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Graduate Student Unions Are Growing — and Fighting for Social Justice

Students want living wages and progressive values.

(Photo: Prasit Photo / Getty Images)

Not surprisingly, when graduate students heard that the Republican tax bill included a provision to tax tuition waivers, most became both upset and angry. But rather than despair, they organized. On campus after campus, in city after city, they mobilized to protest the 2017 bill. Their concerns extended beyond the injustice of taxing in-kind financial aid incentives as income, to include a broader progressive agenda: opposing racism, sexism, classism and homophobia; denouncing corporate tax giveaways; fighting the growth of anti-intellectualism; and countering attacks on publicly funded education.

Austin A. Baker, a Ph.D.-level philosophy student at New Jersey’s Rutgers University, joined students from Drexel University, the University of Pennsylvania and elsewhere to oppose the proposed measure. “If the tuition waiver portion of the tax bill had gone through — thankfully, it did not end up in the final draft — it would have made Ph.D. programs completely out of reach for working-class students and students from low-income communities,” Baker said. “We could not let this happen. Those of us who are required to teach undergraduates as part of our training understood that our students deserve to have mentors who are racially, sexually and class diverse. This is something we’re committed to.”

Although Baker knows that protecting campus diversity will be an ongoing struggle, she and her peers see union membership as the best way to support progressive pedagogy and improve working conditions for graduate students and university staff. Furthermore, as part of the American Association of University Professors-American Federation of Teachers (AAUP-AFT), students at Rutgers see the union as a viable vehicle through which to oppose Trump’s corporatist agenda.

Rutgers is not anomalous. According to Shannon Ikebe, a spokesperson for the Coalition of Graduate Employee Unions, more than 40 graduate student unions currently exist in the US, and the number is growing. In fact, between September 1, 2016, and May 31, 2017, seven bargaining units representing 7,439 employees — at American University, Brandeis University, Columbia University, Grinnell College, The New School, Portland State University and Tufts University — were certified by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Members each belong to one of four unions: the AFT, AAUP, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) or United Auto Workers (UAW).

Organizing Spikes Among Part-Time Faculty

William A. Herbert, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions, Hunter College at City University of New York told Truthout that the idea of graduate student workers unionizing goes back to the late 1960s, when activists at the University of California-Berkley and the University of Wisconsin-Madison demanded recognition and representation.

“Most collective bargaining units of graduate students have been in the public sector, where students receive compensation for teaching or research,” Herbert said. Nonetheless, he notes that the situation shifted after a 2016 decision by the NLRB in a case involving Columbia University. The decision allows grad students to be categorized as employees, rather than student apprentices, for the purpose of collective bargaining. Since then, there has been a surge in unionization, with organizers venturing beyond the public sphere into private educational settings.

Herbert credits one other shift for this development. In 1980, the Supreme Court held that tenured and tenure-track professors were not entitled to bargain collectively because they were deemed managerial labor. “This led to a decline in the number of faculty unions at private colleges,” Herbert said. Fast-forward 38 years, and the majority of teaching is now done by part-time workers — adjunct professors and graduate students — a shift that Herbert says has unwittingly boosted unionization efforts at private schools, since contingent workers wield virtually no institutional power and cannot possibly be considered managerial employees. Herbert adds that when coupled with the two-year-old NLRB decision in the Columbia University case, a spike in unionization bids on a wide swath of US campuses on both coasts and in blue areas of the Midwest was almost inevitable.

Unfortunately, this turn of events has been of little help to Justin Cook, a Ph.D. candidate in Rhetoric at Texas Woman’s University (TWU), a public college in Denton, Texas. Every semester, Cook takes two classes and teaches two sections of undergraduate expository writing, each with 20 to 25 students. His salary? $1,460 a month. “Out of this, I have to pay $400 a month for health insurance,” he told Truthout. “This does not include dental or vision, which I have to buy separately. My money is so tight I had to apply for food stamps.”

Cook calls his financial situation “terrible, pitiful,” and says that the only perk he receives as a Graduate Teaching Assistant is being allowed to pay in-state tuition — a savings that totals approximately $5,000 a year.

“Over the past 18 months, the graduate students — at both the Masters and Ph.D. levels — have talked about forming a union, but we’re not there yet,” Cook said. “We did protest the tax bill and tuition waiver proposal, and took down posters put up by the ‘alt-right’ each time they appeared on campus, but Texas is a ‘right-to-work’ state, so our jobs could be in jeopardy if we organize. We’re not trying to burn the place down, but we want to remind the university that we’re people. We provide a service and have a right to pay our bills. I should be able to buy groceries without food stamps.”

