Graduate Students Are Workers / by Edna Bonhomme

In light of the Cornell University Graduate Students Vote I am posting an unpublished piece that I wrote on the importance of graduate worker unionization especially in a moment of austerity and attacks on academic freedom. Enjoy!


Unionization is in the air. Across the United States, graduate students, non-tenured faculty, and undergraduates are beginning to organize union drives.[1] Over the past several years, graduate students at Brown University, Columbia University, Cornell University, Harvard University, and the University of Pennsylvania, have started unionization drives to represent graduate workers. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruling from 23 August 2016 stated “that student assistants working at private colleges and universities are statutory employees covered by the National Labor Relations Act” which means that they have the right to collectively organize and form a union.[2] This is historic in that it overruled the 2004 NLRB decision with Brown University (342 NLRB 483) which previously argued that graduate workers were primarily students and could not be classified as employees.[3]


Graduate students want better protection for their labor, academic freedom, more transparency against discrimination, better health and childcare benefits. Moreover, they want to have meaningful connections with other graduate workers at public universities who have been engaged in collective bargaining and labor rights in higher education. For many people who have taken part in the unionization drives, they recognize the work produced by graduate students for the university and ensures that the university consider working conditions of graduate students a priority as well as the social dimensions that effects their ability to work. In an era of academic corporatization and the increasing reliance on contingent researchers and teachers over tenured faculty, graduate worker unions give us a powerful voice in shaping our working conditions as well as the future of academic work and the university as a whole.

Graduate student unionization is not entirely new but began during a period of high radicalization in the 1960s.[4] Students from the New Left Movement and the Berkeley Free Speech movement recognized that unions were integral to fair treatment and protection with their university. At the University of Wisconsin graduate teaching assistants were part of the anti-war movement, led sit-ins, and began the core of forming the graduate union on campus.[5] Since the 1960s, graduate worker unions have given students the power to improve their economic benefits, health benefits, job security, and better protection for undocumented students. They have made connections between the fight for labor, anti-war movement, environmental movement and broader progressive issues.


In the current neoliberal moment, unionization campaigns are simultaneously addressing the working conditions of graduate workers and challenging the precarity of the academy. The 2008 global financial crisis has exacerbated austerity in higher education, which has meant that administrators have pushed for neoliberalism within the system—even going so far as to undermine collective bargaining for unionized faculty. In September 2016, the administration at Long Island University—in Brooklyn, New York—took a draconian measure to lockout faculty members as they were negotiating their contracts.[6] Outside of the attack by administration, the academy has less tenured track academic jobs available for people graduating with a doctorate. The prospects are even more dire for women and people of color.[7] Furthermore, humanities have taken a toll since the economic crisis resulting in the state of Wisconsin significantly reducing the state budget for the University of Wisconsin by $300 million over the next two years.[8] For graduate students who want to continue working in the reduction of tenure track positions and university the budget cuts are related to the movement to organize graduate workers. They matter insofar as we have the ability to shape a broader movement about academic freedom, labor, and job security.


Emergent Unionization Drives


In the northeastern region of the United States, graduate students at private universities have begun or strengthened unionization campaigns with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and the United Autoworkers (UAW) having a major influence in higher education organizing. Those institutions include Cornell, Columbia, Syracuse, Johns Hopkins, Northeastern, Fordham, New York University, Princeton, and Yale. Of these, NYU’s graduate student union—GSOC UAW local 2110—has one of the strongest positions.


During the spring of 2016, graduate students at Princeton began meeting regularly to discuss the possibility of forming a union keeping in mind the efforts that were being done at Columbia, Harvard, and Yale. What emerged was a provisional group of graduate workers and postdoctoral fellows that formed Princeton Graduate Students United (PGSU). After the NLRB decision in August 2016, a larger layer of Princeton University graduate students began an outreach campaign that to help make unionization possible had two goals of pursuing an affiliation vote and getting more graduate students involved. After having been approached by representatives from AFT and SEIU, PGSU disseminated information and held a two-day election. Of the 2500 graduate student body, over 6% voted (approximately 162) for an affiliation vote. In the end, graduate students overwhelming supported AFT (with 77% of the vote) because it would allow for more local autonomy and connections with other higher education unions in the state of New Jersey. What this vote for affiliation meant is that an already established union would help graduate students begin a unionization drive on campus thus lending the he resources, experience, and legal protection for forming a union.


