Fighting On: Institutional Context

Even without legal status, by acting collectively as a union, graduate student workers won greater structural agency. And barely a year later, union struggles have intensified at every major private university across the nation: Columbia (still!), Harvard, Stanford, Yale, the University of Chicago, Cornell, Duke, the University of Pennsylvania, along with many others – including USC. Every one of the aforementioned institutions has been caught acting in ways ranging from unethical to illegal, a trend that has been roundly condemned by scholarly associations. These universities burn through millions in legal fees in order to challenge election results in court, buying time as they hold out hope that the Trump Administration’s conservative National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) appointees will eventually come to management’s rescue. Setting aside the realization that our progressive-posturing, democracy-and-diversity-loving institutions are collaborating with the Trump Administration at the expense of their students – and given what we already know about the false educational and financial threats posed by graduate student workers – the question remains: Why? Why would USC waste resources upholding anti-democratic values that betray their own civic mission when the hypothetical losses that supposedly made them necessary are unfounded? At some point, it becomes unrealistic to see the arrangement as being about anything besides power and control.
 
We already know that USC harbors hostility toward unions on par with its elite institutional peers because we are not the first employees to attempt unionizing here. Last year, USC’s non-tenure-track faculty in Dornsife tried to hold an election that was thwarted by the efforts of Provost Michael Quick to sabotage the vote by violating federal labor law. In the Los Angeles Times coverage of the NLRB investigation, it was reported: “USC undermined the possibility of a free and fair election by giving raises to some non-tenure-track faculty at the Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences just before the vote in January [2016]. University officials also threatened that faculty members would not be welcome on the Academic Senate or other university committees if they voted to form a union.” This hostility is not new. Since the ‘90s, USC has fought bitterly against its janitorial, housing and hospital workers, respectively, when they sought a measure of dignity and security as employees by unionizing. More recently, in just the last few months of 2017, the administration has become aware that its clerical workers are trying to unionize and sent a menacing letter to them intended by provoke fear by deploying vague misinformation in threatening overtones.

Students AND Workers – Our Fight in a National Context

Since the 1960s, graduate workers have struggled for the right to unionize. But while those of us at public universities eventually won that right, those of us at private institutions have almost always been denied it. The first decision by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to block our status as workers came in 1974. Almost a quarter-century later, in a landmark 2000 decision against NYU, graduate employees provided a brief that paved the way to unionize – which many did – only to have it revoked again just four years later in an NLRB ruling against union organizing at Brown University. Finally, the rights of graduate employees to form a union at private universities were formally restored by the NLRB on August 23, 2016, when the NLRB formally ruled against administrators at Columbia University. The NLRB stated explicitly that they saw “no compelling reason – in theory or in practice – to conclude that collective bargaining by student assistants cannot be viable or that it would seriously interfere with higher education,” affirming that “student assistants who have a common-law employment relationship with their university are statutory employees entitled to the protections of the [National Labor Relations] Act.”
The back-and-forth had to do with the question of the “primary relationship,” that is: Are we students laboring primarily for our own educational benefit or primarily workers providing services to an employer in exchange for compensation? The 2016 Columbia University decision was different for its acknowledgement of a rather simple point: This is a false distinction because, in practice, we are fully and clearly both. For years, administrations’ arguments against graduate unions hinged on the spurious claim that having them would erode the educational relationship between students and their advisors by allegedly inserting a harsh union bureaucracy into the middle of something which requires more delicate navigation. Given the nature of intellectual collaboration, this argument went, graduate working relations and conditions are more effectively regulated by the entrenched professional norms of the Academy, which maintains itself through a culture of collegiality and mutual respect. Administrations also claimed the move would adversely affect their institutions’ bottom lines, leading to fewer graduate students they would be able to admit and fund.
Existing research on graduate unions in public universities has long shown this to be false, but private non-profits remained obstinate that their situation was not comparable. Then, in 2013, three years before the Columbia University decision – and in response to years of unrelenting collective pressure by student organizers – NYU agreed to re-recognize their graduate union (having decertified the agreement they made before the NLRB’s Brown ruling in 2004), becoming the first private institution ever to voluntarily do so. Subsequent studies on the aftermath showed that, indeed, neither NYU’s bottom line nor its student-faculty relationships suffered as a result of collective bargaining. In fact, the relationships had by some measures improved – a (not surprising) consequence of having more clearly defined and fairly negotiated workplace expectations. This research become pivotal in convincing the NLRB in 2016 that denying graduate workers’ basic rights was clearly no longer empirically or theoretically justifiable.

