What’s Fueling the Graduate Worker Union Upsurge? / by Dave Kamper

The University of Minnesota’s Graduate Labor Union gathered union authorization cards representing nearly half the bargaining unit in the first 24 hours of the drive. Photo: Nolan Ferlic.

Originally published in Labor Notes on March 22, 2023


The Twin Cities saw one of its biggest-ever snowstorms the week of Presidents Day. But for labor activists the snow was overshadowed by the launch of the University of Minnesota Graduate Labor Union.

In its first 24 hours, the new union—affiliated with the United Electrical Workers (UE)—gathered more than 1,700 authorization cards representing nearly half the entire bargaining unit. Eight days in, they had a strong majority. And this week they filed for election with 65 percent support.

Such a first day bodes well for the success of the campaign, despite five—count ’em, five—previous election losses in graduate union drives at the University of Minnesota.

The timing couldn’t be better. In a space of just a few months, graduate employee unions across the country have won tremendous victories, by margins that would be the envy of dictators holding sham elections.

In December, graduate workers at Boston University, affiliated with SEIU, won 1,414-28. In January, Yale’s Graduate Employees and Students Organization, Local 33 of UNITE-HERE, won 1,860-179, the culmination of a campaign that has lasted 30 years.

Grads at Northwestern, affiliated with the UE, won 1,644-114. At Johns Hopkins another UE affiliate, Teachers and Researchers United (TRU), won 2,053-67. In February the West Coast chimed in: the grads at the University of Southern California, affiliated with the Auto Workers, won 1,599-122.

Grad workers at the University of Chicago (also UE) voted early this year but had to wait for their vote count. The numbers finally came out this week: 1,696 yes to 155 no.

In those six elections, 10,266 workers voted yes and only 665 no—94 percent in favor, representing bargaining units covering more than 19,000 workers.

Any one of those results looks just short of miraculous. But talking with graduate employee members and leaders on several campuses, it’s clear there’s no secret strategy—just solid, old-fashioned organizing. What’s changed is that the workers are more ready than ever to fight the boss and build the union.

EVERY U. NEEDS THEM

Graduate employees, an essential part of today’s higher education labor force, are graduate students who work for the university in return for a wage and usually a waiver of their tuition. The two largest categories are Teaching Assistants (TAs) and Research Assistants (RAs).

TAs perform instructional duties, whether leading discussion sections of a large undergraduate lecture class or teaching their own courses. They can be found in nearly every department but predominate in the humanities and social sciences. RAs are overwhelmingly concentrated in the pure and applied sciences and engineering, often working with other RAs in big labs where faculty members oversee research projects.

Most TAs and RAs have half-time appointments and are therefore supposed to work 20 hours a week, though in reality they are often working far more hours, a strong motivating factor for organizing.

The first graduate employee unions formed at public universities, mostly represented by the UAW and the Teachers (AFT), but many other unions have since gotten involved.

Grad workers at private universities won the right to organize in a 1999 National Labor Relations Board ruling, then lost it a contrary ruling in 2005, and got it back again in 2016. So they have only had a dozen years when NLRB-sanctioned organizing was possible—and they’re making up for lost time.

The big wins of the past few months have all been at private universities. Most of the new organizing drives that have yet to reach the election stage, like at Princeton and Dartmouth, are also private universities.

The grad union at Duke University in North Carolina (affiliated with SEIU) filed cards at the beginning of March for an election. If these workers win, they will be the first private-sector graduate union in a right-to-work state. Duke has responded by challenging their legal right to unionize, seeking to reverse the 2016 ruling by the NLRB.

While the crescendo of election wins may sound like it happened overnight, these campaigns have taken time. Cal Mergendahl, a chemistry TA at the University of Minnesota, said that grad workers are using “the same hallmarks of good organizing that we’ve seen elsewhere… talking to your co-workers to see what the problems are.”

Many of the campaigns we’re seeing now started in the early days of the pandemic, when, as Caleb Andrews of TRU puts it, “so many people had been told they were essential, but treated very poorly.” RAs were made to return to work without adequate Covid precautions, and efforts to get Johns Hopkins to take their safety concerns seriously were rebuffed.

Grad workers (at Johns Hopkins and everywhere else) set up organizing committees that sought leaders in every academic department, a classic structure that has served graduate unions well for decades. They found that co-workers responded best when they knew the person who was asking them to join the union.

Promise Li says Princeton University’s Graduate Students United (UE) “built a rigorous core layer of people” who “assigned people and divvied up the lists.”

