by striking graduate student workers at Toronto referred to the powder-blue color of a university vice president’s Jaguar.) Others take aim at the university’s vast real estate holdings and concomitant debt obligations, inspiring faculty to research complicated land and development deals that cost tens of millions of dollars and are paid for by students through tuition hikes. [1]

Reliance on precarious academic labor means lower teaching costs for universities. The use of adjuncts has risen steadily across the United States, and “zero-hour contracts” have become the norm at British universities. The American Association of University Professors states that more than half of faculty appointments are now part-time, and more than 70 percent of instructional staff appointments are non-tenure-track. A recent investigation by the Guardian suggests that among junior academics working at top British universities, 75 percent are on temporary contracts.

These dynamics help to explain the uptick in political interventions by graduate students and their unions. In March 2015, graduate students at neighboring York University joined their Toronto colleagues and went on strike to protest their own economic precarity. The same month New York University narrowly avoided a strike after relenting to graduate student demands for better pay and benefits. It was one of a string of wins by graduate students at private US universities. In August 2016, Columbia graduate students won an historic victory at the National Labor Relations Board granting them the right to unionize and bargain collectively.

Many graduate student unions have been involved simultaneously in efforts to advance BDS. Days after the strike at the University of Toronto ended with an agreement to enter into binding arbitration with the university, the union voted at its annual general meeting to back BDS. CUPE 3902 endorsed the divestment campaign that had been launched by many of its members and institutionalized its own BDS political action committee.

At the end of 2014, United Auto Workers Local 2865, representing more than 12,000 student workers across the nine University of California campuses, became the first major labor union in the US to endorse BDS by member vote. In May 2016, the oldest graduate student labor union in the US—the Teaching Assistants Association at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (AFT 3220), which represents 9,000 members—likewise voted to support BDS. These votes came at times of funding cuts and economic crisis at both institutions, as well as attacks on long-held tenure norms and graduate student worker compensation and insurance. When NYU’s graduate student union passed its BDS resolution in April 2016, one graduate student professed a view that her colleagues in these other unions perhaps share: “In addition to bringing material gains for their members, NYU graduate students are reclaiming the union as a political platform for social justice causes.” [2]

Race, Precarity and Social Justice

Identifying links between academic precarity and other social injustices requires querying the logic that governs university practices and uncovering a critical intervening factor—race. According to Nick Mitchell, the roots of precarity for academic workers lie in experiments by administrators in the late 1960s and early 1970s. With more minority youth attending college, there was mounting pressure on administrators to expand the “epistemological foundations of the university. Or the contents of what was considered valid knowledge.” With rising demand for black studies, women’s studies and ethnic studies, administrators aimed to offer such courses without having to pay for them, “by instituting experimental colleges in which students taught their own classes.” [3] This history of precarity and racial marginalization illustrates that these intertwined grievances never have been the university’s priority. The neglect is ironic given that undergraduates, the original actors pushing for the new courses, are also ostensibly central to the university’s teaching mission (and institutional funding).

In many respects, undergraduates are still key to the links between race, precarity and social justice struggles. The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement demonstrates these connections. After a year of high-profile police killings of black youth across the US, in 2015 black undergraduates at the University of Missouri protested incidents of racism on campus and demanded the resignation of the university president, Tim Wolfe. Members of the school’s football team joined the protests at a critical moment, threatening to boycott the team’s activities until Wolfe quit. Had he not done so, the team would have forfeited its next game at a cost to the school of more than $1 million—a financial threat that exposed the university’s political-economic sensibility and vulnerability.

Similarly, the growth in support for BDS aligns with the nearly biannual Israeli assaults on Gaza—in 2006, 2008-2009, 2012 and 2014—since the campaign was launched. In the intervening periods, Palestinians continued to suffer lethal everyday occupation and settler colonialism. Undergraduates have been usually been the ones on the front lines of campus activism condemning Israeli violations of international law. The first Israeli Apartheid Week was debuted by undergraduates in Toronto in 2005; today, observance of the event has spread to more than 200 cities worldwide. The backlash these students endure—which is also racialized—highlights their own precarity as young, un/underemployed, debt-ridden persons.

