The End of Business Unionism at the United Auto Workers—and Beyond? / by Becca Roskill

Delegates at the UAW convention listen to their new leadership as it outlines priorities, especially the fight to end two tier wage systems. | YouTube snapshot

Originally published in The Nation on April 7, 2022

In the first-ever elections where members voted directly for the top leadership, UAW reformers on the Members United slate just won every race they entered.

The Stellantis Belvidere Assembly Plant built its last Jeep Cherokee in February. The company’s decision to indefinitely idle the Illinois plant came in December, bringing an end to the slow bleed of over 5000 jobs over the past five years. The 25,000-person town of Belvidere was struggling already from the secondary effects of the plant’s downsizing, but this latest blow threatened to be the final nail in the coffin for what remains of the local economy. The members of United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 1268 might have reasonably given up on their union. After all, the UAW had been in talks with Stellantis just months earlier, discussing whether the plant would be transitioned to electric vehicle production, and took no action when the company announced its verdict.

But given a final chance to turn their union around in the weeks before the plant’s closure, 757 Belvidere workers—3 percent of the town’s entire population—cast their ballots for Shawn Fain in elections for the union’s top leadership. Fain was challenging incumbent UAW President Ray Curry with a vision to build a more democratic, fighting union. Those 757 workers know that Belvidere’s closure will be on the table in the upcoming round of negotiations with Stellantis, and they think their fellow union members will fight alongside them if given the chance.

For the first time in the union’s history, UAW members were voting directly for their top leadership. Before this year, the International Executive Board had been chosen by roughly 900 local leaders who serve as delegates. The delegates reliably elected candidates from the Administration Caucus that has ruled the UAW for decades—and has long used its control over appointed positions and other perks to ensure loyalty. But given the choice, the membership elected Fain—a former leader in the Stellantis Kokomo Casting Plant and one of the few appointed staffers to vocally oppose concessionary contracts in 2009 and 2011—and the entire slate of Members United candidates he ran alongside.

In his debut speech to the union, Fain stood before the Special Bargaining Convention in Detroit on March 27 and declared “war against our one and only true enemy: multibillion-dollar corporations.” The response from the audience was mixed: Some tilted their heads and crossed their arms; some clapped reluctantly, while others hollered enthusiastically. The vast majority of delegates in the room had supported Curry, Fain’s Administration Caucus–backed opponent, and were uneasy about the potential change coming to the UAW.

Over the years, delegates have grown accustomed to a far more business-friendly message, like Vice President Cindy Estrada’s appeal to companies at the last Special Bargaining Convention in 2019: “You can build a plant right here in the city of Detroit with union wages and still make a profit.” Estrada echoed the “business unionism” that has dominated organized labor since the 1950s, coincident with the rise of UAW President Walter Reuther and his founding of the Administration Caucus.

While business unionism permeated the entire AFL-CIO, no union better tells its tale than the UAW. In 1950, Reuther bargained the “Treaty of Detroit” with General Motors (GM), inaugurating a new labor-management compact: long-term contracts where demands for worker control over production (such as the ability to resist speed-ups and automation) were traded for improved wages, pensions, and health care benefits. Reuther would soon negotiate similar agreements with Ford and Chrysler (now Stellantis), which, together with GM, came to be known as the “Big Three.” This truce guaranteed both workers and management a piece of the growing pie. At the same time, it cemented in place a system in which UAW officials would join foremen in tempering dissent among workers.

In the decades to come, business unionism would prove as contradictory in practice as it sounds in theory. Union officials were squeezed, first from the bottom as workers rebelled against speed-ups and racial harassment, and then from the top as the companies demanded concessions when faced with falling profit rates and the specter of bankruptcy.

The companies pushed harder, and the arc of history bent toward capital. While the UAW’s leadership held fast to a labor-management arrangement built on shared gains from growing productivity, the Big Three stopped playing by the rules. Over the course of the 1980s, outsourcing and plant closures bit a 650,000-member chunk out of the 1.5-million-member union. For the most part, union officials turned a blind eye to speed-ups and layoffs and agreed to plant closures and pay cuts, attempting to make good on the mantra that Estrada would still be repeating 40 years later: Companies can turn a profit with union labor.

The promise of shared gains gave way to a plea for shared sacrifice. The Big Three were gradually losing market share to foreign auto manufacturers, and they continuously called upon the UAW to make its members’ labor more “competitive.” The divisions between most American auto workers and a growing nonunion workforce—concentrated in Asia, Mexico, and the American South—were revving a race to the bottom.

