Magazine Feature

Higher Ed Workers Unite

Momentum for labor organizing on campus continues to grow

By Mike De Socio

Spring 2024

As a graduate student at Harvard University, Brandon Mancilla soon understood why his peers would want to unionize.

“It’s no surprise that folks in higher ed, grad students but all kinds of workers [are unionizing],” Mancilla says. “We don’t make very much money.” Though graduate students are primarily there to learn, many work as research or teaching assistants and rely on that income during their time in graduate school. The median annual wage for graduate teaching assistants is $38,050, though some make closer to $23,000, according to 2022 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Mancilla joined the organizing drive on campus in 2019 as the Harvard Graduate Students Union was demanding higher compensation and more worker protections from harassment and discrimination. He helped lead a twenty-nine-day strike, which grew out of months of failed negotiations with the university. By the end of June 2020, the union ratified its first-ever contract with Harvard, gaining pay raises, health benefits, and other worker protections.

Mancilla, who eventually served as president of the Harvard union and is now a regional director for the United Auto Workers, says that the 2020 contract was something of a watershed moment: a big win for campus labor after years of organizing all over the country.

It also served as a preview of what was to come. In the years since, unionization on college and university campuses for students and faculty alike has exploded, with big increases in the number and type of organizing units. Union drives for professors and all types of workers have popped up at Dartmouth College, the University of California, Temple University, and the University of Oregon, to name just a few.

“The state of labor organizing is on fire right now. Things have been going badly for many years. Underfunding at the state level; [the] neoliberalism agenda, [which emphasizes free-market competition]; and now, most recently, these legislative attacks at the state level on teaching,” says Irene Mulvey, president of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). “Faculty have been pushed to the limit . . . and the way faculty are fighting back is through labor organizing.”

Unions for academic workers are nothing new—they’ve been around for more than fifty years, mostly for faculty at public institutions. But the post-pandemic years have seen an “unprecedented level of strike activity” on campus, according to a 2023 Hunter College report on union organizing in higher education, with a notable rise in unions for student workers (both graduate and undergraduate), as well as non-tenure-track faculty. The wave has been motivated by certain changes in labor law that reclassified some groups of workers, as well as a surge in union support among younger generations. Add to that the pandemic’s negative impact on working conditions: the stress of COVID-19 itself, plus budget cuts, a lack of access to campus facilities, and the heavier childcare burdens that came with remote work. Not to mention the loss of 650,000 jobs, according to the US Department of Labor, between February 2020 and January 2021 across higher education as COVID-19 raged.

“We’ve seen the great divides in our economy that are so apparent now,” says Timothy Cain, a professor of higher education at the University of Georgia, who studies the history of labor organizing at colleges
and universities.

While those economic divides were highlighted during the pandemic, they have not yet completely receded. There continue to be severe faculty and staff cuts at some institutions—West Virginia University recently eliminated 143 faculty positions—and academic workers feel more vulnerable than ever, leading greater numbers of them to seek the stability and representation of a union. “Faculty have seen the job and the working conditions being decimated,” says Mulvey, who is also a former professor of mathematics. “We’re fighting back for that reason.”

From small private colleges to large public universities, in nearly every geographic region of the country, and across every imaginable sector of work at academic institutions (including librarians and student athletes), campus labor organizing is on the rise.

“There’s a lot more focus and interest in [unionization] today than there’s been in two decades,” Cain says.

You don’t have to look far beyond campus to understand that higher education is not the only place seeing a resurgence of union organizing.

Historic strikes throughout 2023 led to major union wins in all kinds of industries. Hollywood writers ended their second-longest strike in history in September 2023 after reaching a deal with studios for more pay and job security. Autoworkers at the Big Three manufacturers (Ford Motor, General Motors, and Stellantis, formerly Chrysler) were back on the job in October 2023 after their strike won them big wage increases. Actors ended their nearly four-month-long strike in November 2023, with a new contract securing better compensation and protections against artificial intelligence.

And while union activity is also growing at companies like Starbucks, Apple, and Amazon, higher education remains the industry where labor has seen the most success since the pandemic, according to William A. Herbert, coauthor of the 2023 report on unions in higher ed and distinguished lecturer and executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College.