Canary Mission, for instance, is a website dedicated to maligning BDS supporters in order to jeopardize their professional prospects. While the website is a fascinating exposé of the flaccid arguments made against the BDS movement, the targeting of young undergraduates is a blatant attempt at exploiting precarity. The majority of the targets are Arabs who play leading roles in chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and anti-Zionist Jews involved in groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace. Yet the website’s grouping of these diverse students in common cause counterintuitively breaks down stale identity stereotypes associated with the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Students and Faculty, and Forms of Solidarity

As one student explained to me, such sinister attacks on vulnerable undergraduates are of deep concern. But the student emphasized that in spite of the threats—or perhaps because of them—more tenured faculty were backing the campus campaign. “We have faculty supporters from gender, Africana, Jewish studies [and even some] from political science.” [4] The student quoted one faculty member who was “tired of being cajoled into complacency.” The student noted that professors have a unique ability to influence other students. “Students will listen to professors. They have power, yes. But they also know a lot! So it’s good to have them at events.” Over 1,000 faculty have denounced Canary Mission’s efforts at blacklisting students and other BDS supporters.

Such outside targeting of undergraduates who support BDS goes hand in hand with the efforts of university administrators and academic staff who oppose the movement. Fordham University, for example, recently banned its campus SJP chapter. Faculty, too, have been pressured. One tenured professor at a midwestern university relayed that an associate dean cautioned against hosting educational events on campus or sharing information on social media that indicated sympathy for the Palestinian cause. The faculty member was boldly (and falsely) told: “You don’t have academic freedom as representatives of this university.” [5] That statement exemplifies what has been called “the Palestine exception” to free speech and academic freedom.

For the more precarious academic workers, this environment has created a phenomenon of self-censorship, which is most common among young scholars, as Lara Deeb and Jessica Winegar document in their 2015 book on anthropologists of the Middle East. [6] One contract faculty member from a west coast university spoke to me about this phenomenon: Being on temporary contract has meant limiting BDS work to behind-the-scenes organizing of educational events with invited speakers and participating in closed research workshops on Palestine. [7] Tenured faculty took the public lead, what this person called “being the shield” and being “prepared to take the heat” to protect the precarious. In other words, faculty who have greater job security work to create space for more precarious BDS supporters on campus.

These efforts have forced a renewed reckoning with the social complexity of precarity, particularly how it is often racialized. The racialization stems in part from the underrepresentation of minorities at universities in cities with large populations of color. As the aforementioned undergraduate noted, minority black students “have historical and material reasons not to feel safe” on campus. Put differently, precarity is etched into their mere spatial presence. Yet when students of color express grievances about racial discrimination and exclusion, the student noted, their concerns are seen as exceptional instances, not as indicators of the overall campus climate.

One tenured faculty member interviewed for this article came from a university whose student population is less than 10 percent black, but whose surrounding urban population is approximately 50 percent black. As much as precarity is embedded in a minority’s campus presence, structural racism is a critical cause. As one faculty member emphasized, the roots of systemic underrepresentation need to be tackled head on, in part by “blending research and activism to speak to marginalized communities.” [8] One tactic was to launch a lecture series that included black and indigenous activists as keynote speakers. The deep links among race, precarity and activism highlights an intricate matrix of political and social injustices that feed off one another.

Racialized Precarity, Activism and the Academy

From the evidence to date, it appears that the scholars at greatest risk of material damage to their careers due to BDS activism or Palestine advocacy are those of Palestinian or Arab background.

The distinctly racial component to anti-BDS backlash stands on the shoulders of stereotypes of good and bad Arabs and Muslims in Western societies. Steven Salaita, a scholar of Palestinian origin who has produced critiques of these racist discourses, was attacked for his blistering tweets about Israeli apartheid. More than merely condemning the purportedly “uncivil” tweets, Salaita’s detractors sought to delegitimize his scholarly interventions exposing racism and settler colonialism. Anti-Zionist Jews who criticize Israel in their academic work and/or back BDS—in the process overturning received wisdom about “Arab” and “Jewish” positions on the conflict—have also been attacked individually. [9]

Race complicates precarity by highlighting how labor policies, while the driving force behind certain economic realities, are complemented by other forms of political attack. In other words, agents working on behalf of political-economic dominance and maintaining the status quo deploy multiple means of fending off threats. One white graduate student, concurring that high-profile Arab scholars who make their politics known are often targeted, suggested that race is a critical reason why white academics who engage in campus activism are more tolerated. [10] “They can do this work within the white savior complex…. If you make it into academia, chances are you’ll be white. [BDS activism] is not upsetting to colleagues because they like the idea of white people saving minorities and reproducing that complex.” This student recognized the connections between precarity, labor, race and Palestine, citing the importance of campaigns like Block the Boat. In that effort, activists and dock workers prevented the largest Israeli shipping company, Zim—which is deeply involved in the Israeli military-industrial complex—from docking and unloading cargo in Oakland.

