Members of the Graduate Employees Organization at the University of Michigan march during bargaining negotiations
At public and private universities across the US, graduate students are leading the ongoing academic labor movement. Graduate unions fight for traditional protections—fair wages, workplace safety, and protections against harassment and discrimination—but they increasingly link their demands to a broader scope of safe working conditions.
In solidarity with communities on and around their campuses, graduate unions are redefining the traditional purview of labor rights to include social justice concerns, connecting issues like Cops off Campus and access to gender-affirming and reproductive healthcare to the well-being and working conditions of graduate student workers and, thus, incorporating them into bargaining with universities.
This three-part narrative traces the rise of graduate labor unions and their shift towards activist, justice-focused organizing.
The story of graduate employee labor unions cannot be told without understanding the roots of radical labor history in the United States, which laid the groundwork for the modern labor movement resurgence.
As the Industrial Revolution took hold in the 19th and 20th centuries, shifting the United States from an agrarian to industrialized economy, it brought with it a host of labor issues. Workers faced long hours and dangerous workplaces. Instead of attending school, many children were forced into labor exploitation alongside their parents to help families survive on poverty wages. In response to these inhumane conditions, workers in the United States began organizing.
Early labor organizations, like the Knights of Labor and the National Labor Union, took radical steps to reshape working conditions. These and similar unions organized workers across industries and, at times, across racial and gendered boundaries, although anti-Black racism, xenophobia, and misogyny continued to weaken their coalitions. Together, they won protections like legal protections against child labor, the 8-hour workday, and health and safety protections through strikes and other militant actions.
Employers and government officials alike felt threatened by the growing labor movement. Companies often resorted to tactics such as blacklisting, harassment, and even violence to suppress union activity. Government officials, in most cases, sided with employers, enacting legislation to curtail the power of unions and deploying law enforcement to break up strikes. Despite these obstacles, early labor activists persevered, staging walkouts, strikes, and demonstrations to push for better conditions and fair wages.
Even in the face of anti-union and anti-communist violence, like that enacted after the Haymarket affair of 1886, workers persisted. A peaceful rally in support of the eight-hour workday in Chicago turned violent when a bomb was thrown into the crowd, resulting in several deaths and injuries. Although it is unknown who threw the bomb, officials used it as a pretext for political violence. Eight anarchists were convicted of conspiracy, not of creating or throwing the bomb, and seven were executed. The incident galvanized the labor movement and led to the establishment of International Workers' Day on May 1st, commemorating the struggle for workers' rights.
The momentum of radical labor organizations, such as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), continued into the early 20th century. The IWW, also known as the Wobblies, aimed to unite all workers, regardless of their trade or skill, in a single organization to overthrow the capitalist system. The Wobblies were involved in numerous high-profile strikes and organizing campaigns, including the 1912 Lawrence textile strike, also known as the "Bread and Roses" strike, which successfully secured wage increases for thousands of workers.
While labor power remained strong going into the 1940s and World War II, the government became increasingly concerned about the potential of labor actions, like strikes, to disrupt the war movement. In response, legislators passed a series of laws to cripple union power. After the war, anti-communist sentiment within and outside labor unions continued to strip the movement of its power, leading to decades of setbacks for workers and their unions.
Despite waning levels of membership in the 1950s through 1990s, union legacy endured in the form of improved working conditions, the establishment of minimum wage laws, and the recognition of workers' right to organize. The struggles and sacrifices of early labor activists laid the groundwork for the resurgence of the modern labor movement.
It is within this historical context that graduate employee labor unions have emerged. Drawing on the rich tradition of American radical labor history, graduate employees facing increasing economic precarity have found the stories of early labor activists to be both an inspiration and a blueprint for action.
UAW workers picket during the 2022 strike
The increasing rate of graduate employee unionization is intrinsically linked to the casualization of academic institutions. Over the past several decades, universities have increasingly turned to contingent labor—adjunct professors, non-tenure-track faculty, and graduate student labor—as a means to cut costs, often at the expense of the very workers who are integral to the institutions' core missions of teaching and research. This casualization of academia has had far-reaching consequences, resulting in an unstable employment landscape marked by low wages, limited job security, and minimal benefits. Graduate employees often find themselves juggling multiple roles, such as teaching, research, and administrative work, while also pursuing their degrees. Many graduate employees are left struggling to make ends meet, some facing housing insecurity or unreliable access to food, even as they work to advance their education and contribute to the academic community.
