Participants in a Harvard graduate student strike march around Harvard Yard at Harvard University on Dec. 3, 2019. Hundreds of Harvard graduate students walked out of class and off the job, kicking off their first strike after contract negotiations with the university stalled. Students marched for hours down snow-covered sidewalks around Harvard Yard, carrying signs, banging on empty plastic cans, and chanting, "What do we want? Contract! What do we do if we don't get it? Shut it down!" (Photo by David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

In any given year, more than 3 million students in the United States are enrolled in a post-baccalaureate program, of whom 1.8 million are pursuing a graduate, master’s, or doctoral program. At many colleges and universities, graduate students aren’t just students, they’re also the workhorses driving cutting-edge research and academic scholarship. They create lectures, teach and meet with students, administer exams, and assign grades; some even create entirely new classes based on their unique fields of scholarship. Twelve percent of all graduate students—including more than two-thirds of doctoral students—teach undergraduate classes. In STEM disciplines, graduate students perform the bulk of the work that helps labs secure research grants. However, graduate students still struggle with living wages, meager benefits, and hostile or exploitative treatment that threaten their ability to access housing, food, and other basic necessities, and some may even be forced to endure to maintain their student and work status. Now, as the pandemic and increasingly environmental disasters have ratcheted up the pressures of university life, an increasing number of graduate students are turning to unions to improve their working conditions. 

Nationwide, many graduate students are paid at (or only slightly above) poverty level and on average make only $35,000 per year—barely meeting the $15 per hour rate that represents a minimum wage in most parts of the country. At this salary level, most graduate students are rent-burdened, paying significantly more than one-third of their monthly income on housing, a situation that can lead to housing instability and possible houselessness. In addition, a graduate student survey of students at the University of California found that 25% of them lack reliable and consistent access to healthy and affordable food, with rates much higher among Black, Latinx, and Indigenous graduate students. On Reddit, graduate students discuss how they might apply for food assistance programs in order to afford regular meals. 

For graduate students who’ve come to the U.S. from other countries—which in some STEM disciplines can represent 80% of all graduate students—the risks of financial instability are even more extreme. At some schools, international students may be required to pay higher tuition or healthcare costs while their visa statuses may disallow spouses from working to bring in additional income. International students also may not apply for public assistance for fear of jeopardizing their future immigration prospects. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, B. Mano—writing anonymously in The Tech—outlined how his graduate student stipend barely covers typical living costs, and leaves no room for unexpected expenses such as the medical emergency Mano faced when his daughter fell ill.

“How can students like me survive, let alone remain sane, when the current stipend covers at most a quarter of the living expenses that MIT itself has calculated?” Mano asked. “As students, we deserve better.”

A cycle of progress and setbacks

Graduate students at public universities have been unionizing since the 1970s, but were unable to do so at private universities until 2000, when a decision by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) first declared that graduate teaching assistants were statutory employees with the right to engage in collective bargaining. The Graduate Student Organizing Committee at New York University was the first formally recognized graduate student union at a private college or university to successfully negotiate a contract for its members in 2002. However, university administrators tend to oppose efforts to unionize graduate students.

Schools that rely heavily on graduate student teaching assistants are able to offer a broad array of classes for a fraction of the cost of hiring tenured or adjunct faculty. Thus, universities have vociferously opposed graduate student unionization efforts, contending that because graduate students are enrolled as degree-seeking students, they should not also be eligible for employee benefits. Persuaded by this reasoning, the George W. Bush administration reversed the NLRB’s decision in 2004, and graduate students at private schools remained unable to organize until a crucial 2016 NLRB decision involving Columbia University reestablished that right for all graduate students. Even in that case, however, Columbia University argued against collective bargaining rights for its graduate student teachers, saying that allowing them to unionize would “harm the educational process.” Several other Ivy League universities expressed support for that position in their own joint amicus brief.

Since 2016’s landmark ruling, graduate students at private universities have capitalized on their hard-won recognition as school employees, and the movement behind graduate employee labor organizing has gained momentum at many public and private colleges and universities. A study by the Hunter center at CUNY found that in 2019 more than 80,000 graduate students were members of a union, up from less than 65,000 in 2013. At public universities, where graduate students have been able to unionize for decades, the fruits of those efforts are already evident: Union-organized graduate students are better paid and report feeling more supported both personally and professionally. Unionized graduate students at public universities also report that they have seen no negative impact of their collective bargaining efforts on their teaching or research. 

International graduate students, in particular, say that unionization efforts have been crucial, and that they represent one of the only avenues for self-advocacy available to them. At Harvard University, for example, the Graduate Student Union secured in 2019 contract language guaranteeing job security for international graduate students temporarily unable to return to the United States due to visa issues, a particularly important protection after the Trump administration’s numerous efforts to restrict immigration by limiting student and employee visas. At the University of Illinois-Chicago, the graduate student union reduced extra fees charged to international graduate students. Lastly, many graduate student unions also position themselves as advocates on behalf of graduate students of color facing incidents of racism, and many seek to implement more objective grievance-redress policies to better protect graduate students who have been victims of racial discrimination.