In 2007, union leaders gave ground once again, this time by further dividing even the small section of the global auto-manufacturing workforce they had pledged to defend. The bargain they struck with the Big Three allowed the company to hire a limited number of new workers at half the rate of existing members while carving this new “tier” of membership out of the pension plan. When GM and Chrysler filed for bankruptcy in 2009, the UAW agreed to lift the cap on the percentage of its workforce that could be hired at the second tier. What started as a leak widened into a gaping hole.

This two-tier system served the companies doubly well, at once dragging long-term labor costs down to the level of nonunion labor and sowing divisions in the union’s ranks. It’s unsurprising that most younger workers have disengaged from the union altogether, given that their second-tier status has been reaffirmed by its leaders in three rounds of bargaining since 2007.

By 2019, it was public knowledge that UAW officials had been accepting company bribes and embezzling union resources for years to purchase vacations and luxury goods. A federal investigation finally burst the corruption scandal open, leading to the conviction of three former Stellantis executives and 12 union officials—including former president Gary Jones and his immediate predecessor, Dennis Williams. The settlement also mandated a membership referendum on whether to elect top leadership via the existing delegate system or through direct elections.

Out of this crisis, a new movement emerged: Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD). Under the banner of membership control, UAWD brought workers from the UAW’s traditional base in manufacturing together with those in white-collar sectors like higher education (where the UAW has achieved most of its membership growth in recent years). They recognized that corruption and disenfranchisement had emerged from the same business unionism that had ushered in concessions. Seeing direct elections as an opening to challenge the Administration Caucus and rebuild a fighting union, UAWD campaigned for “One Member, One Vote” in 2021. Members voted overwhelmingly for democracy, and the upstart reformers seized the opportunity to run their own slate, headed by Fain.

The elections became a referendum on decades of business unionism. UAWD set out to convince members that a real alternative to the Administration Caucus is possible, and that the UAWD activists they assembled on the Members United slate were just the leaders to implement it. The Members United message—“No Corruption. No Concessions. No Tiers.”—struck a chord throughout the union, winning support from a majority of members in seven of the union’s nine regions.

Though one pundit ignorantly chalked up the election to an inundation of graduate-student radicalism, the numbers tell a different story. In reality, graduate student workers made up a mere 2.5 percent of Fain’s support. The locals where Fain received an overwhelming majority illustrate a telling map, but not one of sectoral divisions. Rather, they highlight recent battles fought by workers in the union’s rank and file, which often came into conflict with the business-unionist tendencies at every level of UAW leadership.

Volvo workers in Virginia in Local 2069 were on and off strike for three months as their leadership forced them four times to vote on ratifying nearly identical contracts, each time parroting management’s arguments for why workers should settle. In Local 838, John Deere workers voted down two contracts over the course of a five-week strike and, through their fortitude against their bosses and their bargaining team, rejected a new tier and won back a cost-of-living adjustment. These are the workers fighting for a UAW led by its members and unafraid to go head-to-head with employers.

The new leadership’s first major test will be the Big Three contract expiring this September. Fain and other reformers, from the IEB down to the rank and file, will face resistance from an entrenched bureaucracy at every turn as they endeavor to mobilize union resources toward a worker-led contract campaign. But the risk of this approach is also its strength—success will depend on workers’ taking matters into their own hands.

UAW members won’t be the only workers taking matters into their own hands this summer. Three hundred and fifty thousand workers at UPS represented by the Teamsters—who also recently elected reformers to top leadership—are preparing for a possible strike when their contract expires on July 31. Like UAW workers, ending their own two-tier system is at the top of UPS workers’ lists. And from Amazon to Starbucks to Trader Joe’s, the past year saw an explosion in unionizing well beyond traditional employers.

It has been more than a century since German economist and sociologist Werner Sombart asked: Why is there no socialism in the United States? Many have wondered since. Part of the answer might lie with the travails of organized labor. If America lacks a potent labor party, of the kind common in Europe, it lacks union strength too, with only 10 percent of the workforce represented by a union. Yet unions like the UAW remain potentially powerful players, with sizable membership lists and well-padded bank accounts.

