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A history of grad student labor unions

Private universities see explosion in unionization efforts

The higher education sector has seen a total of “39 formal representation efforts” between 2012 and 2019, according to a 2021 article by William A. Herbert, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions.
The higher education sector has seen a total of “39 formal representation efforts” between 2012 and 2019, according to a 2021 article by William A. Herbert, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions.

Last spring, as most students prepared for the end of the academic year, Thomas Varley went on strike. Along with the rest of the Indiana Graduate Workers Coalition at Indiana University Bloomington, Varley — a union representative for students in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences — hoped that IU would formally recognize the organization, opening the door for contract negotiations that could guarantee students pay and protections.

The movement for recognition began years earlier, with organizers requesting to meet with administrators through written letters. When they received no response, the student organizers moved to more visible actions like occupying administrative buildings, Varley said.

“After successive years of things … that failed to get any attention, we decided we had to do a work stoppage,” Varley recalled. “It was really a tactic of last resort.” Though the university has since met a number of the coalition’s demands, the union remains unrecognized by IU.

Tension between university administrators and graduate student labor unions has become a mainstay of college campuses across the country. Graduate student labor organizing has spiked in recent years, according to William A. Herbert, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions.

In recent years, graduate students at Columbia, Harvard, Illinois State University, Georgetown University and multiple other universities have successfully unionized. Brown’s own grad union — the Graduate Labor Organization — formed in November 2018 after four years of organizing drives. In 2020, GLO and the University reached their first contract, which included stipulations for stipend increases and COVID-19 protections. GLO will enter a new round of negotiations with the University in anticipation of the contract’s expiration next year.

In conversations with The Herald, experts and grad student labor advocates pointed to favorable decisions from the National Labor Relations Board, growing workloads, stagnant compensation and pressures wrought by the pandemic for graduate student workers as driving forces in this trend.

Origins of the grad student labor movement

Graduate student unionization efforts date back to the 1960s and ’70s, when activists at the University of Wisconsin–Madison negotiated the first collective bargaining agreement between student workers and university administrators. Throughout the remainder of the century, graduate labor unions became fixtures of numerous public schools.

Graduate students at private universities, however, faced additional hurdles. Because the National Labor Relations Act — which sets the rules for unionization — excludes public employees, laws concerning unionization at public schools are determined state-by-state, according to Herbert.

But private university employees fall under the discretion of the NLRB, which determined in the 1970s that graduate students could not be considered employees because they primarily work for learning purposes, according to a 2021 article written by Herbert. As unions cemented themselves at large public universities, private graduate student workers continued to fall short of recognition.

This changed in 2000 when the NLRB granted student organizers at New York University the right to collective bargaining and recognition as employees, the article explained. While NYU recognized its union, no other school followed suit.

The NLRB is led by a five-person board whose members are appointed to five-year terms by the U.S. president. Changing political leanings between administrations often lead to inconsistency in NLRB decisions, Herbert said. Four years after the NYU union received recognition, the Bush administration’s NLRB reversed the decision, denying graduate students the right to unionize in a case between Brown and campus organizers.

NYU subsequently refused to recognize its graduate student union when its contract expired in 2005, according to the article. It would be nearly a decade before the unionization movement at private universities gained traction again.

Unionization gains momentum

The NLRB’s Brown decision may have dampened student organizing efforts, but dissatisfaction among graduate students persisted. Organizers at NYU once again filed a petition with the NLRB in 2010, hopeful that the Obama-appointed board members would be more sympathetic to their cause. Rather than allow the case to play out, however, NYU voluntarily recognized the union, hindering unionization efforts at other campuses by avoiding an NLRB decision.

Two years later, students at Columbia filed another petition. In 2016, the NLRB ruled in favor of the organizers, recognizing graduate students as employees and reinstating their associated protections under the National Labor Relations Act. Soon, multiple schools — including Brown, Harvard and Georgetown — would become home to nascent unionization movements.

“This was not something that was isolated at Columbia,” said Charlie Steinman, a supervisory officer for Student Workers of Columbia. “It was happening across the nation.”

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At Georgetown, organizing began in 2017 when administrators raised required working hours, said Dominick Cooper, president of the Georgetown Alliance of Graduate Employees. “The university increased the amount of hours graduate students were expected to work without consulting them and without raising their pay,” Cooper said. “That was one of the inciting events behind some of the organizing that eventually led to the union drive.”

Their efforts led to a successful unionization vote in 2018 and the ratification of a contract in May 2020, according to Cooper. “The kinds of pay raises and better health care we got in our first contract … made me appreciate the importance of organizing in the workplace,” he said. “I’ve been involved ever since.”

Georgetown did not respond to requests for comment.

Similarly, student organizers at Harvard founded an organizing committee in 2015 to fight for higher wages, stronger anti-harassment measures and expanded healthcare and family leave, said Koby Ljunggren, president of the Harvard Graduate Students Union. Its initial election was unsuccessful, but the NLRB called for a second election in 2017 after finding that Harvard had “not substantially complied with the voter list requirements.”

