We are members of the Coalition of Graduate Employee Unions, a body that represents unionized graduate workers throughout the United States and Canada, including grad workers undertaking campaigns to unionize who have not yet achieved recognition. We are course instructors; researchers; teaching & research assistants; student affairs, advising, and residence life staffers; tutors, readers, lab supervisors, and graders. We are graduate student-workers. This May Day, members of CGEU stand together to demand collective bargaining rights and fair, socially just contracts for every single graduate worker in North America, and all workers in higher education worldwide. Coordinated May Day actions, social media, and events will take place across the SUNY system as well as at UWisconsin Madison, UMass Amherst, Rutgers University, and other schools across the US and Canada on May 1st, 2014.
Whether grad student-workers have a union determines much about our working conditions and salaries, going beyond wages and hours to include whether we are formally protected from workplace and hiring discrimination, harassment, and retaliation in a way that is actually enforceable. Unions give us concrete, tangible power in bureaucratic workplaces whose administrators would otherwise see each of us only as a collection of financial transactions and numbers. Despite rhetoric we often hear about a walled-off “ivory tower,” the forces of economic crisis directly shape the reality of working and studying for faculty, undergraduate students, and graduate workers alike.
As universities have begun to function more like large businesses and state and federal financial support for public higher education has been slashed, graduate workers nationwide have felt the sizes of the classes we teach grow and the funding pools for our assistantships shrink. In the Northeastern US, this has resulted in a renewed movement toward unionizing graduate workers, and more energy toward bargaining strong contracts for those of us who are already organized. Grad workers at University of Connecticut and New York University are bargaining brand new contracts this year, while the long-unionized grad workers at the three University of Massachusetts schools (Amherst, Boston, and Lowell) and across the SUNY system are preparing to bargain new, significantly stronger contracts in the coming months. Members of UAW2865 in the University of California system continue to fight for a fair contract including the right to bargain over class size. Yale University and Brown University graduate workers have renewed their fight for union recognition.
Academic workers face similar increased demands on our time and energy to workers in other industries, along with the same stagnating wages. Academic workers of color, women, international students, and members of the LGBTQI community face institutionalized discrimination and permissive attitude toward harassment, much like workers in other industries. In 2012, a federal bill stripped graduate students of all access to federal subsidized loans and cut the six-month grace period before repayment must begin; this consigns many of us to a lifetime of debt, and an extraordinarily stressful transition out of graduate school.
The divisions between graduate workers and workers in other industries are fabricated, porous, and finite: graduate education does not last forever, and we go into a huge range of workplaces and positions after school. Strong, mobilized graduate unions serve as a consistent source of workers in a variety of fields who have had the opportunity to develop union consciousness, who have learned to care about their fellow workers, have experience in democratically-run organizations, and are willing to fight together with others for systemic change. We neither suffer nor succeed in isolation; our struggle is all workers’ struggle, and your struggle is ours.