Higher Ed Labor Organizing Is Just Getting Started

Higher Ed Labor Organizing Is Just Getting Started

Higher Ed Labor Organizing Is Just Getting Started

It’s legal for adjuncts to work under conditions that are outlawed for most other industries. Here’s how grad workers could change that.


About three weeks into the University of California strike—around the time thousands of workers across the state had shared Thanksgiving meals on picket lines—UC Berkeley’s campus health center became inundated with a barrage of strange ailments among student workers. Graduate students were turning up with unspecified leg pain, foot sores, achy hips, repetitive motion problems, and generalized fatigue.

They were almost uniformly diagnosed as being on strike.

“There was nothing really wrong with us,” said My Dao, a PhD candidate in psychology and student worker at UC Berkeley. “Our bodies were just run down from walking picket lines nonstop. We needed some rest.”

They wouldn’t get it for three more weeks, after which point their contracts were finally ratified by the membership, solidifying a historic wage increase for 36,000 graduate student workers throughout the public university system. This victory was complemented by pathbreaking protections against bullying and on-the-job harassment.

The culmination of the strike was shot through with internal disputes among the rank and file, and for many, it was a missed opportunity to connect the academic labor movement to other social justice struggles—over housing and transportation, for example. In the end, 17,000 graduate student researchers ratified their first-ever contract by nearly 70 percent. Twenty thousand teaching assistants and other student workers backed their contract by 62 percent.

The UC strike, the largest work stoppage by education workers in US history, came on the heels of the longest ever strike by adjunct faculty, a three-week disruption at The New School. More than 1,300 adjunct professors, who make up 87 percent of the school’s teaching faculty, walked out over low pay for faculty and sky-high salaries for administrators. Their wages account for only 8.5 percent of the university’s overall budget. In the final contract won by Academics Coming Together-United Auto Workers, by 2026 their pay will rise from $4,300 to $6,875 per course. And just before that, NYU adjuncts won a $4,000 pay bump per course, plus pandemic bonuses, just by threatening to strike. On January 3, University of Chicago grad workers secured a $4,000 raise on their stipend floor, just weeks before their union election.

These gains have a significance beyond making graduate work more just and being an adjunct faculty member more bearable. The New School and NYU strikes drew national attention to the pay disparity between educators and administrators, highlighting rising inequality within today’s higher educational institutions.

In the UC context, it’s possible that the university system will simply be able to swallow the cost increases internally by moving some money around. The other possibility is that these pressures on the university’s budget will require it to fight for more state funding. In effect, this could begin to reverse decades of privatization efforts and spending cuts, setting in motion a renewed conception of the university as a public asset. Either way, it presents a challenge to the current way that public universities allocate resources.

“One thing we and faculty have talked about is using our power within the university to effect change outside the university, at the state level,” said Gabriel Edwards, a project scientist at UCLA and a bargaining team member of UAW 5810, the union for postdocs and academic researchers.

Strikers often pointed to the UC’s $46 billion budget as evidence that university regents were sitting on a mountain of cash, unwilling to share it with their deserving staff. There’s no doubt that some elite interests within the administration were holiday Scrooges when it came to bargaining over wages. Higher education’s overreliance on cheap labor, however, can’t be explained by administrative greed or endowment hoarding alone.

Over the last four decades, state funding for public universities and colleges has been dramatically rolled back. In response, administrations have turned to an employment model designed to save costs and increase their control over their labor force. Today, only 37 percent of faculty at US universities are either tenured or tenure-track, down from 80 percent in 1960. The low wages paid to graduate student workers and adjuncts are certainly one benefit to administrative elites. But just as useful is their contingent status; they are hirable and dismissible on a whim, without any recourse or reason—a perfect antidote to an uppity professoriate.

The austerity has intensified in recent decades. Between 2008 and 2020, 32 states cut funding for public higher education. In California, this problem has been especially acute, where per-pupil funding has been cut by more than 50 percent since the 1980s. In 2006, then–Governor Schwarzenegger released the Higher Education Compact designed to privatize the UC system. In addition to slashing UC’s budget, it mandated tuition increases to make up the difference. These tuition bumps were particularly harmful to graduate students. Though their tuition fees are often waived, it is still paid for by their departments. Therefore, rather than a source of increased revenue, higher tuition was effectively a budget cut for most graduate departments. This, in many ways, was the historical backdrop to the recent strike.

In the popular imagination, meagerly compensated graduate school teaching and research positions are akin to paying your dues while awaiting an offer from your tenured dream job. That would not be a good rationale for poverty wages even if it were true. In reality, however, the academic job market only has a fraction of jobs to offer the plethora of those exiting the university system with advanced degrees. Whatever benefits are derived from advanced study, a pervasive anxiety justifiably characterizes the entirety of graduate student life.