“There is an ethos on [campuses] of the idea of the democratic process being an important element of higher education,” Herbert says. “The idea of workplace democracy is not an alien concept.”

Though some institutions do resist unions, according to Herbert and Mulvey, most recognize that labor organizing is part of that democratic process and negotiate with workers in good faith. It’s especially notable that union elections on campus often yield overwhelming majorities—on average, 91 percent of eligible student workers voted in favor of unions in 2022–23, according to the Hunter College report—signaling broad support, at least outside the administrative level. (By comparison, it’s not uncommon for Amazon and Starbucks union drives to fail among workers.)

It’s not entirely surprising that some university administrations resist labor organizing, according to Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), which represents 70 percent of all organized academic workers in the United States. “Bosses don’t like anyone else telling them what to do. They like having lots of power,” she said, noting that university administrators often see themselves differently—and perhaps more favorably—than other types of bosses in other industries. They often resist unions because they feel that working conditions in higher education are already sufficient, Weingarten says.

To be sure, there are also academic workers who oppose unions on campus. Some tenured faculty oppose faculty unions, arguing, for example, that unions don’t always deliver on the benefits they promise and that unions set up a combative dynamic within higher ed. “The decision to unionize stands in sharp contrast to a system of shared governance,” wrote University of Pittsburgh political science professor Chris Bonneau in a 2021 Pitt News op-ed.

Others argue that unions for graduate students, in particular, are not justified because the students are not there solely to work but also to learn, and they receive plenty of benefits (often including free tuition) from that bargain even if their financial compensation is low. “It is a mistake to look only at the ‘wages’ students receive in performing TA and RA tasks,” wrote Omri Ben-Shahar, a University of Chicago law professor, in a 2017 Forbes article.

Mulvey, however, doesn’t see that distinction as an excuse to exclude student workers from labor organizing. “These institutions are getting labor from these students. And so, in that capacity, they are workers,” she says. “These people are workers. And students. They’re both.”

Graduate student unions have received a lot of attention lately, and rightly so. A 2016 ruling by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) opened the door for graduate students at private universities to engage in collective bargaining, though the door has opened and closed multiple times in the past. The case, which originated at Columbia University, overturned an NLRB precedent to not classify graduate researchers and teaching assistants at private institutions as “employees.”

“There was a legal barrier, and the barrier dropped,” Herbert says. Ever since, pent-up demand and union interest have been released on campus, with momentum continuing to build.

“It has spread like wildfire. Academic labor is hot right now,” says Karen Stubaus, vice president for academic affairs and administration at Rutgers University, who has spent decades involved in academic collective bargaining.

Seeing success all around them, employees in previously dormant sectors of the academic workforce are also starting to take a stand.

“The most interesting development that has taken place since 2022 has been the growth in unionization among undergraduate student workers, where we’ve seen a large increase in successful representation efforts,” Herbert says.

This includes unions for positions like resident assistants and dining hall workers. On top of the increased organizing, undergraduate worker unions, Herbert notes, have enjoyed remarkably high margins of victory. In a recent union election at Harvard, all but one undergraduate voter supported the union. At Brown University, undergraduate computer science teaching assistants favored a union by 92 percent. “There’s a very strong pro-labor quality to the current generation,” he says. “That’s reflected in the outcomes that are taking place.”

While growth in faculty unions overall has been slower in recent years, most of those new unions include non-tenure-track faculty, generally full- or part-time contingent faculty on contracts with fixed terms. (Non-tenure-track faculty, according to the AAUP, encompass positions labeled as adjuncts, postdocs, teaching assistants, clinical faculty, lecturers, instructors, or nonsenate faculty.) The motivations for these employees to unionize are much the same as for student workers: low pay and lack of job security. But these contingent faculty also see unionization as a path to more career advancement and improved benefits.

One sector, however, has been largely absent from recent unionization efforts on campus: professors at private universities. This is due to the 1980 US Supreme Court ruling in NLRB v. Yeshiva University that tenure-track faculty on private campuses are considered “managerial” roles. This decision excludes them from the right to collective bargaining under the National Labor Relations Act.

Though academic workers often have no issue organizing their peers to form a union, some do struggle to gain recognition and a new contract from a college or university.

