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.


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.


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.”


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.”


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.

Children, teachers shot dead in Texas at yet another mass shooting / by Mark Gruenberg

People mourn in the wake of the Texas elementary school shooting. | William Luther/AP

WASHINGTON—After the latest gun massacre in a school, this time at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas, teachers unions, Democratic President Joe Biden  and gun control groups are again demanding legislative crackdowns on guns.

“Why are we willing to live with this carnage?” an upset Biden, a longtime senatorial crusader for gun control, asked. “Why do we keep letting this happen? Where in God’s name is our backbone?”

The short answer to Biden’s second question: The still-powerful and notorious gun lobby, the National Rifle Association. That key component of the radical right is holding its convention this coming weekend in Houston. Planned speakers include Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott and Biden’s Republican Oval Office predecessor, Donald Trump.

The most-vehement statement about the Uvalde slaughter came from Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten. The 18-year-old shooter, Salvador Ramos, bought guns just after his birthday and murdered 19 children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School before a police SWAT team killed him.

“Some things are clear: These are despicable acts of hatred designed to terrorize us all,” said Weingarten, a New York City civics teacher and crusader for much-stricter gun controls. “Buffalo and now Uvalde will join a long list of places that will never be the same. Our hearts are with all of them.

That list includes Parkland, Fla., where Nikolas Cruz, then 19, gunned down three AFT-member teachers and 14 students at the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School, on Valentine’s Day, 2018, and Newtown, Conn., where another gunman murdered 20 students and six teachers years before.

Newtown’s tragedy gave rise to Everytown for Gun Safety, while the Parkland massacre produced the student-led March For Our Lives. A third shooting, of then-Rep. Gabby Giffords, D-Ariz., and several constituents during a meet-and-greet in her district, produced a third anti-gun group. All of those groups denounced the murders, mourned the victims and recommitted themselves to the gun control cause.

“Only in America do people go grocery shopping and get mowed down by a shooter with hate in his heart; only in this country are parents not assured their kids will be safe at school,” Weingarten added.

“Gun violence is a cancer, and it’s one that none of us should tolerate for one single moment longer. We have made a choice to let this continue, and we can make a choice to finally do something—do anything—to put a stop to this madness.”

AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler, an Electrical Worker, tweeted, in part: “Gun violence is horrific & preventable and meaningful action is needed now,” without being specific.

“This tragedy once again underscores the very real dangers of a culture in which gun violence has become too much the norm and is too often the first way to resolve an argument or a grievance,” National Education Association President Becky Pringle and Texas State Teachers Association President Ovidia Molina said in a joint statement.

“We pray for the victims and their families, and we once again demand state and federal policymakers take action to keep firearms out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them, whether that requires enacting new laws or better enforcing our existing laws.”

“It is up to all of us to find solutions that stop the spread of white supremacist politics and ideology that has aided and abetted the violence and bloodshed that have ripped this nation apart. We stand ready to work in coalition and cooperation with others to continue the fight,” National Nurses United President Jean Ross, RN, said after grocery store carnage days before in Buffalo and before the Uvalde massacre. Her union’s RNs see gun violence victims daily.

The Democratic-run House passed several gun control measures earlier in this Congress, but they’re likely to founder in the evenly split Senate, given the roadblock of the filibuster. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky summed up his party’s attitude by a “thoughts and prayers” tweet with nary a word about gun control legislation.

Police were still investigating Ramos’s motives for the Uvalde massacre. Former close friends of Ramos told reporters that within the last year-plus Ramos had taken a  dark turn towards violence in online postings. They also reported he injured himself, with a knife.

Besides the students and teachers he killed, Ramos wounded others at the school, after wounding his grandmother at her home beforehand. Those victims were flown to hospitals. Several were in serious condition.

Robb’s mass shooting was the second such massacre in fewer than two weeks, following one by an anti-Black gunman at the Buffalo grocery store killing ten people and wounding three.

Senate Democrats split between lamentations about the filibuster roadblock and supporting efforts by Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., to force votes on gun control.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott recently lamented the fact that Texas was second nationally in the number of guns sold and that California was number one. He called upon Texans to buy more guns and opposes even criminal background checks on buyers. Beto O’Rourke, a supporter of background checks, is running against him in November. | Tony Gutierrez/AP

“The breakdown of the political process has never been clearer. When we can’t even act to keep our own children safe,” an upset Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said. “ Is it worth taking a vote? Even if you don’t have 10 Republicans? Is it worth taking a vote? That’s the part that’s so frustrating.”

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., who has made gun control a crusade ever since Newtown, is still trying to talk ten of the Senate’s 50 Republicans into backing gun control legislation. But even he admitted to MSNBC that “what’s possible is much smaller than what we need to do to protect kids.”

The Republicans, especially Texans, are another matter. In a recent campaign tweet, Gov. Abbott said he was “EMBARRASSED: Texas #2 in nation for new gun purchases, behind CALIFORNIA. Let’s pick up the pace Texans.” The capital letters are his.

On party-line votes, the Republican-dominated Texas legislature spent much of its recent session enacting bills to remove gun controls in the Lone Star State. And Trump and Abbott will address the NRA convention in Houston. Pro-gun GOP Sen. Ted Cruz reiterated his stand after the Uvalde massacre, but withdrew from a speaking commitment to the NRA. He pleaded “a scheduling conflict.”

Still, the carnage in Texas and the contrasting partisan attitudes to it point out the thin margin gun control backers have in the Democratic-run House—and the complete Republican roadblock in the Senate. That in turn adds yet another issue, along with abortion and worker rights, as reasons to elect progressive candidates this fall.

