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.