History in Crisis: 5 Challenges to Organizing Graduate Student Workers and 3 Ways to Still Succeed

tags: unions, academia, labor, graduate school, history in crisis

Kyla Sommers is the editor-in-chief of the History News Network. 

As the number of tenured positions at universities declines, the workload of teaching increasingly falls to adjunct professors and graduate students. In response, many academics have attempted to unionize to demand better pay, benefits, and treatment. At the American Historical Association’s 2019 Annual Meeting, Sarah Siegel (Washington University), Jody Noll (Georgia State University), Ruby Oram (Loyola University Chicago), and Jeff Schuhrke (University of Illinois Chicago) discussed the challenges to anticipate when organizing and methods to still be effective.


1. Anticipate that the university administration will claim graduate employees are students and not workers.

Sarah Siegel testified on behalf of graduate workers at the National Labor Relations Board’s hearing on Washington University in St. Louis’s organizing effort. “You teach your own course but that looks good on your CV,” asked the schools’ lawyers, “so why do you think you’re an employee?” Of course, Sarah responded, everything people do professionally looks good on their CV.

At Loyola University Chicago, a Catholic Jesuit university, the school initially claimed a religious exception for why students should not be able to unionize. According to Ruby Oram, Loyola claimed the graduate workers were “religious workers” and thus the university did not have to recognize their union. When this tactic failed, the university altered tactics and claimed they were students instead of workers.


2. Some fellow graduate students and department faculty will also not consider themselves “workers.”

Convincing many graduate workers and faculty to think of themselves as workers is a challenge, said Ruby Oram. Academics are trained to think of their labor not as work but as a lifestyle. This often hurts the ability to get faculty support because they don’t view graduate students as workers because they don’t view themselves as workers either. “There is an apathy that is the biggest obstacle among grad employees,” said Jeff Schuhrke. “We have to disabuse ourselves of the notion that grad school is a hazing ritual – it’s real work.”


3. It’s hard to organize across disciplines.

Coalition building is often best achieved by discussing grievances one-on-one. But grievances in history are often different than those in the chemistry department. How do we build bridges and come together as a work force?


4. The political climate can affect unionizing campaigns.

Students at the Loyola University Chicago successfully won their case with the NLRB. The university did not respond for eight months. Finally, eight days after President Trump appointed new officials to the NLRB, the university announced it would not bargain with the union.

The Trump appointments at the NLRB have made organizing at private organization harder. The recent Janus vs. AFSCME Supreme Court decision has made it harder for workers at public universities to organize.


5. Even once unionized, the challenges persist.

Even when graduate workers are able to win unionization, the university often continues to resist and resent the fact that there is a union on campus. In Jeff Schuhrke’s experience, his university tried to make the union contract as ineffective and unenforceable as possible. Often, the school seemingly only wanted to avoid liability over grievances rather than resolving them.

Maintaining a healthy union membership is also hard because the potential member pool changes so much with graduation and the arrival of incoming students. Union reps have to explain why the union matters because the new students often don’t know the earlier history that made the union necessary.


The organizers, however, still found ways to obtain gains for graduate workers on their respective campuses like higher stipends, improved health care, and dental insurance. The panelists offered a few key pieces of advice.


1. Find allies when you can.

Several panelists mentioned their efforts to combine forces with other campus workers, adjunct faculty, and even tenured faculty across their university to amplify their efforts. One popular campaign mentioned was the demand that university staff receive at least $15 an hour.

Jody Noll discussed a historical example of the power of alliances. Teachers in the 1968 strike in Florida were successfully obtained bargaining rights because many principals supported their efforts, sometimes even joining in the strike.


2. It’s OK to switch tactics.

After the effort for union recognition at Washington University in St. Louis stalled, the organization chose to switch to direct action campaigns. These campaigns were often effective at garnering specific benefits at the university.


3. Remind the university of their mission.

Universities are there to educate students. They want to appear as benevolent, diverse, welcoming, and beneficial places of learning. Demanding they live up to this promise – and publicly shaming them when they don’t – is often a successful tactic.


Be sure to visit historynewsnetwork.org for more coverage of the American Historical Association 2019 meeting!

comments powered by Disqus