“We Are Workers”: U.S. Graduate Student Workers Fight for Union Recognition

by Grant Macdonald

20 July 2017


I am a graduate student and union member at the University of Chicago.  Graduate student workers are fighting for union recognition across America, while universities are struggling to block and stall the efforts. Universities know that if they obstruct long enough, Donald Trump could rescue them from having to afford us the rights of workers.

Universities have always been central to the neoliberal project. Students in Chile have been demonstrating for years for affordable and reformed universities.  Recently, cleaners at LSE were driven to strike in order to win a fair contract.  The rising use of zero-hour contracts to staff UK universities led trade unionists to accuse Russell Group institutions of “importing the Sports Direct model” into higher education.  And it was economists at the University of Chicago’s Department of Economics that largely inspired Thatcher, Reagan and Pinochet to trample over social democracy and workers’ rights.  Fundamental to neoliberal dominance has been the demise of trade unions, and thus, it should come as no surprise that the same University of Chicago is just one of numerous elite American universities that is fighting tooth-and-nail to block their graduate student workers from forming unions.

“We are workers”.

Graduate workers form the backbone of universities, working alongside faculty to teach and carry out vital research. Until recently, many graduate workers at state institutions, such as Berkley, have been part of unions. However, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) considered the labels “student” and “employee” to be mutually exclusive at private universities, which make up a substantial portion of the higher education landscape in the US.  In August 2016 though, graduate workers at Columbia University won a case at the NLRB that granted them employee status.  This set a precedent for private universities, and with the rights of employees, came the right to unionise.

Last summer’s NLRB ruling kicked off a wave of unionisation campaigns across American campuses.  Union recognition grants graduate workers a seat at the table with university administrations when decisions are made and the ability to collectively bargain pay and benefits. Student workers demand input on a range of key workplace issues to protect the community’s work and lives.  Campaigners at Yale, for example, demand new grievance procedures, especially related to sexual harassment, which 54% of female graduate students there have experienced. Columbia’s union demands that their campus be contractually declared a “sanctuary campus” for undocumented students and University of Chicago graduate scientists call for a voice in the allocation of research funds, both issues of heightened urgency given the policies of Donald Trump.

Less than a year since the ruling, workers at Yale, Harvard, Cornell, Columbia, the University of Chicago and University of Pennsylvania have already petitioned for union recognition. However, campaigns so far have faced determined opposition from administrations reluctant to relinquish any control.

Union busting.

The effort to unionise has been frustrated by a shameless campaign of union busting by university admins (known as the ‘#badmin’ in union twitter circles).  At the University of Chicago, for example, President Zimmer (who earned $2.05 million in 2014, when figures were last released) unsurprisingly made his opposition to unionisation clear but called for having a “thorough, well-informed debate” on the issue.  However, since a union-petition was filed, the veneer of respect for the will of graduate students has dropped and his administration have made a concerted effort to block their workers from even having the right to form a union.  Like Yale, Columbia and Duke, the University of Chicago preferred to pour money from their huge endowment into the law firm Proskauer Rose rather than risk having to negotiate dental insurance provision for its teaching assistants.  The international firm has a penchant for union-busting and Big Oil and its all-male team of representatives for the university includes one who authored a paper entitled ‘Employer Defenses to Sexual Harassment Claims’.  In a regional NLRB hearing, students watched these lawyers attempt to argue that the decision to classify graduate students as workers was incorrect.  They did so by denigrating the value of graduate teaching and research and engaging in absurd semantic-gymnastics to avoid calling work “work”.  At one point, a university lawyer farcically interjected, “Objection.  They are not working.  They are teaching”.  The crux of the desperate argument was that teaching undergraduates, who pay the university $53k per year in tuition, is not a service for the university or undergraduates, but simply a valuable learning experience for the teachers.

Trump, the saviour.

The University of Chicago will surely lose its case but the anti-worker administrations are emboldened by the election of President Trump. These supposed beacons of critical thinking and free debate are hoping to render debate irrelevant by obstructing and delaying until the bigot in the Whitehouse steps in to save them. The 5-member NLRB currently has two vacant seats that will soon be filled by Trump, tipping the balance against labour, meaning last August’s ruling will likely soon be reversed.  As a result, unions are fighting against the clock to gain recognition, while administrations are delaying and challenging elections and refusing to negotiate contracts.

Fighting back. 

It is heartbreaking and demoralising for graduate students to carry the name of a university that denigrates their work and so doggedly fights against simply having to respect their rights as workers.  However, activists across the nation have organised, marched and stood firm while scrutinised in difficult circumstances by university lawyers.  Most inspirationally, campaigners at Yale, undeterred by cruel campus Republicans that held a provocative barbecue next door, staged a hunger strike to demand the university cease refusing to negotiate a contract with their union.

Fighting the decline of unions and the corporatisation of higher education are two essential battles in shifting the balance of global power.  Graduate employees across America are fighting where these two battles intersect and deserve all our support. As fundamental components of higher education and research, we deserve a seat at the table when decisions are made that affect our lives, our students’, and those of the broader community.  With the weight of the American educational and political establishment against us the fight will be difficult, but inspiration can be taken from the successes of student and union activists across the world. Graduate workers have increasingly come to appreciate that there is power in a union, and no ‘badmin’ lawyer can put that genie back in its bottle.



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