Over the past academic year, graduate students across the country were busy organizing for better working conditions. Currently, there are 33 officially recognized graduate-student unions; 23 are fighting for university recognition. With increasing tuition and plummeting wages, meager health-care benefits and overwhelming workloads, these graduate students are coming together to demand better treatment and recognition.
Here are seven schools where student organizing is at a fever-pitch.
On May 22, while students at the Ivy League institution celebrated their graduation at the annual commencement ceremony, Yale graduate students from Unite Here Local 33 and their allies held a protest to demand that the college administration begin negotiating with the union.
In February, representatives from Local 33 won union elections in eight Yale departments and felt sure they would obtain a contract. However, administrators refused to open any discussion on collective bargaining.
Despite occupying a space on campus, engaging in hunger strikes, organizing a protest at a commencement ceremony, and receiving support across the country, the union has yet to receive a response from the administration. Instead, officials dismiss Local 33 as a true representative of graduate students because of, in the words of Yale President Peter Salovey, what the administration considers an unfair election, claiming that “approximately 90 percent of the 2,600 doctoral students in the Graduate School were not permitted to vote.”
The University of Chicago
Around 2,500 graduate students at the University of Chicago believed this was the year they would finally join a union. Instead, their college fought against this despite failing to stop students at the university’s library, who overwhelmingly decided to join the Teamsters union in June. Perhaps a NLRB hearing represents just how the administration views unionization efforts by students in general. Zachary Fasman, a representative for the college, bluntly noted that library students should not be considered “employees” as they “are not working. They are teaching.” He elaborated further in a May 18 hearing:
Their financial package which they receive is in no way dependent on how many hours they work or whether their experiments fail or succeed. In fact, as the record will reflect, if we’re allowed to present testimony, as students learn, most of their experiments fail. And what employer would employ people’s [sic] who [sic] experiments constantly fail?
The regional NLRB allowed students to organize a vote this year that is scheduled for October 17 and 18, a victory against administrators. However, the university recently appealed this decision and is determined to stop more students from unionizing.
Penn State University
Graduate assistants at the university are facing the same challenge as their counterparts at many other universities—their effort to unionize gained support from students, only to receive a rejection from administrators.
Although Eric Barron, president of Penn State, noted in a public letter that “graduate student unionization has the potential to impact not only current students at Penn State, but also students for decades to come and the community as a whole,” he declined to bargain with a union that “could impede the academic and mentoring relationships Penn State has with its graduate students.”
The University of Pennsylvania
GET-UP, a student group spearheading union organizing efforts, filed a petition in May to hold elections for a union. Students are working to begin contract negotiations that would recognize their labor and fulfill demands such as better health care and family and dependent support. Opposition to GET-UP exists, even within the student body, while administrators are not eager to view the students as workers.
According to University of Pennsylvania administrators, a union would not be in the best interest of the university. They prefer to view graduate students “as our students, mentees, and future colleagues rather than our employees.”
GET-UP expects, based on incidents across the United States, that “the Penn administration will hire expensive lawyers to argue that graduate student workers are not entitled to our rights as workers.” But the union is ready for whatever happens.
Graduate students at Duke University face struggles often found on other campuses, such as low-pay, discrimination, harassment, and sexual assault. As a result, they organized for a union back in November.
Meanwhile, administrators disapproved of the unionization effort and hired Proskauer Rose, a law firm known in the sports world for its formidable power against workers, to challenge them. The firm is no stranger to union busting at universities—it previously represented Columbia University in efforts to block graduate students from organizing. (It lost that battle.) Duke signaled to students it is prepared to spend months (or years) in court to block any union from forming.
The University of Florida
At the University of Florida, graduate students have been organizing for workplace rights for nearly 50 years. The Graduate Student Union spent years during the 1970s challenging administrators to recognize their union and, after a court case before the Florida Supreme Court, won status in 1980.
Compared to other efforts across the country, graduate students at the college have made substantial progress, recently winning battles for gender-identity protections and continued health-care coverage. Union representatives still have one critical issue left—increased stipends—that the university has yet to accept.
The University of Missouri
Graduate students at the University of Missouri voted to form a union last April—only for the university to deny recognition of their union. Students soon after sued the university, and a court case is pending..
The university insists students should be considered students, not workers. It also dismisses students’ demands for a contract that includes health insurance and minimum stipends.
On July 10 both parties agreed to file motions for a judgment by late October. The university, which has suffered from hundreds of layoffs, does not want a union on its campus. Students await future actions by the university.