College workers ride the national wave of union organizing
Graduate student workers at Boston University are only a few of the many college workers across the country riding a tsunami wave of unionization sweeping across the country. | BU Graduate Workers United

NEW YORK and BOSTON —Exploited college workers—part-time faculty at New York’s New School and grad student workers at Boston University—are using unionization to achieve, or seek, gains on the job. Next month, grad student workers at Yale may join them.

All three groups—the 2,600 part-timers at the New School and 1,400 at the allied Parsons School of Design, the 3,200 grad student workers at Boston University, and the 4,000 teaching assistants at most departments at Yale—are part of the growing movement of exploited, underpaid and overworked college workers nationwide.

Like colleagues in other occupations, at other universities and at other firms, including warehouse workers, retail workers, Amazon workers, Starbucks baristas and port truckers—the three campus groups are youthful, fed up with corporate and capitalist exploitation of their labor and respond by one of two ways: Unionizing, or leaving for other jobs.

New School bosses forced the months-long walkout there, by a “last and final offer” just two weeks into the struggle. That offer had no cost-of-living increases and only a skimpy raise for workers, represented by ACT-UAW, part of Auto Workers Local 7902.

“They used the scare tactic of a last, best, final offer, and an arbitrary hard deadline, threatening to declare impasse and file with the NLRB in the hopes of getting approval to implement an exploitative contract against the wishes of union members,” worker Molly Maguire tweeted to The Gothamist after it posted an early story about the forced strike.

The adjuncts’ pay was frozen starting in 2018, “representing an effective pay cut of 18%” over the following years, the union said. The New School’s intransigence forced what the union called “the longest adjunct (faculty) strike in U.S. history.”

The faculty weren’t the only group bosses upset. The students, who supported their teachers, missed classes, and the students’ parents prepared to sue the New School.

“Tentative agreement—strike over,” the New School faculty’s bargainers headlined on Dec. 10. “Moments ago, the bargaining committee reached a tentative agreement with the University’s team. The bargaining committee unanimously endorses the agreement. The tentative agreement represents significant achievements for part-time faculty:

  • “Substantial raises, with the largest raises going to faculty currently paid at the lowest rates.
  • “Payment for the work we perform as teachers outside of the classroom.
  • “Expanded healthcare eligibility to faculty teaching one course, no hikes to our out-of-pocket health insurance costs, and caps to annual premium increases.
  • “Stronger job security for long-time faculty and newer faculty alike.
  • “Paid family leave, a professional development fund, and much more.”

“Now, together, we can return to our mission of teaching, learning, creating, and supporting our students,” the local and university management said in a joint statement.

At Boston University, the research assistants and teaching assistants, again all of them grad students, voted 1,414-28 to unionize with Service Employees Local 509. There were 313 challenged ballots, far from enough to change the pro-union landslide.

Again, low stipends, lousy health care benefits, and unusual restrictions on international students—including forcing them, via their visas, into working only for BU or being deported—were the key issues, the workers’ website said.

“We commit ourselves to creating livable, sustainable, and equitable conditions at BU,” the Boston University Graduate Workers Union said on its website. “Over the past several years, thousands of conversations with our fellow grad workers have made it clear that conditions at BU are not meeting our needs.

“We are committed to fighting for racial and gender justice. In addition to issues like Covid (coronavirus) safety and protections from harassment, transportation, and child care subsidies, we will fight for a living wage,” it said.

“Graduate workers fulfill our duties exactly like other salaried professionals, completing our work—including teaching and research—no matter how long it takes. But we are compensated with wages more comparable to a low-skilled hourly job.” Citing MIT’s Living Wage Calculator, a single adult in Boston needs $46,918 yearly to live on, the union reported. BU’s stipends range from $25,000-$45,000 yearly.

Hardest hit, the statement adds, are grad student RAs and TAs who attend on special visas for foreign workers. Those visas leave the students at the college’s mercy since the visa is tied to the employer, not the worker—who can be deported otherwise. And while U.S.-born RAs and TAs can seek outside federal funding for their research, their foreign-born counterparts can’t. Off-campus job opportunities are limited.

Meanwhile, some 4,000 Yale grad student RAs and TAs are returning ballots the National Labor Relations Board mailed them on Nov. 30, with a Dec. 21 deadline, giving them a choice of unionizing with Unite Here Local 33 or not.  Ballots will be counted Jan. 9 at the NLRB’s regional office in Hartford, Conn.

The balloting will cover RAs, teaching fellows, and workers in similar positions in the schools of Arts and Sciences, Management, Medicine, and Music. RAs and TAs from several other schools can also cast “challenged ballots” which the board will receive but not count until it rules on the dispute between Yale and Local 33 on those voters’ eligibility.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.