UC Davis students part of nationwide protest over proposed graduate tuition tax in GOP tax plan

MARINA OLNEY / AGGIE

House tax plan would eliminate graduate student tax exemption

On the morning of Nov. 29, graduate students, undergraduates, faculty members and community members organized at UC Davis, as well as nationwide, to protest the Republican tax plan with a walkout over the taxation of tuition waivers. These waivers allow graduate students to teach and research in exchange for tuition exemptions. UC Davis graduate students and the UC Davis chapter of UC Student-Workers Union (UAW) 2865 — the largest student worker union in the United States — coordinated the event.

About 80 participants congregated by the Quad flagpole, some holding signs which read “Tax Me Like Trump” and “Higher Ed is Already Classist Enough.” After several speakers addressed the audience, there was an organized write-in/call-in at the Graduate Studies Office to urge congressional representatives to vote against the tax plan — which has since been approved in both the House and the Senate.

Lindsay Baltus, a graduate student researcher in the English department, spoke at the protest representing the Women’s Resource and Research Center.

“We’re outraged,” Baltus said. “Graduate students are part of the university’s invisible and cheap labor force. This tax reform will bring tax cuts to the wealthy while pushing the burden onto students and workers. We would lose tax exemptions on education that serve to incentivise students to further their education and allow us to subsist while pursuing our degrees.”

Averyl Dietering, a co-organizer of the UC Davis Grad Tax Walkout event and an English graduate teaching assistant, explained how an erasure of low-income graduate student workers creates a teaching assistant force of the independently wealthy. Dietering talked about the impacts of the bill not only on graduate students, but also on undergraduates.  

“What I want undergraduate students to know about this rally and about this tax bill — if they want to go to grad school and this tax bill passes — [is that] they are going to have to pay those taxes as well,” Dietering said. “Even if they don’t want to go to grad school, losing graduate students from the university is going to change your education more than you can possibly imagine right now. Especially if those graduate students are replaced by graduate students that are wealthier, it’s going to change your education in ways you can’t imagine.”

The GOP tax plan, which includes the grad tax, is part of the recently-passed Senate and House tax plan. In addition to the removal of tuition waivers, interest paid on students loans will no longer be tax deductible under the tax plan.

According to The New York Times, Republicans characterize the changes on higher education brought forward in the tax plan as simplifying national tax code — allowing more room for cuts in the middle class income by eliminating individual tax breaks. Critics argue, however, that the elimination of individual tax breaks levied on graduate and doctoral students will ultimately heighten the financial burden of higher education and student debt, targeting low-income and middle-income families who can’t afford unsubsidized higher education.

The bill also lowers corporate taxes from 35 percent to 20 percent to create trickle-down “windfall”. Underrepresented and impoverished graduate students largely depend on tax-free tuition waivers, according to CNN, while independently wealthy students who do not need subsidized education will be unaffected.

Gabi Kirk, a UAW organizer and a geography graduate student worker, introduced the speakers at the event. Kirk talked about her surprise at UC Davis’ recent administrative support for graduate students protesting the tax plan; Chancellor Gary May wrote an op-ed in The Sacramento Bee speaking out against the GOP tax plan and signifying himself as a supporter of the Nov. 29 walkout.

“I am really grateful for the grad students here and around the country that turned this into a national issue enough that the administration had to come out and support it,” Kirk said. “When this was called for a week ago, the UC put out one really brief sentence about [the graduate student tax exemption]. But they had four paragraphs about how they were upset about getting taxed on capital building projects.”

Kirk told the audience it was “surreal for [her] to be at a UC protest that was endorsed by the chancellor.” However, sociology department teaching assistant and UAW 2865 officer Emily Breuninger reminded the audience that not endorsing the GOP’s tax bill was profitable for a public California university.

“If the optics are good, and it’s against Trump, they’re willing to come out and pay lip service to the economic benefit and value of grad students,” Breuninger told the audience. “We all saw that anti-unionization email. They try to stop our organizations and continuously try to block us and send out anti-union propaganda.”

Roy Taggueg, a graduate student studying sociology and the President of the UC Davis Graduate Student Association for Sociology, spoke about how being undocumented intersects with his fight for subsidized education. According to Taggueg, education should rely on proving oneself through merit and motivation, not finances or nationality.

“I am undocumented,” Taggueg said. “It seems as though every month something new pops up — the people I work with everyday, we feel attacked. And as graduate students, we have one thing going for us that no one else does: we’re really friggin’ smart! All of us are going to be affected. You all made it here to grad school on the virtue of the narrative that you push forward to show other people why they should care about you, and you have to keep on doing that.”

Connor Gorman, a graduate student worker in the Department of Physics and a UAW member, emphasized the value of graduate student workers at UC Davis. According to Gorman, the money graduate workers earn for the school through teaching and research falls into the pockets of administration.

“It is not the administrators who do the bulk of the work that makes the university what it is,” Gorman said. “The university is great because of the workers, because of the faculty, because of the students. As graduate students, we are both workers and students. We deserve to be justly compensated for our labor, [but] we do not actually ever see this money. They need to stop compensating administrators so highly and instead start compensating the workers — the graduate students — who make the university run. They need to give us a living wage.”

According to Baltus, graduate students already face financial stress even with the tax exemption.

“We work much more than 40 hours per work and we are also full-time students,” Baltus said. “Many undergo poverty, food insecurity [and] homelessness. From my own experience as a graduate student with a child, I have already faced financial hardship as a result of the university’s failure to provide affordable health care or quality affordable housing for grad students families.”

Graduate student worker and president of the Anthropology Students Association Mayowa Adegboyega spoke about how the bill affects international students. According to Adegboyega, the bill will strip away newfound access to opportunities and financial capital from many marginalized students.

“Many amongst us are disproportionately affected by this bill,” Adegboyega said. “Many of your your fellow grad students come from really underrepresented communities. Many of us are breadwinners in our families. We have been left out for generations and are just now building our wealth [and] building our families. Apart from being a scholar [and] a black women, I am also an international student. Because we cannot apply for in-state tuition, it will be almost impossible for many of us to come here [without tax exemptions].”

 

Written By: Aaron Liss — campus@theaggie.org