US graduate student workers scoring union victories

New contracts at Harvard and NYU seen reflecting new determination and political and economic pressures of Biden and Covid

December 9, 2021
 Harvard Student Workers strike, to illustrate US graduate student workers scoring union victories
Source: Alamy

Graduate student workers at several of the top US private universities are making steady progress in labour rights, using friendlier federal policies to help win higher salaries and boost workplace protections.

The most recent victory came at Harvard University, where the union representing some 4,500 student workers approved a four-year agreement giving them an initial 5 per cent pay rise.

“It’s a pretty big achievement for our local,” said Brandon Mancilla, a doctoral student in history serving as president of the Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Automobile Workers. “It’s the highest raise that graduate students or student workers on this campus have gotten in decades.”

The Harvard pact follows this past summer’s agreement at New York University, where a new six-year contract with some 2,200 workers includes pay increases of 5 per cent for research assistants and 30 per cent for hourly workers.

Postgraduates at Georgetown and Brown universities reached contract agreements last year, while Princeton and Yale universities and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are among institutions where graduate students are working to unionise.

US universities increasingly rely on their graduate students as relatively low-wage employees in classroom and laboratory settings. Those workers now appear to be aided by friendly political conditions with the Biden administration in office, and by favourable economic conditions as the easing of Covid restrictions boosts work options.

That pressure was evident at a recent media round table hosted by Arizona State University, where institutional leaders admitted that they were struggling to find workers for a variety of services often performed by students and by outside contractors.

One of them, Pradeep Khosla, chancellor of the University of California, San Diego, said his campus now has a record 43,000-student enrolment but its smallest-ever level of student employment. “It is weird,” Professor Khosla said. “There’s some dynamic out there where the students don’t want to take up jobs on campus, and we are seeing a very significant shortage.”

State labour law determines unionisation rights at public institutions. At private institutions, the right of students to form labour unions has long been a back-and-forth battle, with federal approval over the past couple decades varying by administration.

With the Biden administration in office, that power has shifted more clearly towards the unions, with the recognised legality of unions emboldening student organisers to call strikes when progress stalls. That was the case at both Harvard and NYU, and now at Columbia University, where the union representing 3,000 postgraduate and undergraduate student workers has been on strike since early November.

Columbia’s academic staff are largely observing the strike by not filling roles vacated by the graduate student workers, leaving the university to face the likelihood that some of its undergraduates will not be able to complete courses.

The American Association of University Professors, while it represents professional faculty, was “highly concerned” about the treatment of student workers and their growing share of the academic workforce, a spokesman said. Federal data are not reliable, as they are based on reports from universities, but they show at least a 13 per cent increase in the number of graduate assistants from 2009 to 2019, while that of regular instructional staff grew by only 7 per cent, he said.

The ability and willingness to strike, with the backing of federal officials, was proving critical to success in such cases, Harvard’s Mr Mancilla said. “The most important thing that people organising new campaigns should take away from our struggles and the histories is that you need to fight; you need to go on strike to win things,” he said.

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