The struggle for graduate student worker rights can be traced back to the 1960s. Amidst a backdrop of civil rights activism, the anti-Vietnam War movement, and the feminist movement, graduate students began to organize in earnest, recognizing their shared labor struggles as teaching and research assistants. In 1969, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Teaching Assistants Association (TAA) became the first recognized graduate student union in the United States, three years after organizers recognized the need for a union while participating in an anti-draft sit-in. Here and at other universitites, early graduate unionization efforts focused on issues such as fair wages, benefits, and working conditions, with an explicit commitment to social justice and progressive politics. The following decades saw a surge of graduate student organizing efforts, with varying levels of success. In 1973, the University of Michigan Graduate Employees' Organization (GEO) won recognition after a hard-fought strike. In the 1980s, the City University of New York (CUNY) established the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), which included graduate student workers.
However, it was not all smooth sailing for the graduate labor movement. In 1980, the Supreme Court ruled in NLRB v. Yeshiva University that full-time faculty members in private universities were managerial employees and thus ineligible for collective bargaining under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). This decision had a chilling effect on organizing efforts for years to come, as universities and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) used the ruling to argue that graduate students were similarly ineligible for collective bargaining. Despite this, even as the broader labor movement experienced a decline in membership and influence through the 1980s and 1990s, graduate student unions maintained their commitments to activist organizing, in keeping with America's earlier labor traditions.
After two decades of legal obstacles, the turn of the millennium brought renewed hope for graduate student unions. In 2000, the NLRB ruled in favor of graduate student workers at New York University (NYU), marking the first time that the Board recognized graduate students at a private institution as employees with the right to unionize under the NLRA. This victory was short-lived, however. In 2004, the NLRB reversed the NYU decision in the Brown University case, once again denying private university graduate students the right to organize under the NLRA. Despite setbacks, the graduate student labor movement pressed on. In 2016, the NLRB overturned the Brown University decision in the Columbia University case, restoring the rights of graduate students at private institutions to unionize. This landmark decision galvanized organizing efforts across the country, leading to union recognition at institutions such as Harvard, Yale, and the University of Chicago.
As political and economic turmoil has heated up in the late 2010s and early 2020s, graduate labor unions have increased pressures on universities to protect vulnerable student communities, divest from policing, and establish good relationships with Indigenous and racialized communities. Public university unions like the Graduate Employees' Organization at the University of Michigan and UAW 2865, representing workers in the University of California system, have enacted abolitionist strikes, risked arrest, and engaged in teach-ins and public education to build support for justice-focused organizing and to build labor power.
Zine pages created by Abolish the UC
As both employees and students, graduate workers occupy a liminal space within the university system. As students, graduate students are primarily trainees in specialized disciplines, a role that universities prefer to emphasize during bargaining with emerging unions. In this role, graduate students experience the university as students, subject to student-focused university initiatives like campus policing and international student policies. However, graduate students also perform a range of tasks necessary for the functioning of universities, including research, teaching undergraduate courses, and sometimes filling administrative roles. In these roles, graduate workers experience the effects of academic casualization, overwork, and reduced pay and employment protections as a result of their dual role as workers and students. Thus, because graduate student workers move between various roles within universities, graduate worker unions have a unique ability to advocate for broad protections for students and workers.
Accordingly, while much of graduate labor organizing has been fueled by casualization and its resulting economic precarity, unions have increasingly recognized the need to also address social justice issues as integral parts of workplace safety. For example, several graduate student unions have used their collective power to advocate for divestment from campus law enforcement and investment in alternative safety measures, such as mental health services and community-based programs, recognizing that an equitable academic environment requires addressing issues beyond the traditional limitations of labor rights and working conditions.
That said, because graduate workers move between roles, universities are able to redefine their roles to suit administrative goals, shifting between labeling them as "students" or "employees" based largely on convenience, creating an experience sometimes referred to as being "Schrödinger's grad student." In order to achieve basic labor recognition, much less their justice-oriented goals, graduate unions sometimes use work stoppages, walkouts, and strikes as tools to build power, increase visibility, and forge community alliances.
