A Report on the Graduate Worker Day of Action, 15th October, 2015

by Abhishek Bhattacharyya (University of Chicago), Anthony Levenda (Portland State University), and Matthew Canfield (New York University)

In the September­-October 2015 issue of Academe, Prof. David Schultz wrote about the fertile conditions for faculty unionization, and the “The Rise and the Coming Demise of the Corporate University.” The same could be argued with reference to graduate employee unionization around the country. Following the momentum generated from organizing drives at the New School of Social Research, New York University, and Columbia University, representatives from graduate employee unions at a number of private universities came together to launch a national day of action for graduate workers. A group of 20 unions (at both public and private universities) was formed, and there was a gradual build­up to a series of actions on October 15. Less than a week later, on 21st October, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) met and decided “to reconsider whether graduate teaching assistants at private nonprofit universities are entitled to collective bargaining.”

With an impending and potentially union-­friendly NLRB verdict, university administrations have also been upping their game. At the University of Chicago, for instance, the administration has adopted a multi­pronged pre­emptive strategy. Firstly, the concessions: graduate students won a raise in wages and stipends, on the back of a strong campaign against fees. Secondly, the administration is setting up more “advisory bodies,” trying to claim student engagement. And thirdly, it is organizing a series of town halls, where the administration disavows any position on unionization (neither for, nor against, nor neutral, said the Provost!), and airs anti­union views. The script is remarkably similar to that at Harvard: Divisional Deans and the Provost have been writing letters to faculty and holding meetings with Chairs and DGSs where they communicate much the same thing. One faculty member held a departmental meeting and wrote a highly intimidating email to graduate employees in his department, asking them to vote “no” in the event of an union election, and arguing that “I know from 20 years of personal experience [sic] that the EVERY level of administration, from the president to the dean to the [departmental] chair to each faculty member, absolutely has the best interests of the graduate students in mind. [stress original]” Somehow, graduate unionization is framed as being in opposition to faculty, which is conceived as being in a continuum with the administration.

In the meantime, the UChicago administration comes to the advisory bodies, and blames the faculty for things. For instance, at a Graduate Council meeting with five Deans, the Provost and Vice­Provost on February 1st, graduate employees were told that some faculty were very resistant to the administration’s efforts to help students graduate fast, and that students should approach Deans directly in such cases where faculty may be suggesting someone take more time to work on one’s exams or defence. Apparently the administration’s punitive measures of cutting off pay and insurance help students graduate, rather than faculty who push back against cutting funds which can support sustained study! As graduate employees, faculty and other unions and social movements work together towards transforming the university, and as we wait to hear what the NLRB has to say, a close look at what the 15th October protests tell us might be instructive.

In a Joint Statement for the We Are Workers event, the signatory unions argued that “It is obvious that the graduate teaching and research assistants at private universities are workers. Across the country, we have come together in a mass unionization movement to petition the National Labor Relations Board to overturn Brown, recognize us as workers, and restore our right to collectively bargain fair contracts with our employers.” On the eve of the protests, the AAUP Committee on Graduate and Professional Students, also itself a signatory to the Joint Statement, published an additional statement to reaffirm “the message conveyed in the AAUP Resolution on Graduate Employee Organizing Rights (2004) that the National Labor Relations Board decision in the Brown University UAW case (2004) was wrongly decided by a partisan Board and must be overturned.” What follows is a description of the events that took place across campuses nationwide for the #WeAreWorkers Graduate Worker Day of Action on October 15, 2015:

