Graduate Student Workers Across the Country Are Helping Each Other Unionize

As a first-year master’s student and associate instructor in the School of Music at Indiana University (IU), Chelsea Brinda was forced to sell her blood plasma to survive. Her stipend of just $9,000 was far below Bloomington’s living wage. Eventually, she stopped selling her biofluids, got her first credit card and took out student loans.

Brinda, now a Ph.D. student at IU earning just $16,500 a year for teaching one or two courses a semester, told Truthout that she struggles to balance her own hefty workload as a student with her personal life, the courses she teaches and her part-time job as a COVID tester on campus.

“I feel like I’m shortchanging my students. I’m not giving them the best that I could,” Brinda said. “I’m kind of just going through the motions. I know that if I do try and do better, then it’s going to be a lot more work for myself. That’s not what they’re there for. They don’t deserve that.”

As isolated individuals, graduate student workers like Brinda have little leverage for addressing their grievances. But in recent years, they have increasingly built collective power by fighting for, and forming, unions. A decreased standard of living, heightened political consciousness among students, and the National Labor Relations Board’s (NLRB) landmark ruling that granted graduate workers at private universities the right to unionize in August 2016, teed up the explosion of labor organizing on campuses. The number of unionized graduate workers grew from 20,000 in 2013 to 83,000 in 2019, with four-fifths joining between 2016 and 2019 alone. Within just the past several weeks, new graduate student unions were recognized at New Mexico State University and at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Graduate workers are learning from, and fine tuning, their own protracted efforts at labor organizing, and are sharing insights with each other across the country.

Maddie Dery, a graduate organizer at MIT, told Truthout that MIT’s union — which officially won recognition through an NLRB election on April 5learned to prioritize “closed shop” over “open shop” unionization models from Harvard graduate workers. Harvard’s graduate worker union has an open shop, meaning membership in the union during employment is optional and students in the unit who choose not to join the union are not required to pay fees. “They’ve at least expressed to us that we should fight as hard as we can to win a closed shop where everyone’s a member of the union,” said Dery. “It really builds a much stronger union to have everybody in it together.”

The interconnectedness of the movement is leading to a cascade of wins in unionization campaigns. While these collaborative channels are fairly informal, Dennis M. Hogan, the Graduate Labor Organization political director at Brown University, told The Harvard Crimson that he expects them to become increasingly institutionalized as more unions win recognition and first contracts.

Valentina Luketa, a graduate worker at IU who is fighting for the administration to recognize their union, Indiana Graduate Workers Coalition-United Electrical Workers (IGWC-UE) told Truthout they have been in “constant communication” with other graduate worker unions across the country and graduate workers organizing into unions. “There’s an incredible sense of solidarity and community amongst graduate workers across the country through different conversations about how to establish a local, how to strike, how to campaign effectively and how to build an organization from scratch,” she said.

IGWC-UE has relied on collective knowledge and inter-union support to build a powerful unionization recognition campaign. After several years of unsuccessful attempts at negotiating with the IU administration to improve wages and end exorbitant fees, workers decided only a democratic union could shift the power balance in their favor. But in February 2022, university administrators refused to recognize IGWC-UE, claiming that graduate workers are not employees. Organizers gathered insights from other graduate workers at Columbia University, University of Michigan, and elsewhere before launching a strike on April 13, 2022. More than 1,000 strikers amassed support from over 600 faculty members and even Bloomington’s mayor. The strike, which lasted four weeks, will begin again in September.

“This strike has changed Indiana University. Each one of us is more courageous now than we were four weeks ago. We are more unified now than we were four weeks ago,” the union wrote in a press release announcing the end of the strike. “Our goals of union recognition, a living wage, and ending the fees are ambitious. We knew we wouldn’t win them all at once. But we will never go back to the years in which graduate employees can just be ignored.”

Their efforts have energized and inspired MIT graduate students, who are further along in the unionization process, but have room for growth in terms of engagement. “For them to have had such high turnout at all of their strike votes, and then on top of that over 95 percent of the graduate workers stand together and go on strike together was just amazing for us to see,” said Dery. “Because they have that membership engagement that we’re desiring to reach.”

In the coming months, IGWC-UE will set up its local union and elect officers and a bargaining committee. UE, a union with an organizing model that puts rank-and-file workers at the forefront of building their own organizations by ensuring that workers themselves steer the process and make decisions democratically, is serving as a tent organization for connecting upwards of 10,000 graduate workers. Luketa said IGWC-UE worked closely with other UE graduate worker branches at the University of New Mexico, University of Iowa and at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Workers at MIT and at University of New Mexico phone banked for IU strikers, and boosted their content on social media. MIT’s UE branch held workshops, including a media training session, with IU graduate workers and learned how to run a card campaign (a drive to form a union) from the UE branch at University of New Mexico.

Similarly, the Georgetown Alliance of Graduate Employees and Brown University’s Graduate Labor Organization (GLO) are closest to each other because they share the same parent organization, the American Federation of Teachers. But workers across disparate unions are showing solidarity with each other too. Graduate workers from Harvard, New York University and Brown University’s unions joined Columbia students at their picket line in March 2021.

The efforts are also reverberating beyond the educational sphere, serving as a channel for expanding worker struggles in other industries. MIT graduate workers have had collaborative discussions with workers at a local Starbucks store that is unionizing, said Dery. And after learning how to organize and collectively struggle at universities, workers are taking this ethos into their future workplaces. Some of these industries, such as tech, used to be viewed as unorganizable, since employees are well-paid. But Luketa and others note that these types of workers are increasingly demanding democratic control over what their industries produce.

“Changing MIT for the better is just the tip of the iceberg; we are organizing a union for a better world,” MIT graduate worker organizers wrote in The Tech. “For many of us, these lessons won’t end at MIT. We are scientists, technologists, designers, artists, writers, and tinkerers, and we will spend our post-MIT careers working at cutting edge technology institutions all over the world — from global biotech firms like Moderna or Pfizer to bootstrap startups building the future of the internet.”

For many graduate students, fighting for a better world means fighting the capitalistic forces that are, as Luketa put it, infecting the heart and soul of the university. “The general mission of a university should be to invest in education, to improve research, to contribute to horizons of knowledge, to improve the world,” she explained. “That’s how many of us see our role…. I’m really hopeful that that kind of continuous collective action can reclaim the missions of the university, and really stop this for-profit trend that we have been observing the last couple of decades.”