HR has shown at the table that trans people's lives are NOT U-M's priority. We're showing up together out of love, and sticking together in anger at the lip service paid by the university.— Grad Employees' Org UMich #OnStrike (@geo3550) April 11, 2023
Join the Trans Rage picket at second shift on Thursday! pic.twitter.com/RY4YC42cds
Linda, from the Abolition Working Group, clarifies aspects of our demand for an unarmed crisis response effort. pic.twitter.com/3VEE4QYASR— Grad Employees' Org UMich #OnStrike (@geo3550) April 8, 2023
Grad workers are rallying for abolition on the Diag! GEO workers are calling for @UMich to fund an unarmed emergency response program, @CROSWashtenaw.— Grad Employees' Org UMich #OnStrike (@geo3550) April 20, 2023
The rally is also in support of the #StopCopCity movement in Atlanta and the #StopCampGrayling movement right here in Michigan pic.twitter.com/HPNVALBcHd
In taking the fight for fair and just working conditions to the bargaining table and, at times, the picket line, organizers leverage two legal categories of demands: mandatory and permissive subjects of bargaining. The lebal landscape of labor negotiations is complex, and understanding the distinction between mandatory and permissive subjects of bargaining is crucial for determining the scope of discussions between unions and employers. Mandatory subjects, which include wages, hours, and working conditions, must be negotiated in good faith by both parties, while permissive subjects are not legally required to be discussed, though both parties can choose to negotiate over them if they agree to do so. Further, employers and unions may not declare an impasse over permissive subjects of bargaining, effectively making them auxiliary demands to those counted as mandatory subjects. Two significant recent graduate worker strikes at the University of Michigan and across the University of California system showcase how organizers have strategically framed their demands within the context of mandatory subjects of bargaining to strengthen their position in negotiations, setting important precedent for future union campaigns.
On Labor Day 2020, the Graduate Employees' Organization (GEO) at the University of Michigan went on a historic strike to demand a safe and just response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The strike, which lasted eight days, was a culmination of growing concerns among graduate workers about the university's handling of the public health crisis and other related issues.
The strike was fueled by the perceived inadequacy of the university's COVID-19 response, as well as demands related to racial justice and policing on campus. GEO called for a comprehensive and equitable plan to protect students, staff, and faculty from the pandemic. Their demands included universal remote work options, increased testing capacity, and support for international and immunocompromised students. Additionally, led by their active Abolitionist Caucus, GEO sought to address the university's relationship with local law enforcement and its role in perpetuating systemic racism. They demanded that the university cut ties with the Ann Arbor Police Department and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), divest from the campus police department, and redirect funds towards community-based alternatives.
GEO framed their demands within an abolitionist framework, arguing that the university's reliance on policing and surveillance was incompatible with the goals of social justice and equity, goals that the university itself had linked as part of its proposed "UM Ambassadors Program" that would see student workers accompany UM Police Department officers in enforcing COVID-19 safety protocols. In response, GEO argued that
The union saw the strike as an opportunity to push for a broader transformation of the university's policies and practices, aligning their struggle with the wider movement to dismantle systems of oppression. As part of this abolitionist vision, they sought to create a university that prioritized the well-being and safety of all community members, regardless of their race, nationality, or immigration status.
The 2020 GEO abolitionist strike has had a lasting impact on the union's organizing efforts, as evidenced by their ongoing strike in 2023. The current strike's demands reflect both unresolved concerns from the 2020 strike and new issues that have emerged in the interim, including increased funding for alternatives to policing such as mental health and crisis intervention services, a living wage for graduate workers, accessibility protections for disabled graduate workers, affordable healthcare (including access to gender-affirming and reproductive care), and an end to unfair fees for international graduate students.
While the strike retains widespread support among graduate student unions nationally, the university's response has been mixed. On one hand, the administration has taken some steps to address the demands, such as promising to open discussions on funding alternatives to policing. However, the university has also engaged in substantial and increasing retaliation against the striking workers, including attempting to arrest picketing workers, attempting to stop the strike through a court injunction, and docking workers' pay.