At Indiana University Bloomington (IU), graduate students have been trying for several years to improve their working conditions but have faced an uphill battle. The union, the Indiana Graduate Workers Coalition–United Electrical Workers (IGWC-UE), still has not been officially recognized by the administration—meaning it can’t negotiate for a new contract—but has still managed to secure a few wins. (Though the names of large legacy unions, such as United Electrical Workers or United Auto Workers, may indicate a certain trade-based membership, that does not preclude workers of other industries, including academia, from seeking representation in those unions, according to Herbert of Hunter College. Nearly a third of the membership of the UAW, for example, is now made up of academic workers, according to NPR.)

One of the IU union’s first campaigns was a “fee strike” in 2021. “We had an exceptional amount of mandatory fees as grad students,” says David Garner, a doctoral candidate in comparative literature and religious studies and a teaching assistant at IU, who also serves on the coordinating committee for the IGWC-UE. At the time, graduate students were being charged $1,435 per year in fees, so members of the union refused to pay them in protest.

In the spring of 2022, the graduate union, frustrated by its lack of recognition, organized a strike that lasted four weeks. Though it did not result in union recognition, IU granted a handful of concessions to the IGWC-UE, including an end to the mandatory fees. The university also raised the minimum graduate assistant stipend from $15,000 to $22,000.

“It was a huge, huge increase,” Garner says. “It was a big win for us, even though they didn’t recognize our union.”

Right now, the IGWC-UE is back in organizing mode, asking graduate students to sign union cards. Its primary goals, according to Garner, are to gain recognition from the university and work toward a higher stipend, something closer to a living wage.

“Unions are ultimately better for the university,” Garner says. “If you have good wages and good working conditions, it’s only going to attract better students.”

(IU’s communications office did not respond to requests for comment.)

Some graduate unions in other parts of the country have had more success.

In fall 2023 at Northeastern University in Boston, graduate workers voted overwhelmingly to support a union, with 94 percent in favor. They’ve joined a United Autoworkers affiliate and are now moving on to negotiate for a collective bargaining agreement.

At Temple University in Philadelphia, graduate students ended a six-week strike in March 2023 after reaching a new contract with the university. The terms include better pay, expanded health benefits, and more parental leave.

Mancilla, from the UAW, says these successes reflect the hard-won momentum of graduate worker organizing.

“Grad worker unions are here to stay,” he says. “Therefore, their demands are here to stay.”

That doesn’t mean there hasn’t been resistance. At Temple, before graduates students won their new contract, the university at one point withheld tuition and health care benefits from those on strike. In 2021, Columbia University said it would replace graduate student workers if they continued their strike past a certain date.

And sometimes, it has gotten ugly: In May 2023, the graduate student union at the University of Michigan accused the institution of “fabricating” grades for students in courses where striking teaching assistants had not issued their own marks. The university disputes this claim, and an independent review by the Higher Learning Commission, the university’s accrediting body, found no evidence of substantive noncompliance with accreditation requirements.

Non-tenure-track faculty, many of whom only spend time at their institution while teaching, have a tenuous presence on campus, making it challenging to run a successful union drive. But that hasn’t stopped them from organizing. They’re making many of the same demands as graduate students, but their need is even more acute, Herbert from Hunter College explains, because non-tenure-track faculty are more likely to be older and supporting families.

“Non-tenure track faculty have greater precarity in some ways than graduate assistants,” Herbert says, “because reappointment of non-tenure-track faculty [members] can be denied each year or each semester with little or no recourse.”

“It’s more challenging to organize temporary workers,” Cain says.

Deirdre Frontczak, who has spent decades working as an adjunct professor—the term for part-time faculty who are likely to work at multiple institutions to earn enough income—is keenly aware of these challenges. She has a phrase for the increasing reliance on non-tenure-track faculty at institutions: “the academic gig economy.”

“It’s a business model that didn’t exist before the 1970s,” says Frontczak, who is currently a lecturer in management and marketing at Santa Clara University (SCU), a private institution of six thousand students.

She traces the emergence of large non-tenure-track faculties to a shift about fifty years ago, when colleges and universities started thinking of themselves primarily as businesses, a paradigm that is still prominent today. After all, Frontczak says it’s cheaper to hire non-tenure-track faculty, such as adjuncts, and easier to let them go—it’s better for the bottom line.