Labor has, in most of the world, long provided both a constituency and a vocabulary for attacking concentrated power. That political possibility has been stifled in this country—not only by the size of unions but by their character too. Recent years have seen a socialist become the nation’s most popular politician, and then perhaps more people protesting for Black lives than for any cause in American history. If (and this is still a major if) workers in industries old and new manage to close the book on business unionism, their revived militancy would come at an opportune moment. Old stabilities might fray, and—from several directions—old hierarchies might be in trouble.

Becca Roskill is a member of UAW Local 2710–Student Workers of Columbia and an organizer in the reform caucus Unite All Workers for Democracy.

Auto Workers Convention Lurches Towards Reversing Concessions/ by Keith Brower Brown and Jane Slaughter

Newly-elected UAW leaders, including Secretary-Treasurer Margaret Mock (third from left) and President Shawn Fain (fourth from left) at the convention on March 29, 2023. Fain said “The rumble of the election is finished” and called on members to unite against the employers. Photo: Jim West,

Originally published in Labor Notes on March 30, 2023

The brand-new leaders of the United Auto Workers are making ambitious demands but face stiff organizing challenges as they seek to jump-start the union, ahead of a momentous contract expiration this September at Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis (formerly Chrysler).

At the union’s Detroit convention this week, hundreds of delegates–often local leaders–signaled they were less ready than the members to welcome the reform leadership. But there was unanimity that it’s time to finally recoup the divisive contract concessions granted in the 2007-2009 recession. Under those contracts the then-ailing automakers were allowed to hire new workers at close to half pay and no pension.

On the first day, new President Shawn Fain called for union members to fight for a decisive end to years of givebacks and retreat.

“We are here to come together for the war against our one and only true enemy — the multibillion-dollar corporations and employers who refuse to give our members their fair share,” Fain said. On unifying the membership he added, “I don’t give a damn who you voted for. We are going to come together. We’re going to stop taking scraps—we are going to fight.”

At first, any statements from Fain or his team met a grumbling reception from a majority of delegates, aligned with the outgoing administration. But on the third day, Vice President Chuck Browning, the highest official now elected from the long-reigning Administration Caucus, said from the stage, “I hear worries we’re going to be a divided house going into negotiations, but that’s not true… Let’s support our President and International Executive Board.” Following that signal, Fain’s closing call to bring a unified fight against “corporate America… starting right now!” received a standing ovation from nearly all delegates.


The UAW is the largest U.S. union for manufacturing workers—and for graduate student workers. It historically set a high bar for union contracts across the nation, based on a record of militant strikes and sit-downs. But beginning in the late 1970s, the UAW became a vanguard of concessions and labor-management partnership, and saw a wave of plant closures that slashed membership.

With the election breakthrough by a rank-and-file caucus, the UAW is set for a landmark test of how union reformers, both at the very top and in the ranks, will be able to turn the course of a major industrial union. From the convention, some speedbumps are apparent: hesitant middle layers of the union, inexperience with the very idea of a contract campaign against employers, and most of all, hostile employers used to getting their way.

Fain, head of the Members United slate and a member of the Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD) caucus, was sworn in 24 hours before the convention opened.


The UAW’s Bargaining Conventions are held every four years as the “Big 3” automaker contracts near expiration. They are intended for locally elected delegates to guide the hand of the union’s bargaining teams, at least officially. In practice, bargaining conventions have typically placed a lukewarm rubberstamp on a 50-page “omnibus” resolution of vague bargaining goals passed down by leaders.

After raucous debate and a big bump in strike pay (to start day one, rather than day eight) made headlines at last July’s constitutional convention, reformers hoped this convention would set militant goals. But with new leaders fully taking office just a day before the convention, delegates had to start from bargaining resolutions assembled under direction of the outgoing officials.

On tiers, delegates approved a sweeping resolution calling on leaders to “reject management proposals which seek to divide the membership through tiered wages (or) benefits,” with an “obligation to seek the elimination of all such tiers.” The official resolution adopted this language verbatim from a July constitutional amendment offered by the UAWD caucus.

The strong rejection of tiers reflected widespread outrage among auto workers. Luigi Gjokaj, a delegate from Stellantis Mack Assembly in Detroit, said, “The elephant in the room is a huge part of us don’t get a pension or retirement health care anymore, for the same job.” Dan Maloney, a local president from a New York auto parts plant, said, “It’s time for us to get rid of the two-tier system. I look forward to us getting that done in this round of bargaining.”

Delegates approved a few proposals brought from the floor, continuing the spirit of democracy newly evident at the July convention. With broad support in voice votes, UAWD resolutions passed that will demand the contractual right not to cross the picket lines of other unions, and move towards a wall-to-wall organizing strategy in higher education.