This Saturday. 1111 Franklin st. 4pm. Turn up and spread the word. pic.twitter.com/zSA75SdMQ1— UCSC4COLA (@payusmoreucsc) July 24, 2020
The GEO abolitionist strike was preceeded by a rising tide of labor actions across the U.S., with a concentrated movement building in the University of California system. In late 2019, graduate students at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC) initiated a wildcat strike to demand a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) in response to the area's skyrocketing housing costs. The strike, which started as a grading strike and later escalated into a full-blown work stoppage, unfolded without the official support of the United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2865, the union representing graduate student workers across the UC system.
The wildcat strike emerged from the increasing frustration of graduate students struggling to afford housing in Santa Cruz, where rent prices had become prohibitively expensive for many. The strikers demanded a COLA of $1,412 per month to address the housing crisis and ensure a livable wage for all graduate students. As the strike gained momentum, it spread to other UC campuses, with graduate students organizing in solidarity and demanding similar adjustments.
Throughout the course of the strike, the wildcat strikers received significant support from undergraduate students, as well as auxiliary organizations like Cops Off Campus and Abolish the UC. Undergraduate students demonstrated their solidarity by liberating dining halls, providing food to striking graduate students, and participating in protest actions alongside their graduate counterparts. These collaborative efforts played a crucial role in amplifying the strikers' demands by linking them to broader issues of social justice, policing, and the need for transformative change within the UC system. By connecting the COLA movement with these larger struggles, the strike became a rallying point for a diverse coalition of students, workers, and activists committed to challenging the status quo.
Despite the popularity of the strike and its demands among rank-and-file members and community organizations, tensions emerged between wildcat strike organizers and UAW leadership. While the wildcat strikers sought the support of the UAW, the union's leadership remained hesitant to officially endorse the strike, citing concerns about potential legal ramifications. However, UAW members at UCSC and other campuses were deeply involved in organizing and supporting the strike on the ground. This created a rift between the union's leadership and the wildcat strikers, who felt that the UAW was not adequately representing their interests.
As the strike unfolded, UCSC administration took a hard line against the strikers, with then-UC President Janet Napolitano threatening disciplinary action against participating graduate students. Despite these threats, the strike continued to gain support, and strikers called for a system-wide escalation of their actions.
Eventually, the UAW and UC administration reached an agreement that failed to meet the strikers' demands for a COLA. This agreement was widely criticized by wildcat strikers and their supporters, who accused the UAW bargaining team of selling out their demands. In an interview with Left Voice, a member of the UAW bargaining team admitted that they had "sold out the people who elected us" and expressed disappointment in the union's concessions.
The strike ultimately ended without achieving the desired COLA for graduate students, and UCSC administration fired over 80 graduate students who participated in the wildcat strike, despite protests across multiple UC campuses. This outcome highlighted the challenges faced by grassroots labor organizing, particularly when confronted with an unsupportive union leadership and a hostile administration. The radical turn in graduate labor organizing is still at the beginning. Nevertheless, despite the UAW's reluctance to support the strike and the eventual concessions made by the bargaining team, the strike succeeded in drawing attention to the urgent need for a cost-of-living adjustment for graduate students across the UC system. The strike also raised critical questions about the role of unions in representing the interests of their members and the potential for grassroots organizing to challenge established power structures.
As the increase in radical labor organizing across U.S. graduate unions demonstrates, the fight for safe, equitable, and just universities continues across multiple fronts. While strikes, teach-ins, and other direct actions motivate instutions to meet organizers at the bargaining table, a second fight occurs in the contract negotiation process.
Graduate organizers have made it clear that protections for vulnerable members of our campus communities—Black, Indigenous, and other racialized students who are disproportionately affected by police violence, international students who face exploitative fees, trans and gender-nonconforming students targeted by hostile legislation—are not peripheral to the safety of our working conditions. By centering abolitionist, anti-racist, and decolonial demands as mandatory subjects in their bargaining campaigns, graduate labor unions make the case that these bargaining planks, and the people they represent, are central to our future as academic workers.
The collective bargaining agreements compiled in this project represent important wins by current unions and precedents for future victories.