Grad Student Unions Are Setting A New Pace In Higher Ed

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by Amzi Jeffs, former Head Steward for UAW 4121 representing academic workers at University of Washington (personal capacity).

2023 saw a major upsurge in graduate student union victories at private universities, foreshadowed by a 2-to-1 union vote by MIT graduate students in 2022. The seven largest NLRB elections in fiscal year 2023 were all graduate workers: Stanford, Yale, Boston University, University of Chicago, Johns Hopkins, Northwestern, and University of Southern California. These votes accounted for a remarkable 21% of all 64,411 NLRB ballots. Fully 94% of grad ballots were “yes,” and 57% of all eligible workers turned out to vote. 

These numbers don’t even include further blowout victories in the last few months. Academic workers at Duke voted 1000 to 131 to affiliate with Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Workers at Cornell voted 1873 to 80 to join United Electrical Workers (UE). Workers at Emory voted 909 to 73 to join SEIU. Last week graduate students and postdocs at Caltech overwhelmingly won simultaneous elections. In addition, recent years have seen undergraduate workers win new unions at Grinnell, Tufts, Columbia, Fordham, Rensselaer Polytechnic, Mount Holyoke, Barnard, and other schools.

At least as important as the landslide certification votes is the fact that new unions in higher education are beginning to win strong contracts. After threatening a strike, graduate workers at MIT won a contract in September that includes salaries of $44,000-$56,000 per year, a robust grievance process to address harassment and discrimination, childcare support, dental coverage, financial support for international students, and union security. Workers at USC and Yale were quick to follow, winning contracts that include double-digit wage hikes for some workers, support for international students, and a slew of other victories less than a year after certifying their unions.

It’s no exaggeration to say that new standards are rapidly being set for academic workers across the country. This exciting wave of organizing deserves a close look by all workers aspiring to rebuild a fighting labor movement and improve conditions in their own workplaces.

What’s driving the wave?

In recent decades, universities have increasingly relied on underpaid temporary workers—mostly graduate students, adjuncts, and postdoctoral workers—to teach classes and do crucial research work. Meanwhile, the cost of living has skyrocketed, especially in proximity to university campuses. Perversely, universities themselves are often major landlords that contribute to rising housing costs, while academic workers are crushed by perpetual rent burden. 

The 2010s saw important steps forward in organizing higher education, with hard-won graduate student unions at major institutions like NYU, Columbia, and Harvard. University administrations were loath to give up on cheap labor, and did their best to force workers into weak contracts, in many cases provoking bitter, drawn-out strikes.

In late 2022, the University of California strike set a new tone by mobilizing tens of thousands of workers across the entire state, and winning major victories. These gains had a swift ripple effect, and emboldened non-union graduate workers to step up organizing efforts in their own workplaces. Caltech’s administration anxiously raised salaries more than 10% following the UC strike, nevertheless failing to stop graduate students and postdocs from winning their union votes less than a year later.

One reason for this rapid spread is that academic workplaces are highly interconnected. Workers regularly move from one institution to another as they proceed through different degrees and jobs, and frequently travel to workshops and conferences where they discuss the struggles unfolding on one another’s campuses.

Private universities are a major feature in the current wave. The NLRB (which handles union elections at private universities) has seen numerous cases about whether or not academic workers, particularly graduate students, have a right to unionize. The most recent ruling was a 2016 decision in favor of graduate students at Columbia, overturning the NLRB’s previous 2004 decision on the matter. The perception that Biden’s NLRB is unlikely to reverse the Columbia decision has been one factor emboldening graduate students to file for union elections at private universities. 

A notable feature of this wave is that over 30,000 graduate students have chosen to organize with the United Electrical Workers (UE), a relatively small, independent national union. UE’s materials call for rank-and-file control of campaigns, militant struggle, and political independence of the labor movement from the two-party system—ideas that are much more appealing to young workers than the business-as-usual approach of many national unions. 

Compared to the vicious anti-union campaigns run by companies like Amazon, university administrations have engaged in more conservative forms of  union busting in recent years. This contrasts the 2010s, when administrations felt secure enough to spread anti-union lies, make threats against international students, and generally disregard labor law. That this is no longer the case is a testament to the growing strength of the labor movement, both in higher education and more broadly. Administrators have been forced to settle for granting some improvements to slow the momentum of organizing, while seeking to create the impression that they are interested in responding to workers’ needs. This was the case at Cornell, for example, where the administration made early concessions like an 8% raise in response to actions organized by graduate students, and took a relatively neutral stance prior to the union vote. However, that university administrations aren’t ‘playing offense’ as strongly as Amazon is against their workers does not mean that they won’t decide to, if the grad union wave reaches a certain height.

What’s next for unions in higher ed?

For new unions the most immediate and pressing task is to win a strong first contract, a feat that is often more challenging than winning a union election. Academic unions face the extra obstacle of built-in, fast-paced turnover, and university administrations will drag their feet unless the majority of workers show that they are well organized and ready to strike.

Strong, rank-and-file driven campaigns that mobilize the entire campus community—not just the bargaining unit—will be the most effective means of fighting for workers’ needs. Such campaigns are also necessary to develop new organizers who can continue to lead and strengthen these unions, or carry forward their organizing experience and clear perspectives to future workplaces. 

It will also be crucial for unions in higher education to link up with the broader labor movement, and boldly take on political issues, especially those that immediately affect union members. A positive recent example is UAW’s call for a ceasefire in Gaza, a position which bubbled up from (predominantly academic) locals to the regional level, and then the national and international union. Graduate workers from Johns Hopkins (organized with UE) prominently joined UAW president Shawn Fain and other union officials in a December press conference in Washington D.C. calling for a ceasefire. In addition to statements and actions, unions should begin to lay the basis for a new political party of the working class, and run their own candidates for office who would be directly accountable to workers instead of the corporate two party system.

Fighting for a world where research is done for the common good, not profit

Capitalism relies on universities for research and development (R&D) work to an extraordinary degree. This is true of tech and aerospace giants like Amazon, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Uber, and also government institutions like the National Science Foundation, Department of Defense, Centers for Disease Control, National Institutes of Health, and others. As far as the capitalists and their representatives in government are concerned, innovations in research are best implemented for the purpose of creating profits and protecting the interests of US imperialism. To the frustration of many researchers, the socially useful ideas that they create are often squandered or left to gather dust.

Graduate students at the top ten R&D universities (ranked by dollars spent) are now all unionized, with the exception of University of Pennsylvania where workers have filed cards and are waiting to hold an election. Especially notable is Johns Hopkins University, which sees over $3 billion in R&D spending every year. Workers at these institutions should coordinate their efforts to fight for research to prioritize social need, and be implemented for the good of all.

Ultimately, fully realizing this aim will require uniting the whole working class to fight for a socialist society, where academic research—and the economy as a whole—is democratically  planned under workers’ control.

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