One delegate, an auto electrician, successfully proposed a bargaining demand to restore skilled trade classifications that were cut in prior concessions. Companies have combined trades in order to cut jobs.

On many official resolutions, delegates frequently stood to say they approved—but that their leaders needed to demand even more.

Plant closures have decimated UAW membership, like Stellantis’s shuttering of an assembly plant in Belvidere, Illinois, less than a month before the convention, leaving over 1,300 out of work. A video eulogized the loss of the plant with tearful worker interviews and wistful guitar plucking. Soon after, an official resolution pledged to gain more “investment commitments” from companies for UAW plants, through “increased involvement” with corporate planning and “cooperation” to gain government aid.

For some auto workers, this sounded like not nearly enough. Crystal Pasarcik, from Stellantis Sterling Heights Assembly, rose to support the motion, but asked pointedly, “Why doesn’t this mention plant closures? What are we going to do to fight?” Mike Grimmer, a shop chairman from GM’s Tonawanda Engine Plant, added, “We have to stop begging. When the company threatens to take jobs away, that won’t work.”


A transition to electric vehicles looms for the UAW, as Big 3 executives pledge to largely shift to the new drivetrains by the end of this decade. So far, U.S. companies plan to build these cars either with non-union labor in “joint ventures,” or with union contracts at lower tiers of pay. The official omnibus resolution committed to “embrace this change” towards electric vehicles with enhanced training and a demand for “improved compensation and job security” on jobs to come.

Again, delegates rose to say they wanted a more assertive plan. A delegate from a Stellantis plant in Ohio demanded, “I want this to add battery plants. I know you all want to make them UAW, but they can’t just be second-tier supplier jobs. We need to stand up to that.”

Mike Shuckwith, an electrician in a Michigan local that has grown with battery work, said, “I’m scared shitless of this push by GM to go all electric. We need it all in-house.” That echoed pledges from Fain to demand all electric vehicle work at joint ventures be brought under the new UAW contracts this fall.

Work schedule demands became an emotional subject. Dan Gilson, from Local 14 at GM in Toledo, rose to oppose the official work schedules proposal. “We can be forced to work 12- to 14-hour days. We can be forced every weekend. This has caused so much dissension in my plant, I can’t go back to them and say this language was all [we got]. I see [GM CEO] Mary Barra talking about family life. What the hell do you know about family life–you aren’t being forced to work!”

Debate on proposals proposed from the floor was something new for UAW conventions, continuing the openness established last July. This time, Fain barred international staff “liaisons” from working the floor, who in past conventions had shepherded delegates with pre-made talking points and a watchful eye.

Martin Tutwiler, a reform supporter from the GM Warren Tech Center, said that even when it wasn’t going their way, “the new leadership is letting the membership lead the convention. Any time you have a change in power, people are going to speak up.”


The convention revealed raw edges remaining from the election campaign, in which all seven reform challengers defeated members of the Administration Caucus (AC), the group that has ruled the union since 1946. (UAWD-supported candidates now fill seven International Executive Board seats, including four of the top five spots, to the AC’s six members, plus one independent reformer.)

But the convention delegates were elected in spring 2022, before members voted on officers in the fall. Delegates have traditionally been local officers. With little membership interest in the delegate elections, the AC has easily dominated convention votes.

That was mostly true at this week’s convention as well. The majority of delegates refused to hear out UAWD’s resolutions on Big 3 strike preparation and on bringing workers in new electric vehicle plants into top-tier contracts. On the first two days, these issues fell just short of the one-sixth share of delegate support needed to enter debate.

Another of UAWD’s top priorities did receive enough support to make it onto the floor: restoring cost-of-living adjustments to contracts. Their resolution asked that COLA be a part of initial bargaining proposals. Opponents, though, urged delegates to “respect the Resolutions Committee,” which had not prioritized COLA, and not to “hamstring our bargainers.” The resolution failed 311-191.

On the second day, some delegates began booing at the mere mention of the name UAWD. Linda Jackson of Local 7 in Detroit said that she and others were rubbed the wrong way when UAWD delegates mentioned their affiliation from the mikes, feeling it dragged out the election acrimony. “The Administration Caucus was a silent divider,” Jackson said. “UAWD is a physical divider, because you hear it.”

Another delegate, to much applause, declared his loyalty to “UAW with nothing on the end.”

