With the academic worker strike at the University of California now in its fifth week, national union members and labor experts predict wide-ranging impacts on the landscape of higher education.
“Harvard getting a contract inspired a lot of people at Columbia. Columbia getting a contract I hope inspired people at the UC, but also Columbia was inspired by action at (UC Santa Cruz) too … In some ways it was circular,” said Paul Brown, a doctoral student at Columbia University and shop steward within their union. “I’m hoping it’s a snowball effect.”
The UC strike comes after Harvard’s three-day strike last fall, Columbia’s 10-week work stoppage at the same time and UC Santa Cruz’s wildcat strike of 2019.
Together with recent movements to unionize at Starbucks, Amazon and more, this makes for a definite trend in national labor movements.
“The union movement is on a rise everywhere right now,” said Amir Fleischmann, the chair of the contract committee within the University of Michigan’s graduate employees union. “Workers everywhere are fed up with being underpaid and overworked and I think the pandemic just showed that people want to live better lives with dignity and fair compensation and we’re not taking it sitting down any more.”
According to Tanzil Chowdhury, a graduate student research assistant at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and bargaining team member for Student Researchers United, their local union has been in contact with and learning from other higher education unions. Chowdhury specifically cited unions at the University of Washington, Harvard University and California State Universities.
The UC strike is unique in its size in comparison to previous higher education movements. Because of this, it may have further-reaching effects, especially on other public universities and peer institutions.
Graduate students at the University of Washington, University of Texas and University of Michigan all expressed bargaining priorities similar to what UC unions are currently demanding, including cost of living adjustments, child care subsidies and anti-harassment provisions and neutral arbitration for Title IX complaints.
Whether directly or not, more compensation for graduate students in a system as big as the University of California will set a precedent.
“It’s huge when other unions win these types of protections in the space of higher education,” said Dorothy Manevich, a trustee on the Harvard Graduate Student Union executive board and the chair of the UAW’s political committee in Massachusetts. “When we are in bargaining sessions with Harvard, in cases where a certain type of protection is not super common in graduate student contracts they are very quick to point that out. They are very quick to say, ‘Well, at comparable institutions this is not the case’… It sets a precedent that these protections are possible.”
Fleischmann also said since all universities are in competition with each other for graduate students, some institutions may be forced to amend contracts simply to continue attracting the best students.
While some of the graduate students were unequivocal about the impact a UC deal would have on their own bargaining, representatives of university administrations were more hesitant. University of Washington, or UW, spokesperson Victor Balta said simply that “UW’s negotiations are not impacted by the UC negotiations.”
However, according to Sam Sumpter, the president of UAW 4121, the union representing academic workers at UW, first offers from the university for the postdoc contract have been better than usual.
At the University of Texas, Austin, or UT Austin, despite the fact that graduate students are not able to collectively bargain, the precedent is still a helpful way of looking at things, according to Lauren Nelson, an organizer with the group Underpaid at UT and a sixth-year doctoral student.
Graduate students at UT Austin are not represented by their own union but rather the Texas State Employees Union, a union that workers can opt into because Texas is a “right to work” state, according to Nelson.
This means that there are not contract negotiations or collective bargaining in the same way as at many other universities, Nelson noted. Workers are also not protected from retaliation when they strike.
Despite this, many workers at UT Austin have received raises in recent years, according to the president of the graduate student assembly, Paige-Erin Wheeler. She expressed satisfaction with these wins, but also said the cost of living has increased so drastically in Austin since then that the increase in pay isn’t really commensurate.
“My experience organizing in a right to work state is that it makes a tremendous deal of difference to get workers to see themselves as part of a struggle and part of a struggle with real possibility,” Nelson said.
Manevich echoed the sentiment, saying it can be “empowering and invigorating and energizing” for union members to hear about the ways students at different universities are organizing.
Chowdhury expressed a desire for other unions to be inspired by the UC strike and go beyond its achievements later.
“We’ve already seen universities such as Penn and Rice University increasing their graduate worker stipends since our strike began, and MIT increasing its wages for Postdocs as well,” Chowdhury said in an email. “As workers at other universities go into bargaining soon (University of Michigan workers in GEO come to mind), I hope they’re inspired by our example and can win even more than we end up winning.”
However, the strike is still ongoing and the union may not win the contract they desire.
If that is the case, Kim Voss, a professor of sociology at UC Berkeley whose research focuses on labor relations, thinks there will still be some ripple effects.
“Whatever happens, as long as there are some gains, others can take hope from that,” Voss said. “Of course the bigger the gains the more the hope. I’m not trying to say it doesn’t matter, but I am trying to say that I don’t think that it’s only complete success that will inspire people elsewhere.”
Even if strikers win the contracts they are asking for or something in that ballpark, questions still remain: what happens if other universities follow suit? What would the effects be on university budgets and where would the funding come from?
There is a wide gap between public and private institutions here. Manevich called the amount of money Harvard manages “unfathomable,” meaning that the raises students asked for were insignificant in comparison, in her eyes, to the size of the university’s endowments, she added.
For public institutions, Voss hopes the strike might set a precedent not just for institutions, but also for state legislatures.
“The legislature and governor have forced UC to accept large numbers of undergraduates … without really providing the funding that will allow us to do that,” Voss said. “If, for example, the legislators who support the strike would start lobbying their colleagues to actually provide the funding that would require it. So if that is the outcome of the strike I think that also sends a message to other state legislatures, that they need to fully support the education that they want for the people of their state.”