One hopeful sign: Gun control backers won in Georgia’s Democratic primary on May 25. In an incumbent-versus-incumbent faceoff due to Republican gerrymandering, Democratic Rep, Lucy McBath, who first ran several years ago on a strong gun-control platform after her son was murdered, defeated fellow Democratic Rep. Carolyn Bordeaux, who is more “moderate” on the issue.

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People’s World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but a holy terror when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.

People’s World, May 25, 2022, https://www.peoplesworld.org/

Teachers battle white supremacist crusade to ban books from libraries / by Mark Gruenberg

Q-Anon Pastor Greg Locke of the Global Vision Bible Church in Mt. Juliet, Tenn., led his congregation in a book burning in February. | Screenshot via YouTube

WASHINGTON—It’s not quite the book burning—yet—of Nazi Germany before World War II, but white supremacists are on a crusade to ban books from libraries and schools around the U.S., and the Teachers (AFT) co-lead a coalition to stop them.

The right’s book censorship campaign, one of numerous suppression drives it has launched, prompted AFT and the American Libraries Association to create the Unite Against Book Bans coalition, http://www.uniteagainstbookbans.org. Another 24 groups have joined them, so far. They include major publishers and the Human Rights Campaign Fund.

Quite bluntly, Teachers President Randi Weingarten says, the coalition, unveiled May 11, fights to stop censorship that forced school districts serving more than two million students nationwide to ban 1,145 books from school library shelves since last July 1.

The libraries group documented another 729 cases of rightist attempts to ban a total of 1,597 titles from public library shelves.

It’s no surprise what the rightists and white supremacists want to ban, says Weingarten: “Titles with racial and LGBTQ themes, cruelly erasing young readers’ lived experience.” The right also targets titles that discuss all of U.S. history, including its flaws.

One flaw, an internet search shows, was from the State Department during the McCarthy-era Red Scare. It had overseas U.S. embassy and cultural libraries burn books discussing Communism, the New Republic reported—in 1953.

Now, a report in April by PEN America, a First Amendment-oriented literacy group, listed top titles rightists’ censorship targeted. The top three dealt with gay rights and gay marriage. Others included the book spinoff from the New York Times’s 1619 Project and books about Black Lives Matter.

A 16-page list of books being banned from Texas schools includes a biography of murdered gay San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk and Wait, what? : A comic book guide to relationships, bodies, and growing up Corinna, Heather 2019.

“While it’s uncomfortable to talk about tough issues like genocide, slavery, and racism, reading honest history helps kids learn the good and the bad about our country and emerge as well-informed, engaged citizens of the world,” Weingarten said at the coalition’s start.

Reading helps teachers teach kids to think and question, too. While Weingarten didn’t say so, Christian fundamentalists have fought the right to think for over a century. One well-known example: Tennessee’s John Scopes “Monkey Trial” anti-evolution case of 1925. The Volunteer State outlawed teaching of Darwin’s theory of evolution and ordered teaching only the Biblical story of creation.

Reading widely “helps us dream, helps us create, and helps us access opportunity,” Weingarten said.

“Whether you’re a kid in rural West Virginia, in the suburbs of Texas, or in a shelter in New York City, opening a book means you’re opening the world. But reading is hard without books.”

“Book bans are about limiting kids’ freedom to read and teachers’ freedom to teach. Parents agree—they want their children to learn the lessons of the past in an age-appropriate way, even as certain politicians try to turn classrooms into cultural battlefields and censor what gets taught,” she added. Polls show 71% of adults oppose book bans in libraries and 67% oppose bans in schools.

The crusade is especially relevant now because myriads of books are available from platforms online and through Kindle and similar devices. But that same accessibility also makes it easier for school boards and librarians to yield to public pressure and censor books. The rightists’ book banning crusade can be implemented locally with “a flip of a switch,” one librarian told NBC News earlier this year.

Students are joining the crusade for the right to read, too, AFT, the libraries group and PEN America reported. They particularly took their case to the Texas legislature last year, but the right-wing Republican majority and Republican Gov. Greg Abbott didn’t listen.

Locke’s book-burning “demon cleansing” was reminiscent of the mass book burnings staged by Nazi Germany in the 1930s, when Marxist, socialist, gay, and other literature deemed racially un-pure were tossed into the flames. At left is Locke throwing a book into the fire in Tennessee this past February; at right, a Nazi stormtrooper does the same in Germany in 1933. | Youtube and National Archives

Adults also oppose lawmakers’ attempts, particularly in Indiana, Florida and Tennessee, to censor what’s taught on public college campuses. Not coincidentally, all three states are Republican-run with heavily gerrymandered Republican legislative majorities.

“There’s clearly a disconnect between what most persons want and the actions of elected officials, given the large number of book bans happening around the country,” added Deborah Caldwell-Stone of the ALA. “As the campaign evolves, our growing network of supporters will join forces to prevent those bans, ensuring access to information for all and advocating for the important work of libraries and librarians.”

“What is also shocking is the rise in state and local legislation which will make censorship easier, or even allow the criminal prosecution of librarians or teachers for simply doing their jobs–ensuring the public has access to a variety of ideas and perspectives,” ALA said. “We fear the centers of knowledge for families and communities are in jeopardy.”

While white supremacists pursue book-banning, one went beyond in February, to book-burning. News services reported “Christian” pastor Greg Locke in Joliet, Tenn., organized a book-burning that also included other “instruments of Satan” such as Ouija boards.

A gay couple upset the event by showing up, sarcastically declaring “Satan lives!” and throwing in a Bible.

Mark Gruenberg, an award winning journalist, is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People’s World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but a holy terror when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.

People’s World, May 20, 2022, https://peoplesworld.org/