Between January and April, over 14,000 graduate workers on five campuses across the country voted to join UE — all by margins of over 80 percent.
Graduate workers work in labs and offices and classrooms, performing the labor that makes universities run. They do research, teach, and grade papers. Their wages are rarely sufficient to live on. Many are subjected to harassment by their supervisors, who are often also their academic advisors. All of them need a union.
UE Local 896-COGS has represented approximately 2,000 graduate workers at the University of Iowa since 1996, and graduate workers at the University of North Carolina and North Carolina State University began joining UE Local 150 about five years ago. In 2021, 2,500 graduate workers at two universities in New Mexico joined UE, and last December, UGW-UE Local 1466 at the University of New Mexico and UE Local 1498-GWU at New Mexico State University ratified their first UE contracts.
While graduate workers at many public universities have been organized for decades, graduate workers at private universities only won the right to collective bargaining in 1999, a decision that was reversed in 2005. In 2016, the National Labor Relations Board issued the Columbia decision, once again recognizing graduate workers’ right to form a union. However, that right was immediately endangered by the Trump labor board, which announced its intent to reserve the previous board’s ruling, much as the Bush labor board had done in 2005. As a result, graduate worker unions in the private sector were unable to use the NLRB to organize, for fear of giving the board a case they could use to overturn Columbia.
This gambit was successful, and after the 2020 election graduate workers across the country began stepping up their organizing efforts. In the fall of 2021, a group of graduate workers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the MIT Graduate Student Union, after several years of patient organizing, launched a card drive with UE. After signing up a super-majority of their 3,800 co-workers, they petitioned for an NLRB election which they won by a two-to-one margin in April of 2022, becoming UE Local 256 (MIT-GSU). Local 256 is currently in negotiations for a first contract.
In the fall of 2022, graduate workers at four additional campuses launched their UE card drives: 3,000 workers at the University of Chicago, another 3,000 at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois (just outside of Chicago), 3,100 at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and 800 Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. In January, the workers at Northwestern, Johns Hopkins and UChicago all won their union elections by margins of over 90 percent. Dartmouth had their election in April, which they won by over 80 percent.
At the University of Minnesota (UMN) in Minneapolis, graduate workers had tried to organize numerous times over the past several decades, including with UE in 2005, but had always come up short. The UMN Graduate Labor Union launched its card drive in February, and by the end of April they had won their state labor board election — by a margin of 97 percent.
Across all of these campuses, workers have similar issues. Their wages aren’t enough to live on — graduate workers are typically only paid for 20 hours per week, although they often work more, and many of these universities are located in locations with a high cost of living. Healthcare benefits are often insufficient (the lack of dental coverage especially), and there is little support for workers with families.
Graduate workers everywhere need a meaningful grievance procedure, and protections against discrimination and harassment. Workers — especially research assistants in “STEM” (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) departments, many of whom work with dangerous chemicals and machinery — often lack adequate health and safety protections. And international students, who make up a significant percentage of these bargaining units, face a variety of challenges, without enough support from their employers.
However, it is not just problems that they share — they are also sharing experiences and solidarity across different campaigns and locals through the UE “Graduate Worker Organizing Committee” (GWOC). Largely over Zoom, workers from one campus will train workers from other campuses on organizing methods such as “walkthroughs” (systematically walking through a building to have organizing conversations with workers in the labs and offices). GWOC also creates opportunities for workers from different campuses to get together to brainstorm and problem-solve on particular issues they are facing in their organizing.
The latest issue of the UE NEWS features accounts of all five campaigns, written by some of the graduate workers who led them:
By Kavitha Chintam and Esther Kamm, NUGW-UE
Northwestern University Graduate Workers (NUGW) was founded in 2016 following the NLRB Columbia decision that ruled graduate student workers at private universities can organize and bargain collectively. After two different business unions got involved on campus in 2016 — neither stuck around — and an early card campaign fell short of the threshold to trigger an election, NUGW pivoted to an independent, issue-based campaign, focusing on grassroots organizing during the era of the Trump-appointed, anti-union NLRB.
By Ali Siddiqui, Kristin Brig-Ortiz, and Andrew S Eneim, TRU-UE (Johns Hopkins University)
Graduate workers at Johns Hopkins University began collective bargaining as Teachers and Researchers United-United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (TRU-UE) with the university administration on May 10, 2023. Earlier this spring, graduate students at Hopkins won a historic vote for the formation of TRU-UE with a 97 percent majority, with 2,053 graduate students voting yes and 67 voting no. TRU-UE now represents around 3,200 PhD workers across the Johns Hopkins Homewood, East Baltimore and Washington DC campuses.
By Andrew Seber, GSU-UE (University of Chicago)
The certification of Graduate Students United-UE as the collective bargaining agent for University of Chicago graduate workers on March 24, 2023 was over 15 years in the making. A photograph of the National Labor Relations Board regional director’s signature resonated especially deeply with many of the senior organizers who had been around for the previous unionization campaign. For current students and employees, alumni, and supporters in the movement, certification did not mark the seven business days from the vote count, but the sixty-five months since UChicago graduate workers voted overwhelmingly to unionize in October 2017
By David Freeman, GOLD-UE
The movement for unionization of Dartmouth graduate students began around October 2021, when a small group of graduate students met for the first time to attempt to achieve something none of them had any experience doing — organizing their workplace.
By Noah Wexler, University of Minnesota Graduate Labor Union-UE
Our campaign began in the aftermath of the University of Minnesota campus shutting down with the beginning of the pandemic. Grad workers were suddenly saddled with transitioning classes online and maintaining and reopening in-person lab spaces. This sudden shift in our workload contrasted with wages well below the cost of living, lackluster benefits, and no real protections for on-the-job grievances. Grad workers were clearly essential to the University of Minnesota, but beyond platitudes, administrative actions did not reflect that.