US academic unions leap forward after California strike victories

Graduate student workers energised after record walkout, though meaningful improvements remain a long slog for majority still in economically precarious contingent teaching

February 2, 2023
Union academic workers and supporters march at the UCLA campus as described in the article
Source: Getty

The landmark University of California strike appears to be encouraging new unionisation efforts, strikes and quick contract settlements across the US, although with academia still constrained by a norm of non-tenured and economically precarious faculty.

The walkout by 48,000 employees at the 10 California campuses – the largest higher education strike in US history – ended last month after six weeks with new contracts offering increases in wages and benefits reaching as high as 80 per cent over three years.

With the California workers back at their jobs, graduate and professional student workers at Yale University, and non-teaching staff at the Rhode Island School of Design, are among bargaining units that have voted to authorise strikes. Graduate student workers at Syracuse University and the University of Southern California, and undergraduate computer science teaching assistants at Brown University, are taking steps towards forming unions.

Some institutions are trying to head off such action. The University of Chicago has increased stipends for its doctoral students as they approach a vote to unionise, while Vanderbilt University is increasing graduate student stipends in its College of Arts and Science. And the University of Illinois at Chicago accepted a new contract with its faculty – both tenured and non-tenure track – after less than a week of strikes.

Such activity is also being seen across the border in Canada. The University of Toronto is increasing stipends for its medical graduate students, while research assistants and academic assistants at the University of British Columbia are working towards unionising.

The University of California strike appeared to be “a shot in the arm to other graduate student workers across the country”, said Kent Wong, director of the University of California, Los Angeles Labor Center.

It “demonstrated that workers who are willing to strike can win a stronger contract”, said Rebecca Kolins Givan, associate professor of labour studies and employment relations at Rutgers University, and president of the local faculty union.

The result, such experts said, not only puts upward pressure on wages for graduate instructors but also helps to improve their working conditions by, for example, boosting protections against sexual abuse and other kinds of workplace problems. The new California contracts include new accommodations for those with disabilities, rights to temporary adjustments in working conditions and provisions to address abusive conduct and improve dispute resolution processes.

Better pay and working conditions are especially important to hopes of improving racial and demographic equity in higher education, experts noted. That’s because graduate education is an important choke point for people looking to improve their career prospects, and low pay at that level leaves it as a rung on the upward ladder that’s much easier to scale by those from wealthier families.

That dynamic became clear back in the 1960s, said Risa Lieberwitz, professor of labour and employment law at Cornell University, when large increases in public funding of higher education created new opportunities for students of working-class backgrounds, racial minorities and women. Funding cuts in the 1980s under the Reagan administration reversed that progress, said Professor Lieberwitz.

Regaining that kind of broad improvement in conditions, Dr Givan said, required contract gains for university instructors, as well as increased public funding across higher education. “It’s a whole system,” she said, “and it can’t be fixed through one bargaining table or one bargaining round – it has to be addressed through a number of things.”

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