A historic wave of labor organizing sweeps college campuses

Anabel Sosa
Close up of young, multi-racial group of academic workers at UC Berkeley holding signs reading "UAW - On Strike Unfair - Labor Practice."
Striking academic workers at UC Berkeley. Photo: Ian Castro

Young workers on college campuses around the country are supporting unionization at levels not seen in decades. Graduate student workers at big public universities like the University of California and Rutgers have led the way, winning contracts after massive strikes last year and this spring. The wave of union organizing has also swept private colleges and universities. This spring, Stanford graduate students voted overwhelmingly in favor of unionizing. They are not alone–over the last year campuses from Boston University to Johns Hopkins to the University of Chicago, among others, have seen graduate students gain union recognition.

There is also a rise in labor militancy on campuses. There have been 18 strikes among graduate student workers since 2022. Columbia University ended a 10-week strike in January, the longest academic strike in a decade, after reaching an agreement with university administrators.

“We’re seeing this explosion in the number of strikes in higher education,” said Sarah Mason, a labor organizer and Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Mason participated in a two-day workshop at UC Santa Cruz with union leaders and academics who discussed the wave of campus organizing.

It’s not just graduate students who are organizing. In another historic move in April, 15,000 undergraduate student workers at California State University, the largest public university system in the country, filed a petition for unionization.

In all, there have been about 84 successful higher education unions representing staff and graduate students at public and private universities across the country over recent decades, according to a public database compiled by the University of Washington in St. Louis that tracks the unionization of graduate workers.

A watershed moment at UC

Large group of academic workers holding "On Strike" signs.
Striking academic workers at UC San Diego. Photo: www.fairucnow.org

The University of California graduate student union made history last winter when approximately 36,000 graduate students, led by the United Auto Workers union, who represent student researchers, teaching assistants, tutors, and readers at the University of California, joined 12,000 other academic workers to go out on the largest strike in U.S. higher education. The graduate students ended their weeks-long strike with a historic deal just before the New Year.

The decision to go on strike and ask that your fellow colleagues join is something that Diane Arnos grappled with while organizing for the walk out at UC Berkeley.

“I think our strike in the fall was a product of many, many years and deep one-to-one organizing,” said Arnos, a UC Berkeley graduate student worker and masters student in public health. “Going on strike is a really difficult thing. You’re asking your co-workers to potentially lose pay, and face retaliation. It’s a big thing and it’s a lot of sacrifice. It’s pretty incredible to think that our strike was a model for what was happening. It’s very humbling to see the extent of this impact that is probably just beginning.”

“Part of what’s happening is we are starting to understand ourselves as part of a movement,” said Mason of UC Santa Cruz. “We are watching one another’s rights. We’re learning from them. We’re sharing strategies and tactics and consolidating knowledge about how to actually wage a winning fight in a university.”

‘They don’t pay us enough’

Labor organizers speculate several factors are leading to this historic cascade of strikes and drives for union recognition. Pent up frustration over wages and working conditions along with legal changes have led to this moment, they say.

In 2016, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) opened the door to graduate student organizing when it found that graduate students and research assistants at private universities have the right to bargain collectively. At the University of California, teaching assistant positions had been covered by a collective bargaining agreement since 2000, but it was not until 2017 the California legislature extended the definition of “employee” to graduate student researchers, allowing them to join other graduate student employees in United Auto Workers in 2021.

In both California and nationally, there are real-world implications for what higher wages could mean for thousands of graduate students who depend on their paychecks to make ends meet. For many, the high rents in big cities and college towns are an outsized burden.

“The cost of living in certain college towns, cost of child care and health care are among the reasons graduate workers are subjected to live under the poverty line,” Mason said.
“The slogan is ‘pay us enough to live where we work’ and the argument is these universities are recruiting us to work and to study and yet they don’t pay us enough to live in these rental markets where the university is often the landlord.”

Unions organizing from coast-to-coast

The labor movement reverberation is also felt on the east coast, where graduate students and lecturers were inspired by the University of California’s massive walkout.

At Rutgers University in New Jersey, faculty and graduate students ended a week-long strike in April after agreeing on a new contract. Looking at what the UC system accomplished was an indicator of potential success for assistant professor Todd Vachon and his fellow union organizers at Rutgers University.

“We said, ‘look at what those guys are doing over at University of California,’” said Vachon, an assistant professor of Labor Studies and president of the faculty and graduate student union AAUP-AFT at Rutgers.

Three unions at Rutgers representing graduate students, faculty, postdoctoral students, and adjuncts came together and bargained as a collective. At first the administration was reluctant to come to the bargaining table. But when the unions walked out on strike, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy was pulled in to resolve the dispute.

“As soon as we voted to go on strike, the governor immediately got involved. He locked [everyone] in the governor’s mansion in Trenton and said ‘nobody goes home until you have a contract,’” Vachon recalled the events. “Management couldn’t just keep giving us non-responses like they had been for a year.”

Meanwhile colleges and universities are seeing a majority of graduate students vote overwhelmingly in favor to form unions.

Recently, the Stanford Graduate Students Union voted 94% in favor of unionizing. In New Haven, Connecticut, the union representing graduate students and postdocs at Yale University received over 90% of votes in favor of unionization. Similarly, at Dartmouth over in Hanover, New Hampshire, there was an 89% approval vote. Other universities like Massachusetts Institute of Technology saw smaller margins but still received votes to unionize.

“If you know anything about unionization in this country you would know that it’s not typical,” Sarah Mason from UCSC said of the majority consensus among workers to vote in favor of unionizing.

At Yale, technical and clerical workers have long been organized. But graduate student workers did not win union recognition until this year after a decades-long organizing campaign.

“It was really cool to come into a place as a graduate worker where there is such a tradition of organizing,” said Abigail Fields, a doctoral candidate in the French department at Yale and an organizer of the labor union United Here Local 33.

Fields added, “It gives me a lot of hope that all of this is going to continue and that this isn’t just going to be a fluke.”