Workers are on the move across America. Strikes rose by an astounding 50 percent between 2021 and 2022, and the pace of organization was equally impressive, with new fields of organizing opening in the service sector, the art world, and high tech. Of special interest in a local economy dominated by the University of Illinois and the labor markets associated with the school is the escalating upsurge in graduate employee militancy. Although graduate employees at UIUC have been unionized since 2000, the extension of graduate employee unionization to other higher education institutions strengthens the bargaining power of all such collective efforts. A higher wage and benefits floor becomes generalized, and each unionization victory inspires organizing efforts elsewhere.
Graduate employee unionization also provides institutional vehicles to counter sources of the ongoing crisis in higher education, such as public disinvestment, the student debt crisis and inequities in access, as well as right-wing attempts to restrict teaching about systemic oppression, racism, and discrimination against all forms of gender non-conformity. As the wages and working conditions (e.g., office space and sufficient supplies) of graduate employees improve, moreover, it is of the uppermost importance that the quality of the educational experience they can offer their students goes up.
Overview of the Landscape
Today over a third of classes at some universities and colleges are taught by graduate employees. The predominance of these workers is first and foremost the consequence of efforts within higher education to dramatically cut labor costs by moving away from expensive tenure-track and tenured positions to the cheaper labor of graduate assistants (GAs) and teaching assistants (TAs). Public institutions have faced ever-dwindling financial support from cash-strapped state and local governments. Furthermore, even for private institutions with robust budgets, the growing influence of corporate business models within academia emphasizing cost efficiency and the hiring of a larger number of expensive administrators have led to similar attempts to reduce how much is spent directly on classroom teaching.
To some extent the first wave of graduate employee unionization predates corporatization and declining public resources. Out of a general climate of New Left and student anti-war activism during the 1970s, successful efforts to unionize graduate employees occurred at the Universities of Wisconsin and Michigan. Success remained modest, not least because of legal haggling over the exact status of GAs and TAs. Opponents of graduate employee unionization argued that the tasks undertaken by TAs and GAs were merely coincident with professional skills development and therefore a key component of their educational experience. In other words, they should be designated only as students and not as employees deserving access to the right to organize and bargain under state and federal labor laws.
As universities and colleges moved more dramatically to substitute cheaper labor for tenure-track and tenured faculty in the 1990s, the pace of graduate employee unionization picked up. Growing legal precedent at the state level accepting GAs and TAs as employees was also important. Locals associated with several different national unions emerged at schools like UMass Amherst (1990), UC Berkeley (1999), and close to home, at the University of Illinois (2000).
Unionization efforts at private institutions were stalled until the mid-2000s when under the second Obama administration the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), responsible for administering unionization and bargaining efforts for private sector workers, reversed a longstanding determination that graduate employees were primarily students and not employees. This paved the way for successful organizing and contract campaigns at institutions like the New School and Harvard, and for reaffirming the legitimacy of locals at Brown and Columbia Universities once determined to be illegitimate under prior NLRB panels.
Graduate Employees Join the Revolt
As noted, labor militancy surged significantly between 2021 and 2022. Graduate employees were a notable part of this upsurge. In 2022, for example, graduate employees at the University of Southern California, Northwestern, Yale, Johns Hopkins, the University of Chicago, Boston University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have petitioned for elections with the NLRB. Organizing campaigns are also underway at Caltech, the University of Alaska, and Western Washington University. Indeed, in 2022, six of the seven largest new bargaining units filling for NLRB elections were graduate employee locals.
Multiple factors account for this upsurge. Some, including rising inflation, the high costs of housing, limited access to health care, and—as compared to the Trump administration and apart from President Biden’s actions in the recent railroad strike—the recognition that Biden has appointed a more union-friendly NLRB, have contributed to worker resistance across the board. How graduate employees and contingent academic workers were treated during the COVID-19 crisis has also played an important role, with the assignment of in-classroom teaching on some campuses going exclusively to TAs. A generational shift in attitudes towards unions cannot be discounted. Seventy-seven percent of people aged 18 to 34 support unions, a figure considerably higher than for other age groups.
Finally, analysts also emphasize the influence of the University of California (UC) strike that lasted for six weeks and ended in late December 2022. Garnering nationwide attention, this strike was the largest in 2022, and covered over 48,000 graduate employees across all 10 UC campuses, as well as the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The power that heavy reliance on graduate employee labor offers their unions is exemplified by the fact that there was a near-total shutdown of classroom teaching during the strike.
The gains that the UC graduate employees made in this strike are not only impressive, but in some cases open up new ground. Their victory included protections against bullying and harassment, financial support for child care, and dependent health care for eligible workers. Wage gains were also substantial. For example, minimum pay will rise from $23,250 to $34,000 for nine months of part-time work.
In our own backyard, it is quite possible that graduate employees may be driven to strike in 2023. Negotiations with the administration have as yet been without success (see Karen Medina’s article in this issue for more detail).
Expanding the Fight
Graduate employee unionization is but one front in efforts to redress the inequities and exploitation driven by the crisis in higher education. An additional front has been opened in recent years with successful organizing among vulnerable contingent faculty in adjunct and related positions who, absent collective bargaining, face some of the same problems as graduate employees, including low pay and abysmal working conditions, but are often even more job-insecure. Such conditions have compelled contingent faculty at, for example, both UIUC and UI Chicago to unionize.
An innovative effort emerged last year to create a coalition of all academic and staff labor unions, as well as organizational allies, to pursue reforms in higher education that can further improve the status of all its workers. Higher Education Labor United (HELU) identifies as among its founders Helen Worthen and Joe Berry, former faculty in the UIUC Labor Education Program. Among its goals is reforming the shared governance systems (e.g., faculty senates) at colleges and universities to give greater voice to all of academic labor and not just tenured and tenure track faculty—a goal that is outside of the usual scope of acceptable collective bargaining subjects. HELU is open to all members of the higher education worker community and has thus far been endorsed by 117 locals across eight national unions. For more information, see higheredlaborunited.org/media/2021/09/HELU-Platform.pdf.
Whether HELU succeeds or not, it is clear graduate employee unions are becoming an important source of collective strength not just in higher education, but in the labor movement as a whole. The future will not be without rollbacks, but the current breath and scope of this movement suggests the clock will not be easily turned back, and further advances are in the cards.
Pat Simpson taught labor relations at Loyola University Chicago for many years, retiring in 2010. She previously worked as a labor edu-cator for the Labor Education Pro-gram at the University of Illinois. Over the years she has been involved in many social justice cam-paigns and causes, including participating in efforts to unionize graduate employees at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Illinois.
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