“It’s a stepping stone to nowhere,” said Curtis Rumrill, of graduate student worker life. Rumrill, a doctoral student in music composition at UC Berkeley, laments the ever-expanding supply and demand problem in higher ed. “As the promise of academia disappears, the reality of the exploitation becomes much more apparent. And that’s what’s driving our movement today.”

Campuses across the country today are experimenting with new models of worker organizing to confront the graduate-student-to-nowhere pipeline. In the highly non-unionized South, where public employees often lack collective bargaining rights, they’ve tried building wall-to-wall unions, where any campus employee is eligible to join. United Campus Workers isn’t seeking union recognition yet, but is trying to redefine who counts as an academic worker. It currently has chapters in Tennessee, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, South Carolina, and Kentucky.

At Rutgers University, the adjunct union is pursuing a “fractional appointment” model, emphasizing equal pay for equal work. An adjunct who is hired to teach a course would simply receive a wage that is a proportionate sum of a full-time faculty member’s. So if the typical course load is six classes, an adjunct would receive one sixth of the salary of a full-time professor.

“There are good reasons to hire adjuncts,” says Rebecca Givan, president of the American Federation of Teachers–American Association of University Professors (AFT-AAUP) at Rutgers. “They often have a specialty in an area not covered by other faculty and therefore are vital to the educational mission of the school. But just being cheap labor is not a good rationale to use and abuse them.”

Givan is fond of a comparison between campus labor and other low-wage or gig sectors. It’s illegal for, say, McDonalds, to break a job into four ten-hour parts and pay a worker less per hour for each part than they would pay for a 40 hour job. But that is the dominant model in academia, where adjuncts teach piecemeal classes at far lower wages than full-time faculty. Organizers are fighting to create more full-time tenure-track positions. “You can’t end adjunctification in one fell swoop,” Givan told me. “But you can make it less profitable and incentivize better jobs.”

Perhaps the best example of how to do this is within the UC system itself. In California, the “lecturer” job classification used to look a lot more like a generalized “adjunct.” The teachers union University Council-AFT—which went on strike in 2002 and threatened to strike last year—won a new employment category called “continuing appointment,” a way for some qualifying part-time workers to get priority in the hiring process, before the administration can hire a new person at lower wages. This is akin to a fledgling seniority system and a way to decrease churn in the workforce.

There’s a strong connection between lecturers, many of whom enjoy the stability of nine-month contracts, and the low-wage graduate student workers who were just on strike. “Lecturers are really aligned with them,” said Shannon Garland, a lecturer and union activist at UC Merced. “Because it’s better for all of us if graduate labor isn’t so cheap.” Lecturers, who teach about two-thirds of the courses in the UC system, are far less common at the major research institutions like Berkeley and UCLA, which have large pools of cheap and pliable graduate student labor.

Still, at most campuses, only a minority of lecturers get hired with continuing contracts, and the part-time nature of the work means that the median salary hovers around $20,000. These figures have incentivized the growth of a new class of gig-like faculty. There’s been a 41 percent increase in reliance on lecturers across the UC system since 2011, compared to just a 19 percent increase for tenure-track faculty.

The dramatic pay increases the strikers have just won is a resounding rebuke of a low-wage university. And the emotional weight of that victory has resonated across the union divides. “Most of us on strike–on the yes and no side–have felt more powerful than we ever have before,” said MJ Hill, a doctoral candidate in sociology at UCLA who voted against the contract ratification. “And that sense of power lays the groundwork for a new chapter in education labor.”

Indeed, it has already helped galvanize momentum within the academic labor movement. Today’s working class includes more downwardly mobile workers with advanced degrees than ever before in US history. And as class demographics have shifted, so too has the beating heart of the labor movement, including within the UAW, whose membership seems more active these days on college campuses than in manufacturing plants. Spurred by the low wages, precarious jobs, inflationary pressures, and widespread discontent during the pandemic, academic workers are part of a historic upsurge in workplace militancy, with more than a dozen campuses joining the tens of thousands at Starbucks, Amazon, and elsewhere fighting for union recognition over the past year.

On January 9, graduate student workers at Yale are widely expected to win their union election, the first time the university has agreed to recognize their petition for a vote in over three decades. Such a win would be a boon to a movement that has fought so long for the kind of recognition a union confers.

“Graduate students and academic student employees are waking up, starting to see ourselves as workers, not just students,” said Rumrill. “And just like other workers, we have rights and deserve a job with some dignity. And just like other workers, we’re asserting ourselves, out there on picket lines. It’s a beautiful thing.”

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