Graduate student employees join the national union movement in higher education

The union movement in higher ed heats up this summer as graduate students who teach and conduct research for their universities are organizing in advance of potential NLRB decision to extend collective bargaining rights to graduate assistants

Washington — Non-tenure track faculty at prestigious universities including Duke, Georgetown and the University of Chicago have formed unions with the strong support of graduate student employees who also teach, conduct research, support faculty, and perform the labor that makes our universities work.

By the time classes start this fall, graduate students at private universities may be able to join more than 12,000 contingent and tenured faculty who have formed unions with SEIU since 2013.

That’s why this summer, graduate students at Northwestern, Duke and other major universities are organizing in advance of an anticipated National Labor Relations Board decision that may  extend rights to graduate student assistants under the National Labor Relations Act, thereby granting them the right to bargain collectively over the terms and conditions of employment.

Matilda Stubbs works multiple adjunct teaching jobs to support her son and finish her PhD at Northwestern University. “We, as professional graduate students, occupy a precarious position on campus. Yet, just like other adjunct faculty and many workers on campus, often go paycheck to paycheck, with inconsistent hours and pay. Through this, we are living a shared, insecure experience with fast food and child care workers. We are fighting for a union because we are undervalued and economically connected.”

Graduate student assistants experience a textbook example of what’s wrong with our economy where hard work and even higher education isn’t paying off the way it used to. Graduate student workers teach and research for low pay, poor benefits and negligent support. Too many are completing programs with crushing debt loads and less than rosy prospects for permanent, full time work in their chosen field of study.

As colleges act more and more like big corporations graduate student workers are left with impossible choices between their degree and field, their undergraduate students, and often their financial future. Now, they are joining a growing movement to tackle the crisis in higher education.

“Looking at what the faculty movement has fought for and gained over the last three years is incredibly encouraging,” said Scott Barish, a graduate student employee studying neuroscience at Duke University, pointing to improvements that faculty have won at schools like Tufts University and Washington University in St. Louis. “By joining the union movement in higher ed, I will be able to stand with my fellow graduate student workers and advocate for greater transparency, better access to mental and physical health care, and a better environment for graduate student workers and the Duke community as a whole.”