This May Day, Let’s Celebrate the Campus Labor Movement

This May Day, Let’s Celebrate the Campus Labor Movement

This May Day, Let’s Celebrate the Campus Labor Movement

Union organizers and student journalists in Michigan, Oregon, North Carolina, and Arizona document the ongoing labor campaigns at their universities.


Over the last few years, workers in the United States have propelled a resurgent wave of union organizing. With the approval of organized labor at its highest among young people, it’s no surprise that colleges and universities have been a linchpin of the movement. Across the country—from resident advisers at Columbia University to dining workers at William & Mary to undergraduates at Dartmouth and beyond—workers in higher education are demanding better pay and conditions as tuition and fees continue to skyrocket. To understand what’s at stake, we asked a few young organizers and student journalists to give an update on a few of these ongoing campus campaigns.

Graduate student workers at the University of Michigan have been on strike since March 29, 2023. For graduate workers organized in the Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO), American Federation of Teachers Local 3550, this is our second strike in three years, part of a growing wave among graduate student workers across the country, including Columbia and Temple universities and the entire University of California system.

We know graduate school shouldn’t be a struggle. We work long hours contributing to our universities for pay that simply does not meet our material needs. We are fed up and ready to fight.

Our strike at the University of Michigan is a microcosm of what graduate workers are facing across the country. We are putting forward a vision of a University of Michigan where anyone can be a grad student—not just those who are independently wealthy. Like the vast majority of Americans, we are facing a cost-of-living squeeze. Our members have seen the gap between our salaries and the local cost of living triple in the last three years. That’s why we’re asking for a living wage of $38,500 each year and additional support for those who need them—like international students, parents, and disabled workers. We’re also demanding a dignified and safe workplace by proposing expanded protections for workers who have been harassed (especially important given UM’s embarrassing record on this issue), an unarmed non-police crisis response program, and more accessible gender-affirming care.

Our campaign has been led by members every step of the way. Over 1,200 of us participated in the process that led to our bargaining platform. Members fought hard against stiff opposition from the university to win the right to watch bargaining sessions. Over 1,000 grad workers have attended bargaining since negotiations began in November. Having bargaining open to members has allowed them to take ownership of the process, actively discussing proposals in real time and voting on how to respond. It also allowed members to hear the university’s preposterous justifications for their proposals firsthand—for example, that management did not consider the cost of living when formulating their below-inflation salary offer. The result of this is that GEO members are more engaged than ever before and our strike authorization vote passed with 95 percent support.

On April 10, Graduate Workers won a consequential victory in court, as the judge denied the university’s request for an injunction to force us back on the job. In 2020, it was fear of precisely this kind of injunction that ended our strike. The court’s decision upholds workers’ right to strike. By proving that forcing workers back on the job through an injunction is an unwarranted abuse of the legal system, it is a victory for all working people in Michigan, who now know they can strike without fear of being enjoined. Our current strike is now the second-longest in the 50-year history of our union. With this ruling, graduate workers feel the wind at our backs, and are ready to fight until we get the contract we deserve!

Amir Fleischmann, university of michigan

Since October of 2022, students at the University of Oregon have been fighting to build a union for student workers. If successful, it will be the largest union of undergraduate workers in the country; representing over 3,000 employees.

Student workers in dining and residence halls, libraries, information desks, campus cafes, and research labs will share membership in the University of Oregon Student Workers (UOSW), a new wall-to-wall union. The union campaign is surfacing common grievances held by student workers; unlivable wages, infrequent pay periods, arbitrary scheduling, no shift meals, and apathetic management. The union’s demands are higher pay, a two-week pay period, more flexible scheduling, and stronger anti-harassment policies.

The campaign is employing a card check process: If a majority of student employees sign a card approving the formation of a union, the university is legally obligated to recognize and enter negotiations with the union. On April 8, the campaign officially filed over 2,000 signed cards to certify the undergraduate union with Oregon’s Employment Relations Board. Students will know if they’ve won their union outright a maximum of 45 days after filing. If they fail to certify by a card majority, they will have an additional 45 days to hold an election.

In a press release, organizers reflected on the long struggle to attain certification: “We are standing at a pivotal point in the current labor movement,” said organizer Elizabeth White. “We’ve used our collective power to get to this point, and we will continue to use it to create tangible change on our campus and to empower others to do the same.”

The struggle does not end by winning the union; post-certification, the campaign will identify workplace specific grievances and prepare to bargain with the university for a contract that benefits all student workers. “It’s been an incredible journey with my fellow student worker organizers. None of us will ever forget this day,” said organizer Will Garrahan.

Garrahan was interviewed for previous reporting for The Nation and has since been fired from his dining hall job, which he believes was in retaliation to his public role in UOSW. The campaign has since held rallies to pressure the university to reinstate Garrahan, attracting the support of the campus.

In a statement to the Eugene Register-Guard, UO Director of Public Affairs Kay Jarvis said that the university has not taken an official stance on the unionization efforts. However, organizers do allege that unfair labor practices and union-busting occur in campus workplaces, including posters’ being taken down and supervisors’ interrupting students signing cards.

