The Making of the Graduate Working Class
Since the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled in 2016 that graduate student workers at private universities have collective bargaining rights, academia has been the site of a national labor upsurge. As graduate workers at private institutions organize for formal union recognition, already-recognized graduate unions at public universities are also fighting to improve their working conditions and raise their living standards.
At the annual meeting in Chicago this January, the AHA’s Graduate and Early Career Committee assembled a panel of graduate union activists to talk about our recent organizing experiences. Chaired by Amanda Scott of the Naval Academy, the panel included Sarah Siegel of Washington University in St. Louis, Jody Noll of Georgia State University, Ruby Oram of Loyola University Chicago, and me, from the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC).
University administrations frequently argue that graduate students should not be afforded the legal right to union representation because we are students, not employees, despite the fact that graduate students are taking on increasingly heavy teaching workloads.
Siegel discussed having to testify that she was really an employee at a hearing convened by the NLRB at Washington University to determine whether graduate workers were eligible to hold a union certification election. Lawyers representing the university suggested that her teaching duties did not constitute employment, but rather only an experience to strengthen her CV. Siegel responded by noting that the two were not mutually exclusive.
Some university administrations take a different tack. Oram said that at Loyola, a Catholic university, the administration argued that its graduate employees were “religious workers” and that it was exempt from labor law on the grounds of religious freedom. In what she said felt unreal because of its obvious absurdity, Oram had to explain at an NLRB hearing that as a history instructor, no part of her job involved conducting worship, ministry, or religious counseling.
At both Washington University and Loyola, the NLRB ruled that graduate employees are indeed workers and thus entitled to hold union recognition elections. Washington University’s election was in October 2017. Siegel says voter suppression by the administration resulted in nearly a third of the ballots cast going uncounted—including her own—leading to an inconclusive result.
Loyola’s graduate workers won a conclusive victory in their union election in February 2017, one month after President Trump took office. The university, however, did not immediately begin bargaining with students or recognize the union. In the meantime, Trump placed new, anti-union appointees to the NLRB. In October later that year, Loyola announced it would not bargain with graduate workers at all because it did not recognize their democratically elected union.
What happened to the graduate unionization efforts at Washington University and Loyola is virtually identical to what has occurred at several other private universities. While the nascent unions could appeal their cases to the NLRB, this would likely lead to the landmark 2016 ruling being overturned now that the board is controlled by Trump appointees.
Instead, graduate workers are pursuing a direct-action approach, holding highly visible protests to publicly shame university administrations into doing the right thing. These tactics are bearing fruit. The administrations at Brown and Columbia have agreed to recognize their graduate unions, and Oram and Siegel say their unions have already won certain concessions like wage raises and dental insurance.
Even when graduate workers successfully unionize and negotiate contracts, like at many public universities, university administrations often continue to resist the unions’ existence. This is often the case at UIC, where we have had a recognized graduate union since 2004.
While President Trump’s appointments to the NLRB have created obstacles to graduate student unions at private universities, his appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court ensured the anti-union ruling in last year’s Janus v. AFSCME case. The 5-4 decision essentially imposed “right-to-work” on the nation’s entire public sector, where unions are prohibited from collecting fair share fees from employees they are legally required to represent. Panelists at the session discussed the decision’s adverse impact on existing graduate student unions at public universities. Graduate unions already have difficulty maintaining membership because of the natural turnover of the graduate workforce, and Janus will make it even harder to gain new members, and therefore, to also maintain financial stability.
At both private and public universities, the biggest challenge to graduate unions—besides employer obstruction and legal barriers—is simply being able to organize and unite graduate student workers. The most basic tool of organizing is having one-on-one conversations to discuss the work-related problems and financial anxieties we all share but rarely talk about. Siegel explained how these conversations helped set the agenda and build support for Washington University’s graduate union.
But even with one-on-one conversations, there are challenges. As Oram noted, the struggles of a graduate worker in the history department are not necessarily the same as those of a graduate worker in the chemistry department. Further, many graduates are made to think that their job duties somehow do not constitute “real” labor, even though we teach real students and have real bills to pay.
To disabuse graduate students of such notions, faculty support for union efforts can often be crucial. Noll talked about his research into the 1968 statewide teacher strike in Florida and argued that parallels can be drawn to current graduate union campaigns. The 1968 strike was successful in part because teachers had the support of their supervisors, the principals of their schools. In the same way, Noll suggested, support from graduate workers’ faculty supervisors can be helpful.
At UIC, we are fortunate that the faculty workers are also unionized and supportive of our grad union. The two unions are on the same contract cycle, meaning we are both currently in negotiations and combining our respective contract campaigns. In recent months, graduate students and faculty at UIC have come together to hold a joint protest at a Board of Trustees meeting and an informational picket on campus.
Alliances can be also built with other groups beyond faculty. Siegel said the graduate union at Washington University is part of a coalition to win a $15 minimum wage for all campus employees, and Oram talked about a Fight for $15 protest she and other Loyola graduate workers participated in alongside clergy and fast-food workers at McDonald’s “Hamburger University” in Chicago.
Given the realities of the academic job market and the expansion of precarious adjunct positions, our experiences as graduate union activists will undoubtedly be useful after we graduate. Even if we pursue careers outside of academia, the knowledge and skills we gain will prove valuable. Siegel, for example, recently started a job as a researcher for the Colorado Education Association, the statewide teacher union.
As universities are increasingly run like corporations, unions of academic workers are a necessary corrective to ensure that the teaching and research mission does not get lost in the short-sighted scramble for “revenue-generation.” As Noll argued, unions can be beneficial for universities by improving conditions for everyone—especially students—and need not be viewed as an oppositional force. The question is whether university administrations will ever recognize this.
Jeff Schuhrke is a history PhD candidate at the University of Illinois at Chicago, studying the connections between organized labor and US foreign policy during the Cold War. His writing has appeared at In These Times, Jacobin, and Labor Notes. He is the co-president of the Graduate Employees Organization, AFT Local 6297.
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