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USC’s graduate students are only the latest to join a surge of union organizing at colleges across the country. Since the start of 2022, nearly 35,700 students have gained union representation across 30 new collective-bargaining units. What’s more, the USC agreement follows a pattern of recent negotiation victories begun last year with the landmark contract won by graduate students and other academic workers at the University of California, ending a high-profile strike across its 10 campuses. Throughout, the support for unionization has been overwhelming: “On average, 91 percent of eligible student workers voted in favor of unionization in representation elections in 2022–2023,” according to the most recent “State of the Unions” report from the City University of New York’s School of Labor and Urban Studies. So too has support risen for strike authorization: Almost one-third of all the higher-education-worker strikes in the past decade took place between January 2022 and June 2023. Half of those occurred in just the first six months of this year.
This newfound labor militancy has been led by higher education’s most precarious workers: graduate-student instructors and researchers, temporary postdocs, and contingent faculty. They are driven not only by demands for wage and salary increases, improved working conditions, and a better standard of living, but also by a vision of academic workers as frontline members of a renewed democratic labor movement.
It’s no accident that this year’s wave of campus strikes has coincided with the UAW’s “Stand Up Strike” at plants owned by Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis, or that the past 12 months have been bookended by two major contract victories, for academic workers at the University of California and for autoworkers at the so-called Big Three. It is instead the hard-won outcome of coalition-building, strategy-sharing, an exchange of ideas, and a common vision. The result has been a period of academic-labor action unlike any we’ve seen.
USC’s graduate students are only the latest to join a surge of union organizing at colleges across the country.
Portions of union dues from all members go into the UAW’s strike fund, which was estimated at $825 million at the start of the Stand Up Strike. Dues from graduate-student workers at New York University and Harvard might help striking autoworkers in Indiana and Michigan, and vice versa. The level of solidarity across industries is impressive as well. Already, autoworkers and academic workers have joined each other’s picket lines. This fall, graduate students at the Berkeley, Santa Cruz, and Davis campuses organized caravans to join striking workers at a GM parts-distribution center in Reno, Nev.
This is a period of academic labor action unlike any we’ve seen.
As a result, academic and industrial workers are finding greater opportunities to collaborate across sectors. On December 1, UAW 2865, the union representing UC graduate-student workers, co-hosted a teach-in at Berkeley with the East Bay chapter of Democratic Socialists of America, led by auto-sector members who participated in the Stand Up Strike. When I asked Tanzil Chowdhury, the UAW 2865 unit chair and a Ph.D. candidate in materials science and engineering at Berkeley, how academic workers might adapt lessons from the auto sector to their own future campaigns, he told me it’s already happening and pointed to USC. “Taking an early strike-authorization vote with extremely high participation and then setting a [negotiation] deadline” are “ideas that come out of the Stand Up Strike.” He added that the 2022 UC strike helped generate favorable conditions for the Big Three contracts, “increasing the militancy and expectations of autoworkers.”
Union constituencies have also built on one another’s grass-roots movements for democratic empowerment. UAW President Shawn Fain has been backed by one such movement, Unite All Workers for Democracy, or UAWD, which in 2021 won a referendum to change the procedure for electing the union’s top officers from a delegate process to a more direct one that gives each member a vote. A decade before UAWD, there was Academic Workers for a Democratic Union, a 2010 movement within UAW 2865 to replace a corporatized leadership with rank-and-file members. Each was premised on the belief that a more democratic union is a more powerful one. In this view, a win for workers in one sector is a win for all.
In response, an apparently back-footed university-management class has wanted it to seem like they’ve been swimming with the tide all along. “Right from the beginning,” said USC’s Andrew Stott, vice provost for academic programs and dean of the graduate school, “it was our objective to come to a fair agreement that recognized the value that we see in our graduate students” — as if the administration was somehow on both sides of the bargaining table. Such pretensions to solidarity are not simply empty displays of “woke capitalism”; they are telling admissions of workers’ collective power. Both the UAW Stand Up Strike and the UC strike were authorized by a 97-percent vote. The averted USC strike was approved by 95 percent, while 94 percent of faculty and graduate students at all four campuses of Rutgers University voted to approve a strike in June, and on and on.
University administrations, under pressure from tightfisted statehouses and billionaire donors to cut costs and protect endowments, continue to deny tenure lines, cut course offerings, slash department budgets, and eliminate entire departments. In stark contrast, unionized graduate students, researchers, postdocs, and lecturers, in solidarity with workers across sectors, have been delivering a more sustainable future for all of us.
There is no guarantee that the current labor movement will prevail, of course, just as there is little certainty about the future of academe. But one thing is certain: The fates of the two have never been more intertwined.