US Graduate Workers Strike Back – a year in review of graduate student union activity

This post was written by William Balmer. The views presented here are not necessarily representative of the views of the American Astronomical Society or other institutions with whom our authors are affiliated.

Most astronomy is done by graduate students, but how do graduate students ensure they are compensated fairly, treated well, and receive adequate support? Ongoing struggles to unionize might give the confused and frustrated graduate student hope and insight. For many, this past year was a dire and harrowing series of experiences. Fortunately, there has been plenty of good news, especially concerning gains made by and for beleaguered and overburdened graduate students. 2022 was a good year for graduate student unionization, as many unions across the United States made their demands public and filed for recognition with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). There were major strikes as graduate researchers and teachers exercised their right to withhold their labor from their employers. The following is an informal summary of graduate student unionization in the United States meant to inform undergraduates and international colleagues, followed by a celebration of the formidable effort graduate students around the United States have made in building worker power in 2022.

Worker, Student, or a secret, third thing?

I often find myself at odds, struggling to explain to my international colleagues the twisted peculiarities of the United States. The topic of graduate student unionization is no different. In many countries around the world, Ph.D. students and candidates (or graduate students or whatever else you might call them) are regular employees of their colleges and universities, and are represented by their associated professional unions. They have contracts with their employers that ensure pay and benefits like any other job. 

This makes sense, because graduate students are foremost laborers, performing essential tasks like teaching (encompassing grading, lecturing, mentoring, developing curricula, and so much more) and research. Don’t let the nay-sayers confuse you. Most universities own the intellectual property produced by graduate students, and conducting research is therefore a job like any other. 

Unfortunately, in the United States there has been a long and profitable confusion as to whether graduate students are “employees” or “students.” It is understandably confusing, because student is in the name! Fortunately, the situation is pretty clear to the United State’s Internal Revenue Service (IRS), the body that is responsible for collecting taxes within the country. The compensation graduate students receive is not recorded on 1042-S “scholarship forms” but on W2 “employment income” forms, and is taxed as income. So, yes, even in the United States, graduate students are first and foremost employees, who happen to receive a degree in addition to their monetary compensation for their labor.

Another issue arises because of the difference between public and private universities (a good explanation of this is also included in this astrobite). Public universities are governed by individual state labor laws, so unionization attempts are dependent on which of the 50 states the university is owned by. Private university employees fall under the purview of the NLRB, a federal institution with its own troubled history of stalling unionization attempts.

These distinctions, between student and worker, public and private, have led to difficulties in organizing labor unions at many US universities. For a long time, some public university graduate student unions have been able to exercise their rights as workers, to ratify contracts and withhold their labor in the case their demands are not met. At privately owned universities however, graduate students have been completely at the mercy of the whims of administrators and profiteers, who seek to exploit the inherent transience of the labor market to drive down costs (pay their workers less than they are owed) and shirk responsibilities, like providing adequate accommodations and benefits for their employees. 

What’s the Deal with the NLRB?

One of the main roadblocks between graduate students and unionization is the structure and function of the NLRB. NLRB recognition does not mean other unrecognized unions are less valid or powerful entities for change, but being recognized grants a union certain legal protections. These legal protections can be especially important for graduate students, who often uproot and move large distances from their friends and family for their job. For instance, once recognized by the NLRB, a university cannot legally fire workers for authorizing a strike, technically. Unfortunately for graduate students, facing the student/worker dichotomy, the NLRB has not been consistent in their decisions. This is largely because the NLRB is a board of 5 politicians, who are all nominated by other politicians.

The history of graduate student unionization in America is largely a history of NLRB flip-flops. In the 1950s and 1970s NLRB decisions meant private university graduate workers could not gain recognition, but big strides were made by public university unions. A wave of unionization efforts in the late 90s and early 2000s put pressure on the NLRB and in 2000 they voted to allow NYU graduate students to unionize. In 2004 they then reversed this decision when they prohibited Brown University students from forming a union. This stalled private school unions for over 10 years until a 2016 decision when the NLRB ruled 3-1 that student assistants were protected and able to unionize. The recent wave of unionization efforts from 2016 through to 2022 have been using this ruling as an opportunity to gain recognition. 

Right now, the process appears straightforward for prospective graduate student unions: gather your bargaining unit, file for recognition with the NLRB, who will hold an election where your bargaining unit will decide whether to form a union, and then bargain for a contract with your employer. 

Year In Review

It is difficult to recap the vast swath of student worker action in 2022, mostly because there have been so many new and rejuvenated union campaigns, new elections filed, decisions won or lost, and strikes held! If I missed your favorite union news here, be sure to let us know so it can be added to the Year In Review list below! 

This year major graduate student union strikes occurred throughout the country. An Astrobite covered the conclusion of a strike at Columbia University in early January. The strike began as a response to stalled negotiations, poor treatment of workers, and to pressure NYU admin to accept their bargaining demands. After reaching a promising tentative agreement, the union voted to end the strike! 

The most recent strike was also the most massive in the history of higher education. Over 36,000 workers at the University of California went on strike this November, and you can read ongoing Astrobites coverage here, here, and here. The strike recently ended, and you can expect an Astrobites breakdown of the results soon!

In early February, 1600+ student workers at the University of New Mexico (UNM) won recognition after nearly a year of delays. You can read a great Astrobite here on this topic. They joined forces with the United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America (UE), as did their colleagues at New Mexico State University (NMSU), who in May won recognition from a state labor board. Just this past December, both UNM and NMSU graduate workers approved collective bargaining agreements, gaining improvements in their pay and health care coverage. Unfortunately, undemocratic New Mexico state laws prohibit public sector workers from going on strike, meaning workers have much less leverage to make their demands. Still, these improvements are major wins for New Mexican graduate students.

In February, the Harvard Grad Students Union organized a protest to support students who are suing the University for protecting and harboring perpetrators of sexual harassment and abuse.

In early April, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Graduate Student Union (MIT-GSU) voted decisively to unionize, also joining UE, representing over 3800 graduate students at the private university. This was after a pitched battle between the university administration, who ran a concerted anti-union campaign. MIT-GSU won their election in a 2:1 majority, 1785-912. 

In late October, the University of Iowa Campaign to Organize Graduate Students (COGS) voted to re-certify their union and have since held protests regarding their unfair wages.

In October, the Johns Hopkins University (JHU) Teachers and Researchers United (TRU-UE) announced their campaign to unionize, having since filed for an election with the NLRB in early December (which is now confirmed for early 2023!). Northwestern University Graduate Workers (NUGW-UE) announced they are hosting an election in early 2023. The University of Chicago Graduate Students United (UChicago GSU-UE) announced they had an election planned in 2023 as well. In September the Duke Grad Union announced their union campaign, as did EmoryUnite!, a union at Emory University. 

In September, the Boston University Graduate Workers Union (BUGWU), affiliated with SEIU Local 509, announced their campaign, and in December won their election! 

In short, 2022 was the year graduate student workers struck (quite literally, in some cases) back against greed, corruption, and mistreatment. Hopefully we will continue to see the success of graduate student unions in 2023

Astrobite edited by Mark Popinchalk

Featured image credit:  TRU-UE

About William Balmer

William Balmer (they/them) is a PhD student at JHU/STScI studying the formation, evolution, and composition of giant planets, brown dwarfs, and very low mass stars. They enjoy reading, tabletop games, cycling, and astrophotography.

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