I get a lot of questions on Twitter and in my inbox, mostly about organizing and political debates. To save everyone time, I’m gonna keep this page updated with FAQs.
To start, here’s a primer for the many of you who are graduate students/workers and want to organize a union:
Q: Hey Alex, I’m a grad student at [X] university. A few other grad students and I have been talking about the process of unionizing. I really have no knowledge of what the process going forward would be, and I was curious as to if you had some information/guidance/suggestions about how to start the process. I’ve done a bit of reading online, but a lot of what I’ve found seems to have been posted by the universities themselves, and is probably lacking or incomplete. If you have any links to resources or recommended reading, I would be extremely appreciative. Thanks!
A: So when it comes to starting a graduate student union campaign, the first thing to do is begin talking to grad workers outside of your department. Is there a venue where you meet with grad students from other departments, both within your college as well as in the other colleges at your university? For instance, at my university, our efforts grew out of organizing we’d done across the College of Social Sciences and Humanities. Those efforts went on for a year or two, and when we saw that the administration met our demands when we organized across the college, we realized we should start reaching out to the other colleges, beginning the process that ultimately became out grad union organizing campaign.
This original organizing issue differs depending on your school. For us in CSSH, it was a stipend gap across cohorts. At Harvard, it was class size. Often, it’s health care. But it can be just about anything: is there a high profile sexual assault case involving a graduate student? Have grad students starting organizing against the Muslim ban or for a sanctuary campus? Is there an anti-racist group on campus with grad students involved? Are grad students organizing solidarity with dining hall workers or security guards? These are all possible avenues from which to build a union organizing campaign.
Once you have a few students from a handful of departments meeting regularly, bring up the idea of organizing a union. At my school, when the subject first got brought up in a meeting of grad students five or so years ago, the majority of the people in the room were opposed. Those in favor continued organizing with their colleagues and working to win improvements in the short term, but in the long-term, they knew they had to win their colleagues over. When the subject got brought up last year, the majority of people in the room were open to the idea of a union, so we got moving.
Once you have a core group of workers who want to unionize, reach out to a union that’s been active in organizing graduate students. If possible, also reach out to graduate workers in your area who have a union campaign. If there are none, reach out to those elsewhere if you can get in touch with them. Ask what their experience has been with the union, and for candid insight into what a union’s strengths and weaknesses are when it comes to organizing a grad campaign.
Ideally, the union you reach out to will respond by offering an informal meeting. Get as many of your core members as you can to that meeting, and ask them any and everything you can think of. Ask them what resources they can provide you, whether they will have organizers doing the organizing for you or simply one or two helping you do the organizing (the latter is preferable IMO), whether they have money to hire worker-organizers part-time, what other campuses they’ve successfully organized, how a local will work once you win your campaign (will you get your own local, or become part of an existing one?) etc.
And no matter what the union tells you, the key to organizing a successful graduate student union is to prioritize representation from STEM from the very start. This will make or break your union, so start doing walkthroughs into engineering and science labs sooner than later. It’s nerve-wracking at first, but it gets better, I promise.
As to resources online, I’ll start you with the websites of graduate student unions, followed by good articles on graduate union organizing:
Graduate Student Union Websites [so you don’t click on the admin’s AstroTurf site!]
Northeastern University [my union!]
University of Chicago
These are only some of the websites for private university graduate worker unions [remember, public colleges/universities have had unions for decades! Look their websites up too!]
P.S. Check out the Coalition of Graduate Employee Unions [this one is a really useful organization of grad unions from across the country, public and private]
[Good] Articles on Grad Student Organizing
On the NLRB case that ruled that graduate employees are workers, not just students: NYTimes
On the vote to unionize at Columbia University
An example of why grad unions are feminist
Organizing in the University. Viewpoint Magazine. 2017.
Bringing Unions to the Fight. Jacobin. 2017
How Unions Change Universities. Jacobin. 2017.
Workers, Too. Jacobin. 2017
Grad Students on Strike. Jacobin. 2014.
When Professors Oppose Student Unions. Jacobin. 2013.
These are the first articles I found, consider them a starter to learning about the subject. If you want to contact unions, you can do so via a union’s contact info, or even better, by getting in touch with grad students at another university who are organizing with that union.