Amid pandemic disruptions, grad students push to unionize

Unionized graduate students at the University of Michigan went on strike in September 2020 to protest the university’s reopening policies and COVID-19 safety measures.

Luke Dillingham/Waging Nonviolence

For graduate students at the University of New Mexico (UNM), the pandemic was a turning point. After their petition to extend graduation timelines and funding was unsuccessful, a group of graduate students spent the past year amassing signatures to form a union and fighting a dispute with the university over the legality of its efforts. Last week, the group received word that the state’s labor board appears poised to certify its union. If that happens, it will be the first time students have been granted the right to unionize in New Mexico—and could pave the way to contract negotiations.

Graduate student unionization efforts aren’t new. For decades, research and teaching assistants have banded together to form unions that give them collective bargaining power, particularly at public institutions in states whose labor boards allow it. The movement accelerated in recent years after a 2016 decision by the National Labor Relations Board to allow graduate students at private U.S. universities to unionize. By 2019, more than 80,000 U.S.-based graduate students were represented by unions, according to an analysis spearheaded by William Herbert, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College.

At some universities, the pandemic served as a further catalyst. At UNM, it started with an April 2020 petition asking university administrators to grant a 1-year extension to grad student degree timelines and funding sources. UNM’s graduate school dean met with students to discuss their concerns, but the university’s position—that decisions should be left to individual departments—frustrated petition organizers. “Many of the people involved … decided that we need a more formal voice in this process of bargaining,” says UNM Albuquerque physics Ph.D. student Anupam Mitra, “and that’s what led to the idea of, well, we should probably have a graduate workers union.”

Organizers spent months convincing more than 60% of the university’s 1500 graduate students who hold assistantships to sign union cards. They filed paperwork to form a union in December 2020. Afterward, the university disputed the union’s legality, arguing to the state’s labor board that graduate students aren’t “regular” employees and therefore don’t have a right to form a collective bargaining unit—a move that “struck a big nerve,” Mitra says. “It was very dismissive of both our skills … and our dedication to what we do.” But with the labor board’s recent decision—which sided with the students, ruling that they can be considered employees—union organizers are hopeful that university administrators will meet them at the bargaining table soon. A UNM spokesperson wrote that the university is waiting until the state labor board officially certifies the union before deciding how to proceed.

Graduate student researchers in the University of California (UC) system made a similar unionization push during the pandemic. (UC teaching assistants are already unionized, but research assistants are not, because until legislation passed in 2017, they weren’t considered employees in California.) Planning started “in early 2020, before the pandemic hit us very hard at all,” says Katie Augspurger, a biochemistry Ph.D. student at UC San Francisco. But new issues that arose during 2020—such as student frustrations with COVID-19 safety policies—helped organizers convince some graduate students to sign on to the unionization efforts, she says. Organizers submitted signed union cards to the state labor board in May and are awaiting next steps.

Graduate students at University of Vermont (UVM) aren’t as far along in the process, but frustrations they experienced during the pandemic have kick-started unionization discussions, says Marcus Weinman, a molecular biology Ph.D. student at UVM who is now working to form a union there. Many wished they’d had a seat at the table last year when decisions were being made about who would be required to work on campus, particularly in the fall, when in-person classes resumed. “I was teaching, ironically, in a microbiology lab in a very closed-off basement laboratory with no windows and very poor ventilation with 30 students,” Weinman says. He emailed university administrators to ask what could be done to safeguard everyone’s safety, such as augmenting the ventilation. But the university didn’t make any changes to the classroom or how the course was taught, he says. Other graduate students have shared similar stories—including frustrations with professors who pressed students to resume experiments and other work on campus—and during the coming academic year they hope to gather enough signatures to form a union.

“I would be lying if I said there wasn’t a desire to do this before the pandemic started,” Weinman says. But the pandemic “turned that up from kind of a small little ember into more of a pretty long-burning fire.”

Part of what is motivating these efforts is seeing existing unions “advocate and push for graduate students to be taken care of,” Weinman says. At Oregon State University (OSU), for example, the decades-old graduate student union spent months negotiating with university administrators in the summer of 2020, eventually securing exemptions from in-person work for students who didn’t feel safe working on campus, as well as funds to subsidize home internet costs. Though the students didn’t get everything they wanted—child care support wasn’t granted, for instance—“I am absolutely confident that we would not have even had a platform to win anything without the union,” says Tilottama Chatterjee, a biochemistry Ph.D. student at OSU Corvallis who serves as the graduate student union’s vice president for communications. Negotiations are now taking place to secure similar protections for graduate students during the coming academic year, she says.

New issues have also cropped up this year, says Joey Valle, a materials science and engineering Ph.D. student at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, who serves as the president of the Graduate Employees’ Organization, which went on strike in 2020 to protest the university’s reopening plans. This year, one of the organization’s main concerns related to the university’s vaccine mandate: Some graduate students are working remotely from countries with low vaccine availability, so it wasn’t reasonable to expect them to be fully vaccinated in order to enroll for the fall semester, Valle says.

Earlier this month, the university announced that international students will have the option of requesting a temporary deferral of the requirement. “However, the timeline on what they consider to be temporary is still a point we are discussing,” Valle says.