Kim Janeski, financial secretary of Local 931 at Ford near Detroit, said that UAWD wanted to “break the system” and “wants change for change’s sake,” citing “endless debate, endless resolutions” and lack of experience. She was disdainful of newly elected regional director Dan Vicente, who until last week was a worker on the shop floor. “There are certain protocols,” Janeski said. “We’re in a seniority system–we work our way up.”

Asked how she thought Fain would approach negotiations, Janeski said he would be “obnoxiously aggressive.” She cited his opening remarks at the convention, in which he said, “Let’s get ready to rumble!” Janeski interpreted that as a rumble with AC members, not the companies. (Fain actually said, “The rumble of the election is finished” and called on members to unite against the employers.)

Amid that grudging reception of new leaders, some supporters of the outgoing officers said they were keeping an open mind. Pat Greca, a retiree still active with her local at Ford Rawsonville near Detroit, said, “My plant went from 6,000 when I started to 600 members today. Our union, we have to evolve, or else we might die. I see these new folks talk the talk, and I’ll see if they’ll walk the walk.”

Darin Gilley, an officer at a GM local in Wentzville, Missouri, said he thought “sour grapes won’t play well back home” and that he was already getting texts from members wondering why COLA was voted down. “Political differences are one thing,” he said, “it’s the paycheck difference that matters”—what the union wins in the next contracts.


Unlike in some workplaces, it’s rarely been difficult to convince Big 3 UAW members to vote for and honor a strike. Strike votes are typically 98 percent ‘yes’ and there is virtually no crossing the picket line, even in right-to-work states.

But also unlike many other unions, the UAW has never run a contract campaign at the Big 3. That is, there’s never been an attempt to involve members in actions that let management know they are serious about the issues, or start pressuring the bottom line before a strike.

Instead, members usually learned a few hours before the strike that they were to hit the bricks, and picket duty was assigned. Members were not told specific goals of the strike, nor let in on progress of negotiations.

With little preparation beforehand, 48,000 members struck General Motors when the last contract expired in fall 2019. They stayed out for 40 days with disappointing results.

This year, the new UAW leadership has promised to involve members in a way that will unite them, and let them show the automakers what they’re willing to strike for.

As Secretary-Treasurer Margaret Mock, elected with the Members United slate, said in her address, “The UAW will call on the efforts of every rank-and-file member, as well as every leader, to win back all the givebacks since the UAW fell into the concessions trap in the 1980s… We will rely on the fighting spirit of the rank and file that even 40 years of concessions have not extinguished.”

“They are proud to go out, they understand they have power they can use,” said Shana Shaw, a member at GM’s plant in Wentzville, Missouri. “They are ready and willing to go out—they just need to know the in-between,” how to get active in a contract campaign.

A first step will be a bargaining survey distributed in the plants. Phil Reiter, from Toledo Jeep, planned to tell his members, “Don’t work on break. We’ve got to show them we won’t do any favors.”

Reiter wasn’t a delegate, but had driven up to witness how new leaders would change the union’s course. “It’s going to be tough at Stellantis,” he said. “Management is always talking cuts, cuts, cuts, and then they complain about quality. We’re at least 75 percent Tier Two or less in my plant. With this new leadership, I’m hopeful we’re finally heading in the right direction. I don’t see them giving us a BS tentative agreement. That’s why I voted for them.”

Keith Brower Brown is a member of UAW Local 2865 at the University of California and was a delegate to the convention.

Jane Slaughter is a former editor of Labor Notes.

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.

The strike by University of California student workers is entering its third week. What’s at stake? / by Natalia Marques

Students picket outside of UC San Francisco on November 21 (Photo: Saul Kanowitz)

Originally published in People’s Dispatch on November 30, 2022

Over 48,000 student workers are on strike for fair wages, support for parents, job security, and more. On Tuesday, the United Auto Workers, which is organizing the students, announced that the bargaining teams for Academic Researchers and Postdocs had secured tentative agreements.

On November 14, 48,000 student workers hit the picket line at University of California (UC) campuses across the State, fighting for fair wages, support for parents, job security, and more. They have now entered their third week of strike, the largest of its kind in US history, in a struggle for better working conditions.

On Tuesday, November 29, UAW announced that the bargaining teams for Academic Researchers (AR) and Postdocs had secured tentative agreements with the UC. 

The UC workers, organized into United Auto Workers (UAW), have been fighting for a $54,000/year minimum for all graduate workers and a $70,000/year minimum for Postdoctoral student workers, along with a 14% salary increase for Academic Researchers and adjustments depending on cost of living. 

