Organizing in the University

A New Wave of Struggle

The first major wave of grad­u­ate stu­dent union orga­niz­ing began in the 1960s, against the back­drop of vibrant social move­ments. Inspired by the Free Speech, Civ­il Rights, and Anti­war move­ments, grad­u­ate stu­dents began to orga­nize in their own work­places, as work­ers. It’s no coin­ci­dence that the first grad­u­ate stu­dent labor union to win legal recog­ni­tion, the Teach­ing Assis­tants Asso­ci­a­tion, was formed at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wis­con­sin-Madi­son, birth­place of the teach-in.

But while union­iza­tion at pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties, which are cov­ered by state col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing laws, pro­ceed­ed apace, grad­u­ate stu­dent unions at pri­vate uni­ver­si­ties, which are cov­ered under the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Act, remained anoth­er mat­ter. For decades, the law danced back and forth, with grad­u­ate stu­dents win­ning the right to union­ize only to see it tak­en away. Thus, in 2000, the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board (NLRB) ruled that grad­u­ate stu­dents at pri­vate uni­ver­si­ties should be con­sid­ered employ­ees, and that they there­fore had the legal right to col­lec­tive­ly bar­gain. The NYU rul­ing, as it came to be called, pre­cip­i­tat­ed a mas­sive wave of orga­niz­ing across the coun­try. But in 2004, the new Repub­li­can-appoint­ed major­i­ty on the NLRB turned against the 2000 rul­ing, restrict­ing the right to col­lec­tive­ly bar­gain. At places like the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia, elec­tion bal­lots were impound­ed and lat­er destroyed. Yet despite the defeat, grad­u­ate stu­dent work­ers con­tin­ued to orga­nize, wait­ing for the next oppor­tu­ni­ty.

Their chance came this past sum­mer. On August 23, 2016, the NLRB over­ruled the 2004 deci­sion, argu­ing in no uncer­tain terms that “stu­dent assis­tants work­ing at pri­vate col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties are statu­to­ry employ­ees cov­ered by the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Act.” In short, the new rul­ing clas­si­fied grad­u­ate stu­dents as both stu­dents and work­ers, grant­i­ng them the legal right to col­lec­tive­ly bar­gain. Since 2016, dozens of pri­vate uni­ver­si­ty union­iza­tion cam­paigns have gone pub­lic, and grad­u­ate stu­dents have scored impor­tant vic­to­ries at places like Colum­bia, Yale, and Bran­deis. Many oth­er cam­paigns are sched­uled to have elec­tions immi­nent­ly. Tak­en togeth­er, these cam­paigns con­sti­tute one of the most dynam­ic sec­tors of the labor move­ment today. 

The Modern Neoliberal University

In the cur­rent neolib­er­al moment, union­iza­tion cam­paigns are not only fight­ing for bet­ter pay, ben­e­fits, and work­ing con­di­tions for grad­u­ate stu­dents, but are chal­leng­ing the over­all struc­ture of uni­ver­si­ties in this coun­try. In the last few decades uni­ver­si­ties have under­gone many impor­tant changes, includ­ing astro­nom­i­cal increas­es in tuition, the expan­sion of admin­is­tra­tive posi­tions, and the growth of pre­car­i­ous aca­d­e­m­ic labor. The 2008 glob­al finan­cial cri­sis has exac­er­bat­ed aus­ter­i­ty in high­er edu­ca­tion, even going so far as to under­mine col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing for union­ized fac­ul­ty. In Sep­tem­ber 2016, the admin­is­tra­tion at Long Island Uni­ver­si­ty – Brook­lyn took a dra­con­ian mea­sure to lock­out fac­ul­ty mem­bers as they were nego­ti­at­ing their con­tracts.