Other colleges in the 28 “right-to-work” states are in similar straits, which makes the contrast with unionized programs particularly stark. For although grad students with collective bargaining protections often still face financial difficulties, the benefits they’ve won make it possible for them to focus on more than basic subsistence.

Unions Are Game-Changers

Sudip Bhattacharya, a doctoral candidate in political science at Rutgers, is a case in point. Bhattacharya has funding — a fellowship stipend of $25,000 a year — for four years, plus a tuition waiver. Thanks to family support, Bhattacharya says that he gets by fairly easily. Nonetheless, he is aware that students who don’t have family backing, or who have children to care for, live far more precarious lives. “The cost of living in New Jersey is very high,” he told Truthout. “The union has pushed economic issues so that people can live a decent life.”

That said, Bhattacharya emphasizes that the Rutgers bargaining unit is involved in more than just bread-and-butter concerns. “We want to create real change on campus,” he said. “This includes paying people a livable wage, improving health care access, increasing the number of faculty of color, and fighting against attacks on civil, political and social rights. Our union, [AAUP-AFT], looks beyond what we need at Rutgers to look at the wider picture of what society needs. We address the harm that is being done to poor and working-class students, the harm to our environment, and the harm caused by things like the Muslim ban and attacks on undocumented students.”

Similarly, Anh Tran, a Ph.D. candidate at the Graduate Center (GC) of the City University of New York (CUNY), told Truthout that her campus union, which is part of CUNY’s Professional Staff Congress, is focused on financial democratization and transparency, as well as winning better salaries and workplace protections for everyone in the bargaining unit. “The GC administration has so far refused to give us a line-by-line accounting of the budget,” she said. “We want participatory budgeting — where we have input into expenditures — and have held speak-outs on this issue. We also pack the president’s office during his weekly office hours to raise our concerns.”

Although they’ve yet to make headway on this issue, the group already has several victories under its belt. For example, a proposal to impose a seemingly arbitrary “Master’s Program Premium Fee” that would have raised the amount students paid each term, was quashed after student protest. “Being in a union makes a huge difference,” Tran said. “We have been able to get graduate students on the bargaining team for our contract negotiations, and got the Graduate Center to set up a new emergency fund to help undocumented and DACA students cover legal fees or meet unexpected financial needs when they arise.”

Other public institutions, notably within the University of California system, have won not only salary hikes, but also guaranteed access to gender-neutral bathrooms and improved childcare subsidies for parents.

However, with few exceptions, gains for grad students attending private universities have been less noteworthy. Although numerous private colleges have tried to organize campus unions, New York University (NYU) remains the only one to have negotiated a contract. The first agreement was reached in 2002; the second in 2015.

Activist Jennifer Lenow, a doctoral candidate in psychology, reports that NYU has been something of a bellwether. “People at other universities look to our contract and organizing history as a model of what’s possible,” she said. She explained that NYU organizers are heavily involved in the Coalition of Graduate Employee Unions, a loose network of graduate students who come together each summer to strategize, plan and socialize. Among the issues for 2018: how best to deal with anti-union messaging. The Coalition, which includes more than 40 graduate programs, also tackles solidarity work — between campuses and within progressive communities, more generally.

Although no one underestimates the threat posed by the Trump administration, members are cautiously optimistic about the future. Having beaten back the taxation of tuition waivers, they feel ready to begin the hard work of negotiating contracts and extending union protections to as-yet unorganized colleges. In the short term, however, all eyes will be on Harvard, where nearly 3,000 graduate students will vote on whether to join the UAW this spring. This will be the university’s second vote; irregularities during a 2016 election invalidated the previous results.

While pro-union activists at Harvard believe they’ll prevail, not every private school is choosing to push a vote on unionization. Students at Emory University, in Atlanta, for one, have decided not to push for recognition until a more pro-labor administration is in power. “Emory has a multibillion-dollar endowment, but rather than use their resources to support graduate teachers and researchers, they are paying a union-busting law firm — Proskauer Rose … to fight us,” student activist Jonathan Basile reports. “Because of the anti-labor positions of judges appointed by Trump, we believe that any school that wants to prevent its graduate students from organizing will be successful. That’s why we’ve formed a voluntary membership union, sometimes called a minority union,” Basile said. This group has not been elected to represent the students, but that meets regularly to formulate demands and take action. Basile believes that will allow Emory’s grad students to spring into action when it becomes possible to file for a unionization vote.

He, like the thousands of graduate students on campuses throughout the country, have no illusions. At the same time, they see unions as necessary in today’s fight for progressive values, both on and off campus.

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