Whose Racialized Precarity?

While race, precarity and activism together highlight different forms of social injustice, their intersections also offer potential for forging new and renewed solidarities, including support for BDS and its organizers. But not all movements that challenge precarity are inclusive. At times, as one graduate student said, the rhetoric that spotlights precarious academic labor

separates out privileged, educated, white people as this point of crisis in labor in the university today. As opposed to building connections between what is happening with adjunct labor and the service workers on campus today…who are precarious workers but are not called precarious workers. [11]

The word “academic,” this graduate student noted, is used in a “coded way to separate out those who do the intellectual work on campuses and those who do other work on campus.”

The observation suggests a missed opportunity to take up the causes of food service workers and cleaning staff, those who make the university function and are demanding living wages and equitable working conditions. Some exceptions to the missed opportunity include the food service workers’ strike at Harvard University in late 2016 and the ongoing battle by cleaners at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London to end the outsourcing of their work to a private company. In both instances, the service workers garnered considerable support, notably from undergraduate students, that contributed to their gains in political power.

Zach Schwartz-Weinstein situates service work at universities within a long labor history. He highlights the same dynamics that exist in the academy, namely, the enmeshment of political economy and race. The 2016 case of the Yale service worker Corey Menafee, rightly apoplectic about persistent imagery on campus glorifying slavery (and the university’s historical association with and benefits from it), is an important example of how racism’s logics are not exclusive to the community of scholars. [12]

Those individuals most vulnerable to precarity will likely again be driving efforts to fill gaping holes in social justice solidarity. Graduate students will increasingly grapple with their student-worker identity and its associated political responsibilities. An embrace of student-as-laborer comes with a need to blunt academia’s elitist vortex-like forces that seek to twist its matter into class formation, in the process bucking the university’s racialized hierarchy of labor, now a component of its lifeblood. Students need not accept the illusion of a faultlessly progressive labor movement; Big Labor’s flawed politics are well known, such as UAW, as the parent union, working to nullify BDS resolutions passed by its graduate student locals. Big Labor’s own shortcomings contribute to growing evidence of a reverse political flow, that is, the strength of social justice movements like BDS educating Big Labor and unions in an effort to inform and ultimately shift their sometimes parochial progressiveness.

For instance, another graduate student actively involved in a union suggested that promoting the BDS movement works on behalf of organized labor. The pro-BDS position of this student’s union resulted in a significant uptick in membership and “helped our union become stronger.” [13] BDS, in that sense, was “influential.” That a transnational solidarity movement concerned with the human rights of Palestinian Arabs is a litmus test of a labor union’s progressive politics is, for one thing, an endorsement of grassroots social movement building and education across other spaces—including black and indigenous struggles, for example. Such solidarity also helps to explain why academics who lay claim to progressive politics and build careers off marginalized and oppressed communities like the Palestinians are recognizing that their political inaction amounts to tacit acceptance of a morbid and untenable status quo.

Resolution Politics as Way Station

Academics are responding in part through their representative associations. A number of academic bodies have succeeded in passing BDS resolutions; others have failed (but are persisting) and still others are proceeding cautiously. Part of the challenge in these efforts concerns how BDS resolutions expressing institutional solidarity are crafted. Juliana Hu Pegues has considered the language of the BDS resolutions passed by the American Studies Association, the Association for Asian American Studies (AAAS) and the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association. All three decry the reinforcing structures of imperialism, racial oppression and settler colonialism, but Hu Pegues notes that the language of each resolution could go further in addressing how these intersections create “capacious” understandings of solidarity and resistance. [14] She notes, for example, that the AAAS missed an opportunity to highlight how Asian migrant labor was used to facilitate native land dispossession while building hegemonic liberal histories of American citizenship.