Out­side of these direct attacks by the admin­is­tra­tion, the acad­e­my has few­er and few­er tenure track aca­d­e­m­ic jobs avail­able for peo­ple grad­u­at­ing with a doc­tor­ate. The prospects are even more dire for women and peo­ple of col­or. Fur­ther­more, the human­i­ties have tak­en a heavy hit since the eco­nom­ic cri­sis, result­ing in the State of Wis­con­sin sig­nif­i­cant­ly reduc­ing the bud­get for the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wis­con­sin by $300 mil­lion over the next two years. These aus­ter­i­ty mea­sures have direct­ly impact­ed aca­d­e­m­ic job prospects for grad­u­ate stu­dents after they com­plete their pro­grams. They mat­ter inso­far as we have the abil­i­ty to shape a broad­er move­ment about aca­d­e­m­ic free­dom, labor, and job secu­ri­ty. Post-grad­u­ate job secu­ri­ty has in fact been a cen­tral fea­ture of union­iza­tion cam­paigns. Sim­i­lar­ly, the num­ber of jobs offered have declined sig­nif­i­cant­ly. The Amer­i­can His­tor­i­cal Asso­ci­a­tion has shown that while his­to­ry PhDs has sky­rock­et­ed, the num­ber of aca­d­e­m­ic jobs has decreased since the 1970s. The union­iza­tion cam­paigns at pri­vate uni­ver­si­ties dove­tails with the non-tenured or adjunct pro­fes­sors at these insti­tu­tions. For exam­ple, Har­vard, Colum­bia, Duke, Emory, the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go, and New York Uni­ver­si­ty, rely on this under­paid, cheap labor and non-tenured fac­ul­ty have led cam­paigns recent­ly.

Connecting the Struggles

Grad­u­ate stu­dents want bet­ter pro­tec­tion for their labor, aca­d­e­m­ic free­dom, more trans­paren­cy against dis­crim­i­na­tion, bet­ter health and child­care ben­e­fits. More­over, they want to have mean­ing­ful con­nec­tions with oth­er grad­u­ate work­ers at uni­ver­si­ties who have been engaged in col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing and labor rights in high­er edu­ca­tion. Many peo­ple who have tak­en part in these union­iza­tion dri­ves rec­og­nize the valu­able work of grad­u­ate stu­dents and the neces­si­ty for col­lec­tive rep­re­sen­ta­tion for ensur­ing a fair and hos­pitable envi­ron­ment. In an era of aca­d­e­m­ic cor­po­ra­ti­za­tion and the increas­ing reliance on con­tin­gent researchers and teach­ers over tenured fac­ul­ty, grad­u­ate work­er unions give us a pow­er­ful voice in shap­ing our work­ing con­di­tions as well as the future of aca­d­e­m­ic work and the uni­ver­si­ty as a whole.

While grad­u­ate work­ers at pri­vate uni­ver­si­ties have not always had the legal pro­tec­tion to col­lec­tive­ly orga­nize through a union, the recent surge in labor orga­niz­ing efforts has opened up broad­er ques­tions on cam­pus about cross-cam­pus social jus­tice coali­tions. Grad­u­ate union orga­niz­ing at pri­vate uni­ver­si­ties has not occurred in iso­la­tion but has been part of a grow­ing effort to high­light broad­er issues around immi­gra­tion, adjunct labor, and oppres­sion. Cor­nell Uni­ver­si­ty Grad­u­ate Stu­dents Unit­ed has act­ed in sol­i­dar­i­ty with adjunct pro­fes­sors in neigh­bor­ing insti­tu­tions at Itha­ca Col­lege, attend­ing their ral­lies. More­over, inter-union col­lab­o­ra­tion has been part and par­cel of build­ing a stronger polit­i­cal net­works. Union­ized nurs­es at the Cor­nell Med­ical Cen­ter have also sup­port­ed CGSU in their union­iza­tion cam­paign. When asked why he was orga­niz­ing with the Cor­nell Uni­ver­si­ty cam­paign, Kyle Ander­son not­ed:

I see the fight for grad­u­ate stu­dent union­iza­tion as one small piece of the larg­er fight to re-bal­ance our econ­o­my and our soci­ety after an era of neolib­er­al poli­cies that have gut­ted the mid­dle class and con­cen­trat­ed wealth at the top. As a grad­u­ate student/worker at Cor­nell, that is my com­mu­ni­ty, and so I chose to join Cor­nell Grad­u­ate Stu­dents Unit­ed.

In the north­east­ern region of the Unit­ed States, grad­u­ate stu­dents at pri­vate uni­ver­si­ties have begun or strength­ened union­iza­tion cam­paigns with the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers (AFT), Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union (SEIU), and the Unit­ed Autowork­ers (UAW) hav­ing a major influ­ence in high­er edu­ca­tion orga­niz­ing. Those insti­tu­tions include Cor­nell, Colum­bia, Syra­cuse, Johns Hop­kins, North­east­ern, Ford­ham, New York Uni­ver­si­ty, Prince­ton, and Yale. Of these, NYU’s grad­u­ate stu­dent union—GSOC UAW local 2110—has one of the strongest posi­tions.

At Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty, the grad­u­ate stu­dent work­ers’ union­iza­tion cam­paign with the UAW con­duct­ed a vote in Decem­ber 2016 which led to a loss by a small mar­gin. Nev­er­the­less, the cam­paign is con­test­ed and grad­u­ate stu­dent union orga­niz­ers are prepar­ing to launch anoth­er union­iza­tion cam­paign. At Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty, stu­dents have vot­ed to union­ize and the admin­is­tra­tion is chal­leng­ing them through a legal bat­tle. In con­trast, Har­vard University’s grad­u­ate work­er union­iza­tion vote was ulti­mate­ly unsuc­cess­ful, how­ev­er, orga­niz­ers are con­test­ing the vote. These ten­sions reflect a broad­er polar­iza­tion on pri­vate uni­ver­si­ty cam­pus­es and their explic­it anti-union poli­cies. One par­tic­u­lar­ly per­ni­cious site of this bat­tle has been Yale Uni­ver­si­ty. In Jacobin Mag­a­zine, Michael Den­ning right­ly notes that Yale University’s refusal to acknowl­edge the grad­u­ate stu­dent union­iza­tion vote defies the law. Uni­ver­si­ty admin­is­tra­tors refused to meet with grad­u­ate stu­dent union­ists after their elec­tion, which led to a coor­di­nat­ed hunger strike. 

Fac­ul­ty mem­bers have stressed the neces­si­ty for protests and oth­ers derid­ed the hunger strike. As the New York Times not­ed, “The mea­sures these grad­u­ate stu­dent teach­ers are tak­ing are dra­mat­ic. But their cause — a fight for decent, secure wages and com­pre­hen­sive ben­e­fits — has impli­ca­tions for the entire labor mar­ket.” Yet, stu­dents direct­ly involved in the action have pro­vid­ed inci­sive analy­sis about the labor and con­di­tions that have dri­ven stu­dents to action. As Luckas Moe said dur­ing the fast:

I decid­ed to fight back against this because I saw it up close. My father spent his career work­ing as an adjunct pro­fes­sor. I remem­ber the stress in our fam­i­ly about whether he’d get hired back next year, the toll it took on his health, and the pres­sure it put on my mom to pro­vide some sta­bil­i­ty. He taught six cours­es right after hav­ing a heart attack because that was the min­i­mum to qual­i­fy for health cov­er­age.

The stakes are high and oth­er pri­vate uni­ver­si­ties are at var­i­ous stages of the union­iza­tion process. Grad­u­ate stu­dents at Tufts Uni­ver­si­ty, with the affil­i­a­tion of SEIU Local 509, began the vot­ing process for union­iza­tion on 1 May. In Tufts Dai­ly, Eng­lish grad­u­ate stu­dent James Rizzi wrote:

Right now the sit­u­a­tion is such that indi­vid­ual grad­u­ate stu­dents may come togeth­er to ask things of their pro­gram direc­tor or depart­ment heads, who then go up the chain of com­mand until things are nego­ti­at­ed on our behalf, far removed from the peo­ple who are actu­al­ly ask­ing for the things. Form­ing a union, for me, means hav­ing a seat at the table.

Grad­u­ate Stu­dents Unit­ed, the union­iza­tion cam­paign at The Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go, recent­ly filed a peti­tion with the NLRB to union­ize. Bran­deis Uni­ver­si­ty grad­u­ate union­iza­tion efforts have result­ed in col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing with the admin­is­tra­tion. Addi­tion­al­ly, oth­er cam­paigns are ongo­ing at Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty and the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia.

