Higher Education Unions are Transforming the Labor Landscape

On January 7, 2022, the Student Workers of Columbia ended their ten-week strike for a new contract. The UAW-affiliated student union reached a tentative agreement with Columbia University late on the night of January 6. After 15 days of discussion, the ratification process is expected to last for a week, with the results to be announced on January 28th.

While the 3,000 unionized instructors, TAs, and researchers withheld their labor and services, the Columbia administration answered with no shortage of reprisals. Back in December, Columbia announced they would only send appointment letters for spring semester to those who ceased their strike activity. In the face of this cheap bribery, Student Workers escalated their struggle with a day of action that shut down the campus. Then in the new year, the administration revealed plans to cancel dozens of sections of the university’s undergraduate writing course, indicating that Columbia was not above gutting their core course offerings in their punitive efforts.

In the face of these reactionary attempts, the mass of striking students at Columbia have shown themselves to be an inspiring model of militant organizing in the student movement, that is, organizing that draws a fine line of demarcation between the camp of the people and the class enemy, and enters an uncompromising struggle with that enemy.

The past year has rippled with waves of labor militancy, in the form of strikes and unionization drives, across industries and sectors. This is a sign that revolutionary students need to take concern with the labor movement and align themselves not just with their comrades on campus, but with the working class in general. We should be learning from their experience in the class struggle and aiding their militancy, by joining their fights and defending their interests.

The student workers at Columbia are affiliated with UAW Local 2110, and their recent activity should be considered within the broader existing trend of student employee organizing done by big trade unions. A brief historical recap of graduate TA unionization after World War II will show how academic workers came to be a predominant section of a traditional industrial union, and what this tendency means both for students’ demands and for transforming the union’s internal structure.

Unionization for academic workers began in the postwar era, in the context of New Left and anti-war agitation. The first teaching assistant union was the Teaching Assistants’ Association (TAA), formed in 1966 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The TAA led a successful four-week strike for good faith bargaining from the university. The tendency to organize TAs into unions continued throughout the postwar period as the number of graduate instructors in the country increased on a nation-wide scale.

The end of the post-war economic boom saw industrial production moved overseas and manufacturing plants closing throughout the 1980s. Trade unions like the UAW were bled of their membership. District 65, a historically progressive trade union that included student workers from the University of California system, affiliated with UAW in 1981 and merged fully in 1987. This was the first instance of academic workers merging their forces with auto workers. Grad student unions continued to form in state universities throughout the 80s and 90s, and while some affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers, others joined industrial unions such as the UAW, the Communication Workers of America (CWA), and the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America (UE). These unions were enticed by the prospects of unionizing outside of their traditional sectors, both by the above-average success rate of organizing drives on campuses, and the crop of potential new membership offered by big universities. Academic workers at schools like Columbia (1983), U Mass Amherst (1990), and UC Berkeley (1999), all followed suit, joining the ranks of the UAW.

In the context of growing enrollment, declining state funding for higher education, and an extended crisis of profitability for the bourgeoisie, universities in this postwar period increasingly relied on graduate students as a source of low-wage instruction and research. This process decimated the academic labor market and fueled the trend of unionization of TAs and contingent academic workers that continues today.

While unions proliferated at public colleges in the previous century, organization drives at private schools did not get off the ground until 2001, when GSOC-NYU became the first private graduate union to negotiate a contract. Private universities fall under the jurisdiction of the National Labor Relations Act, which is interpreted by a Board of members appointed by the President. In 1972, the NLRB upheld the perspective of the employer by ruling TAs to be primarily students, not employees, and therefore not to be included in faculty bargaining units.

A reversal came in 2000, when the Board considered the workers organized in GSCO-NYU to be statutory employees, clearing the way for a contract the following year. But the legislative path for unionization stayed open only for another four years. Newly full of appointees from George W. Bush, the Board overruled their prior decision on NYU and denied collective bargaining rights to employees at Brown University in 2004.

It was not until Obama’s second term that the fickle winds of bourgeois politics permitted the Board to reverse course once again. When Columbia University appealed to the Board to withhold recognition of Student Workers, the Board voted to overturn its ruling on Brown University, and for the first time included research assistants in the category of academic workers. Even more private schools have seen successful union drives and contract campaigns from 2016 onward, including The New School and Harvard.

Although the Labor Board under Trump seemed ready to change position yet again in 2019, student workers at private universities still retain their right to unionize. Student employees currently make up a fourth of the total membership of UAW: a section of roughly 100,000 student employees, postdocs, researchers, non-tenure-track faculty, and staff that continues to expand. Just last month the UC system begrudgingly recognized the 17,000-member Student Researchers United-UAW, the single largest bargaining unit of student workers to be recognized at one time.

Another factor that must be considered is the role academic workers have played in reform efforts within UAW. Caucuses like Academic Workers For a Democratic Union emerged in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, after the union failed to mobilize against university budget cuts. The Unite All Workers for Democracy caucus, formed in 2019 to agitate for expanding democracy and against two-tier wages, were heavily involved in the Student Workers’ struggle at Columbia.

Since student employees make up the largest locals in UAW, and they are now controlled by caucuses agitating to reform the union’s internal politics, sequences like last year’s referendum vote for direct elections of UAW officers to the International Executive Board have become possible (UAW locals at Harvard and UC were massive electoral bases for this vote). UAW had operated on a delegate system since 1948, and had been dominated by the Administration Caucus. UAW leadership has been embroiled in financial scandal and corruption cases in recent years. Now, the hegemony of the Administration Caucus is disrupted, and the door is open for further constitutional reforms and transformations of the UAW in order to combat corruption. Such reform efforts had been underway since the 1980s, but their success was made feasible by the added strength of the academic worker locals.

It’s impressive that student employees in UAW were able to drive the expansion of democracy within a big bureaucratic union, while also waging a 10-week strike at Columbia – answering the class enemy’s refusal to put forward a fair contract with intransigent struggle. Revolutionary students should support these developments, not in an idealist celebration of trade union democracy for its own sake, but in recognition of the opportunity for advancing the position of revolutionary socialism, as the working masses and students continue to confront the questions thrown up by the social crisis and build the strength to impose demands on the bosses and trustees in future struggles.

The bourgeoisie will continue to place the burden of the crisis on the proletariat and student employees with precarious and low-paying jobs and woefully inadequate protections. We will refuse the mealy-mouthed promises of politicians and administrators; we will reject concession bargaining, labor-management partnership programs, and other such “innovative” measures of betrayal by the big unions. We respond with the expansion of student-labor solidarity.

The confluence of the increasingly heated labor movement with student struggle on campus has set the stage for future battles. We must enter such battles with fortitude and a grasp of the historical forces at play in order to more effectively advance our revolutionary demands. That way, the militancy witnessed at Columbia will not be a flash in the pan, but a portent of even more fights to come.