  • Selections from the above referenced statements were read out at the protest at the University of Chicago, organized by Graduate Students United (AFT/AAUP), one of the older graduate employee unions amongst private universities in the country. Representatives from the newly formed union for contingent faculty on campus (with Faculty Forward), who were then in the middle of a card campaign, came out in support, as did tenured faculty from the AAUP faculty advocacy chapter, a representative from Teamsters (who organizes clerical workers on campus), and members of undergraduate organizations such as the Socio­Economic Diversity Alliance. The rally, attended by at least 60 people, culminated with the unfolding of a giant scroll about ten metres long, on which participants made note of the various kinds of labor graduate employees perform, “from TA­ing, RA­ing, editing journals, and organizing workshops to petsitting for our supervisors.” A major cause of concern for the protestors was the dramaticincrease in health insurance premiums and deductibles for the university insurance plan, the latter going up to $500 for in­-network providers, and $1000 for out­of­network treatment. A press release by GSU quoted Tanima, GSU member and PhD student in Anthropology: ““Because we have no collective bargaining rights, graduate employees are faced with low wages, increasing healthcare costs, and uncertain employment, with no means of redress. Our labor should be recognized as such, both by the NLRB and by our administration: private university graduate employees should have the right to unionize and bargain collectively.”
  • The union GWC­UAW Local 2110, which represents graduate workers at Columbia University also organized a well attended roundtable to discuss graduate student unionization. Among the diverse array of speakers, were “Councilman Mark Levine and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer [who] came out to declare that #WeAreWorkers and as such, grad workers deserve the right for the protections that come with a unionized workplace.” Olga Brudastova, a graduate student in Columbia’s civil engineering program, said “she hopes a union would be able to address issues she has faced with university bureaucracy in the past. During each of the first two semesters of her program, she only received her allotted stipend after a delay of two or three months — a period made especially stressful by the fact that she is an international student with no other source of income, she said.”
  • Similar concerns were raised by protestors at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. UAW Local 2322 launched a petition, writing that “On September 25th, many graduate student employees at UMass Amherst were not paid. Graduate students who taught, graded, worked in the labs and did other forms of labor eagerly awaited their paychecks in order to purchase groceries, send their rent checks & pay their bills. However, much to their dismay, they would discover that they would not receive the wages that they had earned over the first three weeks of the Of those who were not paid, most were never even informed they would not be getting their first paycheck.” As per media reports, “The university estimates about 16 percent of graduate student employees, or more than 320, didn’t get paid Sept. 25 on payday. … A cross­campus march Thursday afternoon landed dozens of graduate working students inside the administration building holding a petition with more than 500 names, demanding answers and action after students didn’t get paid, some of them having to wait until Oct. 9 to see a dime.”
  • Graduate students at the University of Missouri recently started an unionization drive, after they were told with a day’s notice in August that the university would not subsidize their insurance The university administration had to back down from their decision, and graduate organizing has been proceeding apace. On the 15th, graduate employees organized a grade­in in the administrative building, to make visible certain kinds of grad labour that are usually kept away from sight. More generally, the struggles against racism in Mizzou and Yale have inspired organizations across the country: from the Million Student March, to specific statements, to broader protests around race, and some which have also drawn inspiration from the Rhodes Must Fall struggles in South Africa.
  • At Yale, the Graduate Employee and Students Organization, though not signatories to the #WeAreWorkers Joint­Statement, organized a massive rally on the same day, attended by over 1500 members and allies, “who came out Thursday to petition that graduate employees should be allowed by Yale to have their own union. Beinecke Plaza was packed with Yale students and staff bearing signs stating “No Intimidation, Vote Now.” Among the supporters were Mayor Toni Harp, state Attorney General George Jepsen, state Senate President Martin M. Looney, and U.S. Sens. Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal.” Their primary concerns, a GESO release noted, are “insecure teaching assignments, inadequate mental health care, lack of access to childcare, and race and gender inequities.” In an interview with Salon, a member of GESO said: “My name is Michelle Morgan. I’m an upper­-year in American Studies. I’m also a mom. I have a 15­-year­-old son who lives with me in New Haven. Last year, I was teaching an American Studies junior seminar. I’ve done teaching assistant positions, but this was my own course that I designed myself. Then the university announced it was going to cut upper-­year teaching pay by 40 percent. There was nothing that any of us could do about it. So, this year, I’m teaching my own class and I’m also teaching another seminar in American Studies — and I’m doing it for 40 percent less pay, even though it is the same amount of work. Or more work, even. I’m trying to support myself and my son on this pay, but it’s not working.”