In the second election, graduate students voted to unionize. The union ratified its first contract with the university in 2020.

“We’re still fighting a very hard battle against a culture of harassment, discrimination and bullying,” Ljunggren said. “Our institution ascribes to a very traditional idea of a graduate degree, and in some ways that revolves around the abuse of graduate students and a disrespect for the time and labor we put into our work.”

Ljunggren referred to an ongoing case in which three graduate students accused Harvard of ignoring sexual harassment claims against a well-known professor. Last month, the Department of Justice recommended that a federal judge reject Harvard’s request to dismiss the case.

“There’s really severe and pervasive abuse, sometimes over decades,” Ljunggren said.

Jason Newton, a spokesperson for Harvard, declined to comment but pointed to a message from Harvard Provost Alan Garber following the ratification of the most recent HGSU contract with the university, as well as communications from Garber detailing updates to harassment and discrimination policies. In the first message, Garber speaks of the “important role our student workers have in Harvard’s academic and research mission.”

Colin Vanderburg, a representative and bargaining committee member at NYU’s Graduate Student Organizing Committee, echoed Cooper's sentiments. Vanderburg got involved with GSOC in 2018 and joined the bargaining committee in 2021 when the union went on strike during contract negotiations.

“We came in with many strong proposals for expanded healthcare, significant pay increases and tuition relief, a demand to bar NYPD officers from campus buildings and a whole host of other things,” Vanderburg said. “From the beginning, NYU stonewalled us and consciously construed the boundaries of bargaining in as narrow and legalistic a way as possible.”

GSOC members held rallies, conducted phone banks and circulated petitions before resorting to a strike, Vanderburg said. But it wasn’t until the strike that the university budged on its offer.

“We won about a 30% raise for hourly workers, new funds for out-of-pocket health care costs and an entirely new fund for tax and legal services for international students,” Vanderburg said. The package also included expansions in support for dependents, vacation pay and child care leave permissions, as well as “language committing NYU to its own anti-harassment policies.”

“We won a lot of important victories that were only possible because we showed our collective strength in this strike,” he added.

NYU did not respond to requests for comment.

Factors driving grad labor movement

The growth of the graduate labor movement reflects a reaction to changes that universities have made in recent decades, Herbert said. “Universities are relying more and more on non-tenure-track faculty and graduate assistants to conduct teaching and research.” Between 2005 and 2015, for instance, graduate student “employment growth was triple the rate of growth of tenure track faculty,” according to Herbert’s article.

This transition has provided universities with more flexibility. “It means that there’s no long-term obligation to retain someone. So people can either work semester-to-semester or year-by-year, but the university does not have to reappoint them,” Herbert said. Additionally, employing graduate students and non-tenure-track faculty is far cheaper, allowing universities to cut costs while still producing research and educating students. While beneficial for administrators, such changes mean increased pressures on graduate students. 

On top of the transition within universities, the broader labor environment is different than it was two decades ago, Herbert said.

“Income inequality has grown substantially,” he said. “And many people who are working face the problem of misclassification, in that they’re treated as being independent contractors as opposed to employees.”

This misclassification — which Herbert said is exemplified by workers like Uber drivers — prevents unionization, since collective bargaining rights are reserved for employees. This dilemma is at the heart of graduate student organizing, where most NLRB cases have concerned “the issue of (graduate students’) status as employees,” Herbert said. “The more that the economy moves to a place where people are not being protected with the right to collectively bargain, the more income inequality will expand.”

A conflation of these trends — universities’ shift away from tenure-track positions and changing worker classifications — has produced a unique environment for graduate students, who are seeing their responsibilities multiply even as pay gaps and social immobility increase, according to Herbert.

Grad student labor and the pandemic

Graduate student working conditions changed dramatically with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. For Alex Korsunsky, secretary and data chair at Vanderbilt Graduate Workers United, the atmosphere toward unions transformed completely.

“Initially, VGWU was largely a bunch of humanities people in the College of Arts and Sciences,” Korsunsky said. The organization was founded shortly after the Columbia ruling in 2016, but its initial unionization campaign was unsuccessful, according to Korsunsky. “There wasn’t really the work done to build strong relationships, to talk to people who might be uncertain or unfamiliar with unions.”

But at the start of the pandemic, VGWU “sort of rethought its whole strategy,” Korsunsky said. A number of students in the sciences, whose research could not be conducted from home, struggled to receive extensions in funding. An alleged lack of resources on how grad workers should navigate the pandemic further exacerbated the situation.

“Aside from these basic concerns … the administration didn’t take input from grads — or faculty, for that matter, or staff,” Korsunsky said. “They didn’t really consult anyone. There was no public participation, and their decisions were seen as having very little legitimacy.”