The right to organize is only the first hurdle

No longer fearing a hostile federal government under President Donald Trump, graduate student activism in the last year has been especially vociferous—and has endured significant backlash from university administration. Students at Columbia University struggled to be formally recognized by the school until 2019, at which point school administrators and union representatives entered into contentious negotiations to improve working conditions for teaching assistants at Columbia that resulted in a strike after a year of unsuccessful bargaining. The pandemic ended up delaying the strike until picketing began on March 17, 2021. The picketing lasted for two months, with Columbia administrators deploying numerous intimidation and retaliatory tactics, including a threat to reduce graduate student pay and block financial aid while the strike was in effect. Eventually, the union’s bargaining unit returned a proposed contract that lacked several key demands and failed to receive a majority vote from union members. The union’s bargaining unit members eventually resigned and the union voted to formally end the strike without securing their first contract. Graduate students are contemplating another strike action in the fall, and some labor organizers say the university has already acted preemptively to discourage that action by altering their stipend pay schedule, which activists believe was done to make it easier to withhold graduate student wages in the event of a strike. 

While some graduate students form their own distinct unions, at other schools, most graduate students unions choose to affiliate with existing union organizations officially recognized by the school, which facilitates their own goal of being formally recognized as well. At the University of California (UC), United Auto Workers Local 2865 represents over 285,000 graduate students across the multi-campus system. However, disparities in local costs of living complicate efforts to negotiate a common graduate student salary across the University of California’s 10 campuses. In 2019, graduate students at UC Santa Cruz (UCSC) pointed out that Santa Cruz is one of the most expensive cities in the nation, and that the recently re-negotiated salary level would still mean that 50-80% of graduate student income at that campus would go to rent—far more than at other UC campuses situated in cities with a cheaper cost of living. 

Graduate students at UCSC overwhelmingly voted to reject the union contract, but did not outnumber graduate students at other campuses. UCSC graduate students then launched a wildcat strike (i.e. a strike that is not officially sanctioned by union leaders) in December 2019, refusing to turn in grades until their demands for a cost-of-living adjustment to address local affordable housing shortages were met. Graduate students across other UC campuses joined in solidarity with UCSC graduate students, who maintained their grading strike throughout the first half of 2020. The school retaliated, firing 41 graduate students for participating in the grading strike; those students’ teaching positions were only reinstated in August 2020 after sharp backlash against the university. Nonetheless, a cost-of-living adjustment has not yet been implemented for UCSC graduate students. 

Success is possible but still hard-won

Even at schools where negotiations have been historically successful, school administrators remain resistant to efforts to improve graduate employee working conditions. Graduate students at New York University are negotiating their second union contract and in April they walked out of classrooms, refusing to teach classes or grade papers until salaries were increased to living wage levels in New York City. Hoping to capitalize on the previous contract, students are being more ambitious in their demands. In addition to the salary dispute, graduate students are also negotiating to address issues that might endanger Black and brown graduate students, including efforts to reduce unnecessary calls to campus police. Graduate students also want NYU to implement emergency COVID-19 relief compensating graduate teaching assistants for transitioning to remote teaching. But the union has faced fierce resistance from school administrators, who have gone so far as to email students’ parents to criticize the negotiation efforts. The union has already dropped its initial wage proposal from $46 per hour—which was calculated based on the high cost of living in New York City—down to $32 per hour.

“They’re trying to bully us to drop our wage proposals lower and lower,” said Ellis Garey to The New York Times in April. Garey is a fourth-year Ph.D. student and a labor organizer. 

In 2019, graduate students at Harvard engaged in a month-long strike to pressure the school to increase pay, improve health care, and provide for third-party mediation in harassment and discrimination cases. That led to the ratification of their first year-long union contract. However, despite numerous negotiation sessions, the university and the union have failed to establish a second union contract, and over 500 graduate students signed onto a joint letter last month vowing to engage in a strike action should an agreement not be reached. Recently, the union voted to extend the first contract to the end of August as negotiations continue.

Across the country, labor activists continue to fight to improve working conditions for graduate students who serve an increasingly critical role as the life’s blood of our nation’s colleges and universities. Graduate student unions advocate for vulnerable graduate students—and in particular international graduate students and graduate students of color—who have little other protection from colleges and universities who wield power both over their salaries and their degrees. By emphasizing the role of graduate students as employees who contribute in fundamental ways to the functioning of colleges and universities, these unions are redefining the role of graduate student workers. They are rendering visible the historically overlooked and undervalued graduate student work that many schools rely upon in sustaining the success of their institutions. Graduate student unions are also implementing important protections that rewrite the institutionalized power imbalances that have traditionally enabled the exploitation of graduate student workers, and are instead creating new avenues for graduate students to politically advocate on their own behalf.

“Graduate students do real work,” wrote Marissa Knoll, a graduate student at New York University, in an op-ed for Salon in 2019. “The historical underpaying and overworking of graduate students will surely continue unless graduate students have a way to effectively organize and negotiate with their universities … We as graduate workers have a right to stand up for better working conditions.”

Jenn Fang

Jenn Fang