But it’s also a “precarious way to live,” Frontczak says, if you’re one of those adjuncts. She would know: since the early 2000s, Frontczak has juggled adjunct positions all over Northern California, from Santa Rosa and Sonoma to Santa Clara—and sometimes all at the same time.

“It’s like having four separate employers and employment environments,” she says. “That’s not an ideal way to develop your career or professional capabilities. Certainly, it isn’t ideal for developing professional or collegial relationships at any of those schools.”

This chaotic arrangement motivated her to get involved in union organizing with the Faculty Association of California Community Colleges. Though the community colleges did have some tenure-track faculty, most were non-tenure-track, which Frontczak saw as a clear problem. “It’s an injustice. It’s inefficient. It’s impractical,” she says. “It doesn’t represent the values and mission of, as far as I know, any institution of higher education.”

In her current role, teaching in the business school at SCU, Frontczak has been helping to organize a union for non-tenure-track workers. In June 2022, three-quarters of eligible faculty voted in favor of the union, which has since formed a bargaining team of which Frontczak is a member.

The union is asking SCU for better pay and job security. So far, the bargaining meetings with the university, Frontczak reports, “have been cordial and collegial and cooperative.”

Ed Ryan, acting provost and vice provost for planning and institutional effectiveness at SCU, said in an email that “the university’s goal has been to reach a mutually agreeable contract that supports our valued colleagues and advances our shared efforts to build a world-class university grounded in our Jesuit mission.” He declined to participate in an interview due to ongoing negotiations.

Similar efforts to organize non-tenure-track faculty are spreading across the country, from Los Angeles to New York and Chicago.

In upstate New York, at Skidmore College, a majority of non-tenure-track faculty recently voted to join SEIU Local200United, part of the Service Employees International Union, and are currently in negotiations for their first contract. Union members have cited particularly high housing costs in Saratoga Springs as a major justification for higher pay.

But the reasons for unionizing at Skidmore go deeper and echo Frontczak’s own motivations.

“Many of the non-tenure-track faculty at Skidmore who meet stable, long-term instructional needs are nonetheless employed on terminal contracts that offer no stability and leave faculty very vulnerable to reprisal,” said Ruth McAdams, a member of the union’s organizing committee, in an interview with local radio station WAMC. (A representative from Skidmore declined to comment, citing ongoing contract negotiations.)

Current organizing efforts continue to grow. “This is a period where there’s much more interest in unionizing,” Cain says.

Stubaus, who spent thirty years representing the Rutgers administration in negotiations with its longstanding unions, remains in awe of the current burst in activity. “It’s just amazing,” she says. “There are new [bargaining] units every day.”

But she worries many university presidents and administrators aren’t properly equipped to respond. “There may be a tendency to fear the coming of a union, a tendency to fight it,” before taking a moment to think about a better approach, Stubaus says. “The institution suffers if there’s a lot of knee-jerk, reflexive, anti-union activity,” she adds, because it creates bitterness and animosity.

In 2023 at Rutgers, three unions representing nine thousand workers held the university’s first-ever labor strike, and the dispute was settled only after the New Jersey governor called representatives from all parties to his office to work with mediators.

“It actually made me sad. I thought it was too bad that it came to a strike and that there seemed to be so much animosity,” says Stubaus, who was not involved because her role in academic leadership changed before this set of negotiations and no longer includes collective bargaining.

Stubaus’s personal approach—and her advice for other administrators involved in working with unions—is to avoid making an enemy of union leadership. “Keep the health of the institution in the long-term uppermost in your mind,” she says.

Stubaus also encourages academic leaders, such as deans, to get directly involved in contract negotiations, rather than delegating it to other administrators. “Contracts are much better if they’re informed by academic thinking while they’re being developed,” she says. “It enriches both sides in the conversation.” Based on her experience at Rutgers, she believes the best path forward is to work with unions, not against them. “You can be a successful, happy institution and have academic collective bargaining,” she says.

Herbert also sees the potential for union negotiations to add value to the student experience. “The process of student workers being engaged in this democratic process can help to supplement things that are being taught in class,” he says. “This process can have hope for people engaging in political activities during college as well as after.”

Illustrations by David Weissberg


  • Mike De Socio

    Mike De Socio

    Mike De Socio is an independent journalist based in upstate New York, telling stories about cities, climate change, education, and the LGBTQ+ community.