A Ph.D. in Organizing

Newly armed with the right to collective bargaining, teaching assistants, graduate assistants, and research assistants at private universities are organizing to join the ranks of the unionized. Photo: GWC-UAW 2110

Newly armed with the right to collective bargaining, teaching assistants, graduate assistants, and research assistants at private universities are organizing to join the ranks of the unionized.

At public universities, graduate workers were already allowed to form unions in about half the states. But at private universities, they were denied that right under the National Labor Relations Board’s 2004 Brown decision, which considered them to be more student than worker. In August, the Board reversed that with its Columbia decision.

And it was at Columbia University that the first win came on December 9, when employees voted to form a union with the Auto Workers (UAW), by a vote of 1,602 to 623.

Grad workers at Harvard are seeking to join the UAW too. At Yale, they’ve filed petitions for departmental micro bargaining units with UNITE HERE. At Cornell, they’re organizing with the Teachers (AFT).

At the University of Chicago, it’s a joint campaign between AFT and American Association of University Professors (AAUP). At Loyola and Duke, it’s the Service Employees (SEIU). And at Northwestern, a graduate group voted to affiliate its campaign with AFT, but SEIU is also running a parallel campaign.

Some are rushing to organize for the first time. Others are hoping to win union certification for longstanding membership organizations like the one at the University of Chicago, which former graduate worker Andrew Yale called “a driving, functioning, rank-and-file minority union.”


The union drive at Harvard picked up steam in the 2014-2015 academic year. It grew out of a campaign to cap class size for teaching assistants. The next school year, Harvard’s grad workers decided to affiliate their campaign with the UAW.

Harvard’s graduate employees held a UAW election in November, but the vote count has been stalled while the two sides review the eligibility of 1,000 contested ballots.

Organizers say the top issues at Harvard are inadequate dental insurance and lack of paid parental leave. Graduate employees are also concerned about racial and gender discrimination in their departments, and they want more advance knowledge of which courses they will teach each semester.

To get union authorization cards signed, grad organizers in virtually every department spent a few hours per week going office to office. The goal is to have one contact person for every eight people, checking in regularly about work issues and organizing updates, and reporting to a department coordinator.

This semester’s month-long strike by Harvard’s dining hall workers added a jolt of inspiration. “We’ve been very supportive of them, and vice versa,” said Jared Abbot, a Ph.D. student in the government department.

“I’ve been really impressed by a lot of the grad students here, who are just natural organizers,” Abbot said. “They’re really dedicated people who have spent an inordinate amount of time on this project, people who are really effective in one-on-one conversations.”


Activists with Cornell Graduate Students United—a campaign that affiliated with the AFT earlier this year—have taken a similar approach. “The vast majority of our members have joined after one-to-one conversations,” said CGSU organizer Ibrahim Issa, who studies electrical and computer engineering.

One of the main hurdles is unifying 2,000 employees spread across 90 departments, said Nomfundo Makhubo, a master’s student studying international development. “Coordinating all that into one cohesive structure can be a challenge,” she said.

International graduate students face a specific set of issues, including the risk of losing their visa status. “If you bring a grievance to your supervisor, you’re worried that you won’t just be thrown out of the program, but that you’ll be thrown out of the country,” Issa said.

Unionized grad workers at public universities have won contract provisions to reduce these risks. For instance, grads at the University of Connecticut won an expedited grievance procedure for those whose visa status could be jeopardized if they were terminated.

Organizing in CGSU has helped international students feel that “they actually can speak up about a lot of things that they thought they should just ignore and just swallow,” said Makhubo, who was an activist in the South African student movement before coming to Cornell.

In a union contract, Cornell grad workers hope to rein in the fees they pay for vision and dental insurance. According to Issa and Makhubo, the costs are so high that many international students find it cheaper to go back to their home countries to get procedures done.


Even without union certification or bargaining rights, the members of Graduate Students United at the University of Chicago have been winning campaigns for years on various issues.



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Activists formed GSU in 2008 as a membership organization. “We printed up membership cards and had people sign them,” said co-founder Andrew Yale, “and we established $5-a-year dues.”

One of GSU’s first wins doubled teaching assistant wages—which were nearly the lowest in the country—from $1,500 to $3,000 a quarter.

The group won that campaign through an inside-outside strategy. While three members served on an official committee to look into whether to raise wages, other members increased the pressure by gathering petition signatures, marching on the administration, and holding a “teach-out” during which they taught classes outside.

Using similar tactics, GSU won improvements in access to health care in 2009 and a freeze on tuition in 2010. Then the campaign affiliated with AFT and AAUP, hoping to increase grad workers’ leverage. In 2012, members won a $500-per-quarter childcare stipend and a parental leave policy.

GSU also joined a community campaign, led by Black youth, that got the university to build a trauma center on the violence-riddled South Side—a win that Yale called “one of the most significant victories on the South Side of Chicago for the last 20 years.”

This proof that organizing against the university could pay off inspired not only graduate workers, but also non-tenured and part-time faculty in several departments, who voted to join SEIU in the fall of 2015.

After nine years as an uncertified minority union, GSU is organizing toward majority status and certification with AFT and AAUP.


Recognizing that support for the union is stronger in some departments than others, graduate workers at Yale University are taking the unusual approach of organizing as “micro-units” under the umbrella of UNITE HERE Local 33.

Traditionally a graduate union bargaining unit covers specific job categories—such as teaching assistant, graduate assistant, or research assistant—in every department at a college or university.

With the micro-unit approach, “a department that wants a union can have one, and those that don’t won’t,” said Aaron Greenberg, a graduate teacher in political science and chair of Local 33.

The Graduate Employees and Students Organization decided to affiliate with UNITE HERE, becoming that union’s first academic workers local, because UNITE HERE has represented lab techs, dining hall workers, and clerical workers at Yale for 75 years. The members of Locals 34 and 35 “have decades of experience working with the university and negotiating great contracts,” said Greenberg.

GESO members have been organizing without union recognition for two decades. They want security and transparency on pay—especially after the workload in the History of Art department doubled with no raise. Other issues are affordable and quality health care, race and gender equity, and childcare, since some parents are paying more than half their income for it.

Local 33 filed for individual elections in 10 departments in late August, but the administration challenged the petition. The local expects a decision from the regional Labor Board any day.


In the wake of the presidential election, labor activists across the country are preparing for a new round of attacks—including the possibility that a Republican-dominated Labor Board might reverse the decision that recognized grad employees’ organizing rights.

That means this window of opportunity may not stay open for long. But in a piece for the website On Labor, labor lawyer Andrew Strom argues that at universities where graduate workers manage to vote in a union before the Board hears any challenges to the Columbia decision, it’s likely their union certification will be safe for at least one round of bargaining.

“It’s been a hostile landscape for a very long time,” said Bryan Gangemi, who studies at Cornell’s Industrial and Labor Relations School. “Despite the looming fear that exists about what a Trump presidency will mean, it’s more of the same historically in terms of what we’re up against as a labor movement.”

He believes the anger against Trump’s right-wing agenda is fueling “an exciting moment” to organize, especially on university campuses. Activists plan to keep developing a national graduate worker movement that ultimately relies more on collective power than favorable laws.

Jeff Schuhrke is the grievance chair, and Dawn Tefft is a staff organizer/representative, with the Graduate Employees Organization at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #454, January 2017. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.