So VGWU began holding meetings and protests — and this time, people showed up. “The first wave of COVID was a huge era in terms of our organizing,” Korsunsky said. “We expanded enormously. The biomed departments are now some of the best organized departments on campus, largely because of their frustration with the COVID response.” 

Despite the jump in participation, VGWU still has not succeeded in forming a union. Vanderbilt University did not respond to requests for comment.

This phenomenon was not unique to Vanderbilt. At IU, students were charged fees for activities and building maintenance even as they were forced to work remotely, according to Varley. The Indiana Graduate Workers Coalition had already been protesting high fees, which Varley said could climb as high as “5 to 10% of our stipend.” With newfound organizational momentum in response to university COVID policies, IGWC eventually persuaded the university to waive its mandatory fees for grad students. IU did not respond to requests for comment.

The Georgetown Alliance of Graduate Employees finished negotiating its first contract with the university in May 2020, just a few months after widespread lockdowns began. “A lot of GAGE members got involved organizing around the impact that COVID was having on our workplace,” Cooper said. “After a lot of organizing and activism, we were able to sign a side agreement with the university that included some COVID-related protections for members.”

That agreement, reviewed by The Herald, was formed separately from the contract through a process known as impact bargaining and guaranteed graduate students face masks, vaccines, mental health services, the option to teach classes virtually, the ability to take unpaid leave and numerous other protections, according to Cooper. 

“We were actually able to accomplish a lot of the things we wanted to accomplish,” he said.

The bigger picture

The resurgent graduate labor movement arose during a time of increased union drives nationally, said Matthew Johnson, assistant professor of economics at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. 

“We had decades of declining rates of union organization across all sectors. Only in the last several years do they seem to have been picking up,” Johnson said. “It does seem that graduate students were some of the initial drivers of that.”

Now, workers in many sectors are increasingly seeing unions as a means to hold employers accountable, Johnson said. But he emphasized that these unionization drives usually only play out in companies that are well-resourced and have the ability to improve conditions.

“You can see a direct parallel there,” he said. “A lot of these (graduate organizing) efforts are at private, pretty well-resourced institutions. One thing that’s very likely pervading these efforts is that graduate students often get paid very little and have to work very long hours, … and it’s difficult to square that circle: How is all this money flowing to this institution, but we’re not getting any of it?”

That disconnect, Johnson said, has likely contributed to the relative success of unionization efforts at wealthy, better-known institutions. At universities with fewer resources or less name recognition, organizers often face an uphill battle.

When Steven Lazaroff joined the bargaining committee at the Illinois State University Graduate Workers Union, the minimum stipend for grad workers “was below $9,000” per year, he said. At first, the university refused any significant wage increases, claiming it did not have the resources to implement the changes that GWU demanded. It was only after Lazaroff and other organizers appeared at a speech presented by ISU President Terri Kinzy with a banner reading “ISU Pays Poverty Wages” that the university agreed to GWU’s demands, Lazaroff said.

“I look at Brown University, and the argument that folks make is that because Brown is more elite, they have more money,” Lazaroff said. “But the eliteness has nothing to do with compensation.”

“Illinois State University has a number of working union contracts and is committed to good faith negotiations with all collective bargaining units on campus,” ISU Media Relations Director Eric Jome wrote in an email to The Herald. Jome also pointed to an ISU website summarizing the negotiations and subsequent contract offer.

For student organizers everywhere, the NLRB continues to act as a source of major uncertainty. “History does indicate that, because of the changes in board composition based on who the president is, there are issues where there have been constant changes,” Herbert said. Given the three rulings since the turn of the century, each of which reversed the last, a less labor-friendly administration could feasibly sway the NLRB to change course once again, he added.

There is also the possibility that Congress will “amend the National Labor Relations Act to make it clear and explicit” regarding the status of graduate student workers, or that the board will codify certain regulations surrounding the matter, according to Herbert. Either of these could solidify the legal status of grad workers in a direction dependent on the current administration and political environment.

But even if the NLRB upholds its current stance, a number of factors are still up in the air. At Columbia, for instance, a current focus of the union is preventing the university from “winning an overly restrictive interpretation of the NLRB decision” in union negotiations that would exclude certain groups of graduate students from the bargaining unit, Steinman said. Because of Columbia’s historical position as a precedent-setter in graduate labor, the result of those negotiations could have ramifications for graduate students and universities across the country. Columbia did not respond to requests for comment.

Most graduate student unions remain focused on achieving the higher wages and working protections that motivated their founding, as well as encouraging unionization at other universities. “I get emails pretty much every week from … emerging graduate unions,” said Ljunggren, noting that many emerging labor groups have yet to publicly announce their organizing efforts. “We talk all the time to other unions.”

Lazaroff agreed. “Things are precarious, and there’s not a landing space for most of us,” he said. “When we fight together, we can win, and we can change things for our benefit.”

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Dominick Cooper's last name as Solomon. The Herald regrets the error.



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