After the NLRB deci­sion in August 2016, Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty grad­u­ate stu­dents began an out­reach cam­paign to help make union­iza­tion pos­si­ble with the twin goals of pur­su­ing an affil­i­a­tion vote and get­ting more grad­u­ate stu­dents involved. Since Novem­ber 2016, mem­bers of Prince­ton Grad­u­ate Stu­dents Unit­ed (PGSU) have been get­ting stu­dents to sign mis­sion cards. This has been met with var­i­ous e-mails of con­dem­na­tion from the uni­ver­si­ty pres­i­dent. The Dean wrote, “We are a close-knit and inti­mate aca­d­e­m­ic com­mu­ni­ty, one that strives to be respon­sive both to each indi­vid­ual and to the stu­dent body as a whole.” For stu­dents from work­ing class, LGBT, and ethnic/racial minor­i­ty back­grounds this is not always the case. In a moment where stu­dents, fac­ul­ty, and staff from Iran, Libya, Soma­lia, Sudan, Syr­ia, and Yemen face con­dem­na­tion from the Trump regime, the admin­is­tra­tion has not tak­en a for­mal stance to make Prince­ton a sanc­tu­ary cam­pus, which means that they will be vul­ner­a­ble to dis­crim­i­na­to­ry nation­al poli­cies as they enter and leave the Unit­ed States. Grad­u­ate stu­dent union­iza­tion would pro­vide anoth­er lay­er of pro­tec­tion to ensure that all students—no mat­ter their nation­al origin—are pro­vid­ed the pro­tec­tion.

Organizing Labor in the Age of Trump

Although grad­u­ate work­ers at pri­vate uni­ver­si­ties have been orga­niz­ing for the past sev­er­al years, the strug­gles have reached a new stage. The August 2016 NLRB deci­sion, the wave of strug­gles around the envi­ron­ment, immi­gra­tion, and women’s rights, and grow­ing oppo­si­tion to Trump’s elec­tion have all worked to accel­er­ate grad­u­ate stu­dent union­iza­tion cam­paigns. As these cam­paigns go pub­lic, grad­u­ate stu­dent work­ers are affirm­ing their agency. Union­iza­tion offers a space for uni­ver­si­ty work­ers to map out the val­ue of their labor, chal­lenge the alien­ation of aca­d­e­m­ic work, and col­lec­tive­ly decide their future. These cam­paigns are impor­tant because they have been able to bring work­ers togeth­er to ques­tion the role of the uni­ver­si­ty in a dire polit­i­cal moment.

Indeed, the stakes are very high now that Don­ald Trump is Pres­i­dent. The NLRB present­ly has two vacan­cies which Trump has the right to fill. We don’t know exact­ly when his appointees will be con­firmed, but we can be cer­tain they will move swift­ly to revoke our right to col­lec­tive­ly bar­gain, just as the NLRB did under George W. Bush. In this con­text, many grad­u­ate stu­dent work­ers are find­ing them­selves rac­ing against the clock, com­press­ing cam­paigns that might usu­al­ly take place over years into just six months.

Uni­ver­si­ty admin­is­tra­tors, many of whom are very like­ly using uni­ver­si­ty funds to hire anti-union lawyers to advise them on how to crush these union­iza­tion cam­paigns, are ful­ly apprised of this sit­u­a­tion. At places like Colum­bia and Yale, where stu­dents vot­ed in favor of union­iza­tion, their strat­e­gy is to ignore these cam­paigns, or tie them up in court, until the new NLRB over­rules the August 2016 deci­sion. In short, they are hop­ing that Trump can solve their prob­lem for them. 

Sol­i­dar­i­ty and protest have been the key to suc­cess­ful cam­paigns, whether in high­er edu­ca­tion or else­where. In a moment when the right wing is con­fi­dent and union­iza­tion is at an all-time low, it is impor­tant to gath­er forces that can debate and strate­gize. Orga­niz­ing grad­u­ate stu­dent work­ers can be one of the many sites to strength­en the sanc­tu­ary move­ments on col­lege cam­pus­es and to con­nect with oth­er union­ized work­ers on campuses—including but not lim­it­ed to facil­i­ties and din­ing work­ers. More­over, the mobi­liza­tion will be espe­cial­ly  cru­cial as we make broad­er demands for free col­lege edu­ca­tion. In a moment where the left is grow­ing and more peo­ple are inter­est­ed in social­ist pol­i­tics, orga­niz­ing labor with­in high­er edu­ca­tion can pro­vide an open­ing to fur­ther strength­en anti-racist strug­gles and aus­ter­i­ty mea­sures on uni­ver­si­ty cam­pus­es.

Author of the article

is a history of science doctoral candidate at Princeton University who focuses on the history of epidemics, trade and imperialism in North Africa and the Middle East. She is a socialist organizing and living in Brooklyn, New York.