The actual campaign to form a union at Princeton will be a multi-step process that will include the entire graduate student body. Since November, Princeton members of PGSU have been getting students to sign mission cards. In addition to this, students are engaged in a campaign to make Princeton a sanctuary campus. This has been met with various e-mails from the university president condemning this. The Dean wrote, “We are a close-knit and intimate academic community, one that strives to be responsive both to each individual and to the student body as a whole.” For students from working class, LGBT, and ethnic/racial minority backgrounds this is not always the case. In a moment where students, faculty, and staff from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen face condemnation from the Trump regime,[9] the administration has not taken a formal stance to make Princeton a sanctuary campus. Which means that they will be vulnerable to the woes of discriminatory national policies and challenges as they enter and leave the United States. Graduate student unionization would provide another layer of protection to ensure that all students—no matter their national origin—are provided the protection.


Moreover, the anti-unionization rhetoric of the Princeton University administration has been disingenuous to labor struggle at best and patronizing at worst. After several meetings generated by PGSU—town halls and general assemblies—we have received explicit e-mails feigning objectivity while explicitly discourage graduate students stating: “I again encourage you to defer any decision to sign a union authorization card until all of your questions about unionization are answered to your satisfaction.”


In order for both unionization drives to be successful, at least 30% of the bargaining units at Fordham and Princeton need to vote to approve the union before being officially recognized by the university. That means raising consciousness about the importance of unionization, designing a fair contract, and having an open election. Graduate students are organizing for a host of reasons. Not only do they want to connect people throughout campus but they want to ensure that they can help shape an open and inclusive university. But this also comes in a politically volatile moment where it is not clear that the August 2016 NLRB decision will be upheld. Trump’s cabinet pick for labor secretary, Andrew Puzder, and his potential nominee for the Supreme Court justice may do a disservice to the many gains that graduate workers have been having on campuses.


The Necessity of connecting graduate worker unions with broader labor issues

While graduate workers do not neatly fit the campus framework their struggle in labor has opened up broader questions on campus about endowment, cross campus labor coalitions. For one, administrative attacks on graduate workers and their organizing drives has broader implications for developing more precarious labor in academia, i.e., contractual adjunct positions. Moreover, the struggle around academic freedom in higher education will also be fragile in this political moment.[10] Moreover, the anti-union campaigns by administrators often take on the similar language and intimidation.[11]


Despite the steps forward at Princeton University and other institutions, there has been tension between pro-union graduate students and their anti-union peers. Anti-union constituents have often argued that graduate students are receiving professional training and that collective organizing would undermine their professional development.[12]  However, this perspective elides the fact that graduate students often provide a range of services for universities including but not limited to teaching undergraduates, conducting innovative research, and participating in a vibrant intellectual life.


The graduate unionization campaigns are not unique to Princeton but they have entered the mainstream media as was the case with the Columbia University legal controversy[13] and Harvard’s close but ultimately unsuccessful vote.[14] Brown University graduate workers recently made a decision to cast a vote between AFT and UAW in an effort to develop a successful campaign.[15] Graduate workers at Penn recently posted a statement about the history of their unionization efforts, the August NLRB decision that says graduate students are workers, and the conditions of their labor on campus. Graduate works have been organizing for the past several months and they went public about their drive and the necessity for solidarity, which also shows the willingness of graduate workers to have agency and power in their academic future. In light of the growing movements, this is an amazing victory for increasing labor union membership and taking on broader questions about academic freedom, austerity, and inter-union solidarity on university campuses. Moreover, at Princeton we had 120-150 people at our last union organizing meeting; many of whom are also part of efforts to get our university to be a sanctuary campus.


Overall, these campaigns are beneficial for socialists and the left because they are revealing the extent to which universities are undemocratic and the lengths to which university administrators are undermining social movements on campus. Organizing graduate student workers can be one of the many sites to strengthen the sanctuary movements on college campuses and to connect with other unionized workers on campuses—including but not limited to facilities and dining workers. Moreover, the mobilization will especially be crucial as higher education and academic freedom are sidelined with the upcoming four years of a Trump administration. In a moment where the left is growing and more people are interested in socialist politics, organizing within higher education labor can provide an opening to further strengthen anti-racist struggles and austerity measures on university campuses.