For Postdocs, the agreement includes a 20-23% increase in salary, by up to $12,000 by October 2023. The union has added that the current lowest paid Postdoc student would see a 57% increase in their salary over the course of five years. 

The minimum annual pay for full-time workers will reportedly increase from $55,000 to $70,000, or higher. From 2024 to 2027, the agreement includes an annual pay increase of 7.2% for Postdocs on the scale and a 3% annual increase for those above scale.

Under the terms of the tentative agreement, parental and family leave, paid at 100%, has been increased from four to eight weeks. Childcare subsidies will also be provided starting at $2,500 per year and increase to $2,800 annually.  

“My son just turned one a couple months ago,” said Chandler, a Postdoc at UC San Francisco. “So as you know, one of the things [the union is] bargaining for is for subsidies for childcare…childcare costs in the Bay Area average around $4,500 a month to send one child to daycare. We also only get maximum eight weeks of parental leave, and then we have to come back to work, and send our kids off. Can we afford that on a Postdoc salary? No, we can’t.”

For Academic Researchers, the agreement contains provisions for a 29% increase in salary “including both scale and merit increases,” over the duration of the contract. Researchers will also be able to avail eight weeks of fully paid parental and family leave. 

The tentative agreements also contain provisions for better job security, including extending initial appointments for Postdocs from one to two years and longer appointments for Academic Researchers, and protections against abusive conduct and bullying, as well as protections for workers with disabilities. 

While ARs and Postdocs will vote to ratify their respective agreements in the coming days, UAW has stressed that they will remain on strike in solidarity with the 36,000 graduate student workers who are still fighting for a fair contract.

Academic Researchers and Postdocs constitute about 12,000 out of the 48,000 union workers on strike across the UC system.

“Now the UC can no longer use AR and Postdoc bargaining as an excuse to delay making counter proposals to Academic Student Employees [including graders, teaching assistants, and tutors] and Student Researchers [at both graduate and undergraduate levels] on compensation and other topics. We expect that they will make serious proposals this week,” the union said in a statement. 

The UAW stated on November 29 that Student Researchers had presented a compensation proposal to the UC system 12 days ago, but had not received a response. 

“Every UC campus has a food pantry and homeless services,” said Marissa, a worker at UC–Berkeley. “Which is just the university saying, we understand that people aren’t making enough money to be able to feed themselves or afford rent, and they just survive off of the pantry and donated produce.” Her picket-line sign read “I can’t feed 2 kids on $24K.” 

“Tying compensation directly to housing costs could have overwhelming financial impacts on the University,” wrote UC provost Michael Brown in a letter to UC leaders on November 16. The current endowment of the UC system is $18 billion.

The UAW argues that student workers are struggling to stay afloat as cost of living skyrockets, particularly rent. California has the country’s second highest average rent, according to the World Population Review, at $1,844 per month. The average asking price for a new unit is $3,000 per month in California. According to, the median rent in Los Angeles is $3,000 per month. Union-conducted surveys found that the majority of UC student workers are rent burdened.

“I came to the UC because they pride themselves on being a public institution that makes education accessible for all,” said Ria, a first generation college student at UC San Francisco. “But that hasn’t been the case. We make far below the cost of living adjustment here at the UC, and that occurs on every level. Not just as a graduate student, as myself, but even the Postdocs and teaching assistants as well. And we are the backbone of this university, and we deserve a fair wage, and we deserve to live in the city that we work in.”

“It shouldn’t take generational wealth to afford to go to graduate school,” she continued.

Tenure-track positions at US universities have shrunk over the past decades, especially for the humanities. Since 2012, the number of jobs available for English professors has fallen every year, by a total of 33%. This leaves many student workers in adjunct positions, with far less job security for far less pay.

But student workers are fighting against this tide of precarity. Graduate students across the country at some of the top universities in the nation have led strikes and unionization efforts, including Columbia and MIT graduate student workers in only the past two years. By organizing, workers have shifted the popular perception that the working class exists only in fields that don’t require a college degree and that more educated workers have no need to organize along class lines.

While only 10.3% of US workers are unionized, unions have become increasingly popular, with the highest favorability since 1965 at 70%. If UC workers succeed and win their demands, they will raise the bar for all student workers across the country.

Natalia Marques is a writer at Peoples Dispatch, an organizer, and a graphic designer based in NYC.