Grad Students Walk Out to Protest GOP Tax Bill That Threatens Their Financial Security

UCSD graduate students protested the GOP tax bill at the Silent Tree yesterday. If the bill passes, some of them will pay up to $8,000 in taxes on their tuition waivers and stipends. (Connor Gorry / The Triton)

Graduate students at UC San Diego participated in a nationwide walkout yesterday in protest of the new House Republican tax bill that passed earlier this month. The House version of the plan classifies the tuition waivers that most graduate students receive as taxable income, which would place students in difficult financial circumstances.

The Senate version of the bill, which is up for a vote this week, does not include these tuition-waiver provisions. But if it passes, the two versions of the bill will need to be reconciled.

Currently, many doctoral students receive full tuition waivers and a small stipend in exchange for performing research or teaching undergraduates. If the provisions are included in the finalized plan, a graduate student who receives a stipend between $16,000 and $34,000 may have to pay as much as $8,000 more in taxes each year.

Approximately 200 students met at the Silent Tree in front of Geisel Library, walking out of their classes and labs to demonstrate the importance of graduate students in the UCSD community. They drank coffee, chanted, and gave speeches in opposition to the tax plan, which they say will make it even harder for individuals, particularly those already disenfranchised, to pursue higher education.

Connor Gorry / The Triton

Connor Gorry / The Triton

“We’re highly underpaid for the amount of work we put in…and I’m really passionate about the idea that education should be accessible to all,” said neuroscience doctoral student Nicole Mlynaryk. “I’m the first in my family to attend graduate school. If I was making any less money, I don’t know if it would be possible. I don’t know if this would have been an option I would have even considered.”

The protest was organized by UCSD Student Workers Union, the union representing UC student workers such as teaching assistants and tutors. Members of United Auto Workers Local 5810 (UAW Local 5810), the UC postdoctoral researchers union, the collective Radical Women of Color PhDs, and nonaffiliated undergraduate and graduate students were also present. Organizers said that they hoped to reach members of the UC community and educate the public on the importance of stopping the tax plan.

The first protester who spoke, India Pierce, is a doctoral student in the ethnic studies department and an organizer with the Radical Women of Color PhDs.

“The GOP has proven to us time and time again that they are not invested in our lives nor our well-being. Don’t be fooled: this tax bill is yet another attack on the most vulnerable of our community,” Pierce told the crowd. “It will systematically push already disenfranchised communities out of higher education. We refuse to allow the knowledge in our university to be any more white than it already is.”

Speakers went on to critique the ongoing commodification of education and the lack of diversity at UCSD. They described the proposed bill as specifically targeting women, people of color, and queer students, and another in a long line of Republican attacks on intellectualism. Students in the crowd shared their outrage, chiming in with cries of “Shame!”, cheering, and chanting “Whose university? Our university!”

Some graduate students speculated that they were deliberately targeted to reduce upward mobility and keep disenfranchised groups out of the upward mobility machine of higher education. Others noted that GOP congressmen stood to lose little by further alienating graduate students.

“It’s kind of well known that more educated people are less likely to vote for GOP policies, so I think it’s on purpose,” said doctoral student Shannan McClain. “They know we’re generally not their demographic…If you do something like this which may only allow the rich to have access to graduate education, then it makes a group that might otherwise be active or vote for pro-science policies…smaller.”

However, the protesters hope that raising enough awareness of the issue will lead to an amendment to or the failure of the tax bill in the Senate. The final vote will most likely take place on Friday; the Senate is still deliberating many details, including increasing the proposed corporate tax rate and adding a “trigger” to raise taxes if economic growth targets are missed.

A representative for UAW Local 2865 spoke of coalition building, adding that the protest would make the issue more visible to other UCSD groups, such as undergraduates planning to attend graduate school in the future. The tax changes will also affect them and their career choices, he said, urging undergraduate and graduate students to take action as well as join the student workers’ union. The protest’s Facebook event page urged students to contact their elected officials and linked an instruction guide.

Rohan Grover is an Assistant News Editor at The Triton.

Correction made on Nov. 30: A previous version of this story quoted McClain affirming Congressman Darrell Issa’s vote on the tax plan. Issa voted against the bill.