UO students, like many youth across the country, understand their position as members of the working class. As organizers have argued, unionized students raise conditions for all other workers and teach priceless solidarity that will continue into broader labor movements—which could be transformative for American politics. “When we organize, we can fight. And when we fight, we win,” said Garrahan. “Together, we are unstoppable.”

Porter Wheeler, University of Oregon

Up against an administration that has taken the most hardline, anti-union stance of any peer institution in the heart of the “right-to-work” South, the Duke Graduate Student Union (DGSU) continues to move toward an election. In March, the Duke administration mounted a legal challenge that imperils the right of graduate workers at all private institutions to unionize.

This move only further energized the student body and community support. In April, the DGSU and campus and community supporters protested a keynote speech by President Vincent Price during the university’s alumni weekend, calling on alumni to pledge “No Dollars for Duke” to hold their donations until the administration changes course. Within days, 400 alumni already signed on. Protesters silently entered the auditorium holding a banner listing the 1400+ signatories of support, including faculty, three Durham state legislators, and the Durham City Council.

In March, graduate students and supporters wrote to the university’s provost and president en masse to demand an election, days after over 500 graduate workers submitted a signed letter to the provost calling on his office to allow a vote.

After the DGSU filed and requested an election by late March—a standard NLRB time frame—the Duke administration chose the nuclear option: relitigating the 2016 Columbia decision that affirms graduate workers at universities are workers. In fact, the same regional NLRB board already ruled on this exact same challenge with the exact same unit—making plain that this move by Duke is a flagrant union-busting tactic, albeit a dangerous one.

This challenge also cannot be decoupled from the state’s labor and political context. The DGSU is organizing in solidarity with the Union of Southern Service Workers in a shared struggle to support labor organizing in a state with the second-lowest concentration of union labor nationally.

Over 30 Duke graduate workers attended the first day of March regional NLRB hearing proceedings, overflowing the local hotel conference room in which it was held. In response, Duke’s lawyers agreed to end the hearing proceedings after three days and to a stipulation of facts.

As pressure continues to build from within Duke, the Durham community, and myriad supporters for the administration to change course and meet its workers at the bargaining table, the DGSU will continue to prepare for their election and towards a big-tent, pro-worker, unionized South.

Kristina Mensik & Matthew Reale-Hatem, Duke University

Modern universities are beginning to bear remarkable resemblance to the exploitative company towns of old. In the past, company towns sheltered, fed, monitored, and sold goods to its entrapped workforce. Today’s universities have even more intimate control of their workers’ real and digital personhoods through surveillance and data capture. Harnessing a neatly spun web of on-campus health services, housing, policing, loan servicing, and institution-hosted digital programs allows university employers to slowly ensure that its workers can never truly escape its corporate stranglehold.

At the University of Arizona (UArizona) and Arizona State University (ASU), campus workers are facing increasing precarity due to the dystopian “enterprise university” vision, a profit-maximizing scheme disguised as disruptive innovation. Both campuses have repeatedly demonstrated their prioritization of profit over workers.

At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, UArizona administrators claimed the need for austerity cuts through worker furloughs. At the same time, they quietly bailed out the bloated athletics department to the tune of $125.5 million. Earlier in that year, UArizona actively ignored the concerns of the campus population and two US senators by acquiring a scandal-ridden, for-profit online university. The remaining workers were left to carry the unmanageable teaching and administrative loads.

All of this extravagant spending comes amid economic crises for students and workers. In fact, one in five students at UArizona and ASU has faced food insecurity in the past year. The Arizona Board of Regents (ABOR), an unelected statewide governing body, has chosen to ignore public demands to remove opaque and mandatory fee structures that overburden enrolled students and their families. This past week, ABOR announced a major fee and tuition increase. These mandatory fees amount to a staggering 5 percent of a UArizona graduate worker’s total annual salary, further exacerbating the discrepancy between workers’ income and the estimated living wage line for Tucson residents. Enterprise universities like ours find creative ways to redirect wealth away from the deserving workers and into the hands of ineffective administrators and ill-advised acquisitions. However, unionization has provided hope of gaining a seat at the shareholders’ table.

Campus workers around the country have already started organizing to fight the corporate capture of our public universities. My local, United Campus Workers, Arizona (UCWAZ-CWA), has spearheaded a unique organizing model to meet the modern labor challenges of the enterprise university, forging a new path ahead for more than 35,000 employees at UArizona and ASU combined.

As unions across the US emerge from decades of stagnation, UCWAZ-CWA has focused on building worker power from the bottom up. Among a new crop of emerging pre-majority unions, UCWAZ-CWA has cultivated formidable strength through the rank and file. By prioritizing worker-led grassroots actions, our recent efforts have succeeded in wage increases for all student workers and a historic vote of no confidence against the entire leadership team of the current UArizona administration.

UCWAZ-CWA will continue to build a contract-ready workforce, inclusive across class, race, gender, and state lines. We are prepared to seat workers at the head of the shareholders’ table.

Jeremy Bernick, University of Arizona

Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that moves the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories to readers like you.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Thank you for your generosity.

Ad Policy