  • The Harvard Graduate Students Union (UAW) organized a town hall “featuring a panel of faculty, students, local politicians, as well as other speakers to discuss why graduate worker unionization matters not only at Harvard but also for the labor movement more broadly and for the future of academic ”
  • Cornell Graduate Students United (AFT) decided to organize a grade­in at different locations on campus, including the CGSU spokesperson James Ingoldsby spoke about a familiar ruse of the administration: “The work that graduate students do varies from program to program and the university has been using that to say, ‘Look, there’s too many different situations here and funding comes from too many different places.’” To this he responded with reference to his own working conditions, for “he currently teaches a first year English seminar that requires about 20 hours work each week. He noted that because graduate students conduct a significant portion of the teaching and work considerable amount of hours, they should be recognized as employees by the university.”
  • GSOC­UAW Local 2110 at New York University, one of the oldest graduate employee unions at a private university, and the first to sign a contract with the administration via a neutrality agreement last year, also testified to the popularity of the “work­in” as a form of protest. With the action they tried to highlight a series of concerns: “Since our contract was executed, NYU has worked diligently to resist its implementation. A potent blend of incompetence and malevolence, NYU has failed to pay workers in a reasonable manner. Bonus payments, health care reimbursements, and wage payments have been weeks and even months late, causing financial hardship for many workers in our unit. Moreover, NYU still forces graduate employees in Steinhardt, Silver, and elsewhere to pay for sham one­credit courses, despite promises that these inequities would be ”
  • Members of the Academic Student Employees at the University of Washington (UAW Local 4121) took a series of pictures of grad employees to make the point. Again highlighting the commonality of so many concerns for graduate employees across private university campuses, they wrote that the lack of a recognised union means that graduate employees “do the fundamental work of their institutions for low pay, inadequate health care, unmanageable fee increases, and the threat of wrongful termination with no possibility of ”
  • Rutgers AAUP­AFT Local 6323 also decided to use photographs as a form of protest, with members posing for the camera, holding signs featuring the hashtag #WeAreWorkers. And the GEU­UAW UConn Graduate Employee Union, who just signed their first contract, followed the route of photographic protest as well.
  • The University of California Student Workers Union – UCLA (UAW 2865) decided to emphasise the theme of invisibility, tabling on campus on the 15th to make clear that “Our work matters but it’s often invisible, to the point that graduate student­workers at private universities are blocked from union representation.”
  • The University of Florida Graduate Assistants United (UFF/ AFT) also tabled as part of the actions that day. As the Joint Statement for the actions around the country made note, “Many graduate workers at public universities are recognized as workers. However, because of the variation in state labor law, this does not hold true across all And even those graduate workers at public universities who are recognized as workers must constantly fight to keep this status and protect their rights and benefits. Public university graduate employees are joining We Are Workers day not only in solidarity with grad workers at private schools, but also to bolster worker movements at their own campuses.”

In his article, Professor David Schultz draws attention to the “coming demise of the Corporate University.” As Trish Kahle and Michael Billeaux, organizers with Graduate Students United at the University of Chicago, and the Teaching Assistants’ Association at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, respectively, write: “In the fight against this corporatized university, change won’t come from the chancellor’s office. It will come from below. Yes, from students and staff and the community. But perhaps most pivotally from graduate workers — the people who are increasingly relied on to teach the classes, run the labs, and produce the research.”

While graduate workers at Columbia, New School, and private universities around the country, await the NLRB decision, this summary of recent actions makes clear that regardless of the decision graduate workers around the country are organizing to take what is theirs: a voice in their working conditions. While we will most likely continue to see reprisals from universities and their increasingly managerial administrations, the graduate worker unionization movement continues to grow, winning contracts and other concessions around the country. It is through these actions and the courage of graduate worker organizers throughout the country that we will see more democratic, accountable, and diverse institutions of higher education across the United States.



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