“We were doing walkthroughs” of the big laboratory groups “two, three, four times a week,” says Andrews. The lab groups are so large they would find new workers to talk to every time, he said, and walkthroughs proved more efficient than trying to schedule one-on-ones with workers in advance.

Thoroughness and repetition paid off. Rendi Rogers, one of the founders of the Graduate Organized Laborers of Dartmouth (UE), estimated the group had solid organizing conversations with 70 percent of graduate employees before collecting cards, and more than 90 percent of those supported the union drive, with no more than 2 percent actively against it.

LOTS OF CARDS FAST

A key event at most of these campuses was the campaign launch rally. TRU had RSVPs in the “high hundreds,” said Andrews, and collected more than 1,600 cards that first day. Li recalls seeing the first authorization cards coming in at 6 a.m. on the day of the Princeton rally, which ended with more than 1,000 cards signed.

These large opening-day numbers may explain why, compared to union drives a few decades ago, universities don’t seem to be as aggressive in their anti-union propaganda. Andrews says Johns Hopkins didn’t do much unionbusting because workers had demonstrated so much unity that first day.

On every campus, pay is the top issue. “We’re really not paid enough to live here,” said Rogers. Dartmouth doesn’t offer dependent health coverage, so workers with children rely on having a partner who has a job with dependent insurance. Graduate employees are spending “half of their stipends towards housing,” said Li.

At Minnesota, according to Noah Wexler, a Ph.D. candidate at the Humphrey School for Public Policy, the grad workers “often pay back their first paycheck in student fees… Nobody here is earning a living wage.”

The union demonstrated the breadth of its support more than a year ago with a petition calling for something more than the token wage increases grad workers had been getting. When the university ignored that petition, Wexler says, workers realized “nothing will happen unless we have a real bargaining union.”

CHILDREN OF 2008

This recognition that a union was the only realistic avenue for change was a theme with all the workers I talked to. The subtle deference to authority I remember from grad worker organizing 25 years ago doesn’t seem to be much of a factor anymore.

“We’re all children of 2008,” said Andrews at Johns Hopkins. “We saw the banks failing.” With the collapse of the banks went any faith that the people in charge knew what they were doing.

Higher education is “completely failing… we need to rethink how higher education is run,” said Li. The administrators at Dartmouth, where the union filed for an authorization election at the end of February, are “cartoonishly out of touch,” according to Logan Mann, an RA in engineering.

While Dartmouth is known to most of us as an Ivy League liberal arts college, its graduate programs are all in STEM fields. This marks a change: grad unions in the 1990s and 2000s drew their base of support from the humanities and social sciences, often organizing TA-only bargaining units because there was little confidence that enough RAs would vote yes. But when MIT’s grad workers (UE) voted yes in 2022 (by 2 to 1), it sent a clear signal that RAs needed a union too.

RAs, says Princeton’s Li, “have more ‘traditional’ working conditions,” in that they are “physically concentrated all in one place,” and under the direct gaze of their supervisor—who doesn’t just control their employment, but whose support can also determine future funding, job prospects, and opportunities to publish.

In the past, that power dynamic may have cowed workers, but the RAs I talked to were motivated to fight for their rights. “So many people are struggling with advisors that don’t always act in a way that furthers their students’ interests,” said Mergendahl in Minnesota. “A lot of student workers have negative experiences with advisors on campus,” echoed Li.

Sasha Brietzke was one of nine women in the department of psychological and brain sciences who sued Dartmouth after three professors allegedly sexually assaulted and harassed them, threatening their professional futures. “It would have been nice to have had the support of a union,” she says, “to negotiate these workplace dynamics.”

Three key leaders of Harvard’s grad worker union (UAW) also filed suit against their university for violating Title IX, which requires universities to institute processes to protect students and workers from sexual harassment. “It can be really unregulated and toxic,” says Brietzke. “People are aware of the hierarchical structures and people are angry about it.”

WIND AT THEIR BACK

Courage and confidence are perhaps the most notable features of these drives. Everyone I talked to spoke like someone with the wind at their back. It wasn’t cocky braggadocio—it was the confidence that comes from knowing your fellow workers and feeling they are on your side.

“We have a common language,” said Andrews, “and a common understanding of what the stakes are. I don’t think there’s anything that united labor can’t do.” The impressive results so far may just be the tip of the iceberg.

The graduate employee union movement is experiencing the kind of upsurge that labor activists dream of, when some switch flips and workers rise up as one. Even so, it’s not some kind of instantaneous reaction—it still takes organizing, by workers who can see the path to a better university


Dave Kamper is a labor organizer and writer in Minnesota. He helped form the Graduate Employees Organization at the University of Illinois in 2002.