Since August 2016 the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has held, in its Columbia decision, that graduate teaching assistants and research assistants at private universities are employees under federal labor law. The Trump administration’s NLRB disagreed with Columbia and more broadly opposed workers’ rights and protections, which largely stalled grad worker union victories (though Harvard’s grad union won its second election in 2018). After the Biden NLRB affirmed its commitment to graduate workers’ collective bargaining rights, grad unions across the country have gained momentum knowing that legal challenges are less of an obstacle.
In 2023, 48,000 unionized graduate workers in the University of California system took part in the largest higher education strike ever. Just this year, graduate union elections have been won at numerous private universities, including Duke, Cornell, Northeastern, Yale, UChicago, Dartmouth, Stanford, and NYU. At MIT, grad workers won union recognition in 2022 and negotiated their first contract in October 2023. As history PhD candidates and department leaders with the Graduate Employees of Northeastern University (GENU-UAW), we were ecstatic about Northeastern’s grad workers winning our union election with 94% support.
Northeastern’s results were not an anomaly, as multiple grad unions have recently won recognition with strong majorities.
The enormous surge in graduate worker unions will have enormous benefits for the teaching and research assistants whose essential labor makes their universities run. Grad worker unions also have larger benefits for the overall labor movement.
Roughly 30% of the workers represented by UAW are academic workers, who support the strikes and bargaining power of other UAW workers through dues and solidarity actions. For graduate TAs and RAs, collective bargaining rights are vital to securing a living wage, guaranteeing benefits like dental (which many grad workers do not have), and having a say over our working conditions (which may have protected more grad workers during the pandemic). Looking at some representative examples of publicly available contracts from recent years, the evidence is clear that unionized grad workers have achieved significant improvements in their pay and conditions.
At non-unionized schools, wages and fees are determined solely at the discretion of the university and in many cases don’t reflect the cost of living of their areas. Fees have also been a point of contention for graduate workers, with schools often charging thousands per year and reserving the ability to increase them at any time. Unionization has resulted in better base pay for graduate workers in every instance. Moreover, these pay rises have been consistent and predictable. One of the most successful graduate worker unions is UAW 2865 in the UC system, on their ninth contract since 2000. Over that span, they have increased base wages by 151%. UConn’s UAW union won a 3% across-the-board raise, and higher raises upon achieving a Master of Science or PhD candidacy. MIT’s UE-affiliated grad union won across-the-board raises of 5.4%, 3.5% and 3.25% over the next three years. Grad workers at UConn won a $900 fee waiver in the first year of their contract, the equivalent of a 3.2% – 7.6% pay raise.
Graduate worker unions have achieved higher minimum salaries that ease cost-of-living pressures. Older studies reported that grad unions result in just modest salary increases for teaching and research assistants. Yet their findings neglected the potential for graduate workers to achieve greater gains through effective organizing, including strikes. At Harvard, the minimum stipend for PhD students in 2016 was $33,120; after the Harvard Graduate Student Union achieved its first contract, minimum stipends rose from $36,672 in 2021 to $40,044 by 2023. Grad workers at Tufts achieved similar gains, which may appear modest yet are proportionately greater for PhDs at the lower end of the pay scale (typically in the humanities). Pay equity across departments has been another key demand of grad worker unions, such as at Temple. Graduate workers at Temple, who have had a union since 2001, finally achieved pay equity in their latest contract, which for 2023 established a base rate of $25,000 regardless of academic discipline. Strikes tap into the greatest power that graduate workers hold – their ability to withhold their labor – and the recent strike by UC grads resulted in a contract that nearly doubled minimum pay (from $23,250 to $34,000).
Beyond base pay increases, unions have consistently demanded better benefits and working conditions. While most universities provide basic healthcare to their graduate workers, those without a union usually don’t receive coverage beyond that. Dental insurance has been a major point of contention that graduate workers have fought for. In our union drive at Northeastern, it was one of the demands we heard the most from our peers. Graduate worker unions have scored major wins on healthcare demands. At UConn, the union achieved dental coverage, reduced insurance premiums, and restored the coverage that the university took away from grad workers in 2003. At NYU, unionized grad workers now receive full coverage after previously having to pay out-of-pocket.
Graduate worker unions have also achieved fair and accountable processes for addressing harassment and discrimination. College and university administrations have notoriously mishandled discrimination and sexual harassment cases, with schools taking minimal action after lackluster investigations. Graduate workers are often very hesitant to report malfeasance for fear that they will alienate faculty advisors, whom they typically depend upon for research funding and career advancement. One of grad unions’ most frequent demands in contract negotiations has been paths to address harassment and discrimination through processes like third-party arbitration, which aren’t controlled by the universities investigating their own. Arbitration has already gone a long way in helping graduate workers defend their right to a safe working environment.
The advent of graduate worker organizing on a large scale has profoundly impacted the unions themselves. In early 2023, Shawn Fain and the UAW Democracy Caucus swept leadership elections over the moderate Administrative Caucus, which lost leadership for the first time. Fain and the Democracy Caucus found enormous support among the academic workers that comprise 30% of UAW’s base and are typically more progressive. The success of this progressive turn could be seen in the UAW’s aggressive contract campaign against the “Big Three” automakers, which ended in a resounding success this past November. The growing influence of graduate workers in major American unions heralds a progressive turn that could significantly strengthen the labor movement in all workplaces.
Graduate student workers have won union recognition at multiple schools in the past year, not only because of the favorable makeup of the NLRB but also because every new authorization drive is galvanized by previous victories. Grad unions that are well-organized and internally democratic have the greatest potential, and demonstrated record, to achieve far more than modest improvements to pay and conditions. Teaching and research assistants provide the labor that makes universities run. As they keep organizing to improve their workplaces, graduate workers are becoming increasingly vital to a progressive labor movement.