In March 2016, the National Conference of Black Political Scientists passed a remarkably powerful resolution boycotting Israeli academic institutions. The “whereas” clauses include explicit reference to the “negatively impacted working conditions of Palestinian scholars,” due to the occupation, as well as US “funding of Israeli militarism” that is “robbing Black communities of desperately needed reparations” and has “hamstrung the Palestinian economy causing premature deaths and astronomical incarceration rates.” [15] Hu Pegues might take issue with the resolution’s failure to mention indigenous grievances, such as land defense struggles exemplified by the ongoing fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline. But the resolution clearly points to intersections of political economy and race, including black-Palestine solidarity efforts, particularly the high-profile campaign, “When I see them, I see us.” [16] The resolution further highlights that enmeshed political geographies are increasingly understood as such, the ground on which scholar-activists long have been calling for political solidarity to be built.

The increasing number of political interventions by concerned members in various institutions—from undergraduate student organizing to student-worker labor unions to academic associations—are having a positive effect. The taking up of BDS has implicitly and explicitly attacked the fear that underpins the effectiveness of backlash against precarious academic workers. Through scholarly, informed and rigorous analyses of history and its contemporary relevance to persistent injustices, senior scholars who endorse BDS are creating protected spaces for young scholars grappling with their precarity and their ethical responsibilities to the region they study.

Students and faculty together deploy varied strategies to sustain these spaces and advance the movement. These strategies are grounded in a common analysis, one recognizing that the genealogy of race and precarity at the university continues to shape the form and practice of campus activism. Put differently, a circuitous line can be drawn from the racialized conditions under which precarious academic labor was established within the political economy of the university, to the embrace of BDS by increasingly precarious academic workers. As the movement grows, its natural allies are other movements that criticize, even excoriate, the university’s agenda that claims to be apolitical and is anything but.

Progressives and activists, operating in this exhausting political moment, might be tempted to create a hierarchy of the precarious that prioritizes academic laborers below other injustices—black communities facing down structural racism and state violence; indigenous communities protecting their land from further defilement; undocumented migrants seeking safe shelter; and Palestinians demanding equal rights and an end to occupation and apartheid. But renewed solidarity is much more powerful than discrete, ranked struggles—a solidarity that troubles conventional spatial boundaries, and one that is viscerally offended by the circulation and organized logistics of injustices between home and abroad. Endorsements and resolutions by organizations and associations must insist on a broadened solidarity, at the very least as an ethical marker and a key component of re-educating the deliberately misinformed. Rather than label such efforts as ivory tower moralizing, scholars and activists must explain critically how and why the political status quo was constructed, and how the increasingly successful and inspiring solidaristic response can be shored up and pushed forward.


[1] Marianna Valverde and Jacqueline Briggs, “The University as Urban Developer: A Research Report,” Centre for Criminology and Sociolegal Studies, University of Toronto, September 30, 2015.
[2] Ben Norton, “‘Defining Political Issue of Our Time,’” Salon, April 22, 2016.
[3] Nick Mitchell, “Theses on Adjunctification (for #NAWD),” low end theory, February 26, 2015.
[4] Interview with undergraduate student, June 28, 2016.
[5] Interview with tenured faculty member, July 14, 2016.
[6] Lara Deeb and Jessica Winegar, Anthropology’s Politics: Disciplining the Middle East (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015).
[7] Interview with contract faculty member, August 29, 2016.
[8] Interview with tenured faculty member, July 14, 2016.
[9] Faculty for Palestine, “Statement Condemning Attack on OISE-University of Toronto Thesis/Student,” December 9, 2010.
[10] Interview with graduate student, July 22, 2016.
[11] Interview with graduate student, July 22, 2016.
[12] Zach Schwartz-Weinstein, “Broken Window Theory: Corey Menafee and the History of University Service Labor.”
[13] Interview with graduate student, August 19, 2016.
[14] Juliana Hu Pegues, “Empire, Race and Settler Colonialism: BDS and Contingent Solidarities,” Theory & Event 19/19 (2016).
[15] See the press release here.
[16] See the campaign here.

This article has been amended from its original version. – Eds.

How to cite this article:

Omar Sirri "BDS in a Time of Precarity," Middle East Report 281 (Winter 2016).

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