Daily Trojan: Graduate Students Team with USC Forward to Establish Union

The Daily Trojan reporting today on our organizing efforts on campus, quoting many graduate students about the push for unionization at USC:
“Karlynne Ejercito, a graduate student studying American studies and ethnicity who will begin working as a teaching assistant in that department during the next academic year, also emphasized that the desire for a union stems from the fact that many graduate students are married and have started families, and therefore need a body to fight for their access to child care as well as fair wages and racial justice.
‘Some of us want to start families,” Ejercito said. “A union is more of a self-determining body that can advocate on behalf of graduate students in terms of pay, child care, in terms of making sure there’s an anti-racist caucus built into the system.’”
Head over to the Daily Trojan for more.

March 1: #CampusResistance

On March 1, faculty, graduate students, and undergrads participated in a national #CampusResistance day of action. Across the country, faculty and students on over 80 campuses stood up and spoke out to reclaim higher education for the public good.
Here at USC, hundreds gathered at Tommy Trojan to demand that USC President C.L. Max Nikias show real leadership and protect everyone in our University community by designating USC a sanctuary campus.

While calls poured in to the President’s office, faculty and students engaged in a series of Know Your Rights trainings covering immigrant and worker rights, international student rights, and digital rights and cybersecurity.
United, we will continue to fight for a strong union here at USC. Check back soon for more exciting news and important updates.

Back on Campus, Back in Action

Colleagues,
My name is Robert Chlala and I’m a research assistant in the Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences.
As you may have heard, USC graduate students are coming together to form a union. I’m writing today to ask you to join us. If you have already signed on, we hope you can help us spread the word and stand with other vulnerable communities this Friday.
Over the past few months, we have talked to hundreds of our colleagues here at USC about the issues impacting graduate students. It may come as no surprise that many of us share serious concerns regarding healthcare coverage, basic workplace protections, sudden changes to our contracts and working conditions, and uncertainty surrounding our pay, stipends, and university fees as the cost of living in Los Angeles continues to skyrocket.
Our instruction, research, field work and lab work at USC are critical to the University’s success, but all too often, we are left without a voice in the issues affecting our work, our programs, and the students we teach.
We believe that together, our united voice can effect real change on campus. We are inspired by the gains made by graduate students and faculty who have formed unions on their campuses. Already, thousands of graduate students and faculty across the country have come together to win real improvements through unionization, including landmark advances in pay, job security, access to benefits, and control of their work.
As we enter our spring semester, we will join this growing, national movement and continue the important work of building a strong graduate student union here at USC. Organizing efforts are currently underway at peer universities across the country, including Stanford, Duke, Northwestern, and Saint Louis University.
Will you join us? Take the first step, and follow this link to sign the confidential form showing your interest. Your electronic signature helps guarantee that we can move the unionization process forward.
If you have already signed this form, you can help by spreading the word. Ask your colleagues and friends who are graduate workers to fill out the form. The faster we get the word out, the faster we can move USC forward to a more equitable and healthy working environment for graduate students.
We know that in the current political climate, higher education is even more at risk – as are workers around the country. A contingent of graduate student workers will also take part in this Friday’s #J20 Walkout: Trojans vs. Trump! We hope to stand with workers across our campus and across the U.S. – and with all vulnerable communities facing attacks such as deportation, hate crimes, and other violence. If you are interested, please join us this Friday, January 20th at 11am at Tommy Trojan. At 12 noon, we will participate in the #J20 USC contingent to join the marches in downtown Los Angeles. For more on the event, click here.
There’s never been a more important time to stand together. If you would like to get more involved or have any questions, please reach out.
On behalf of the many students working to form a union, I sincerely want to thank you for your time and your important work as a graduate student.
Best,
Robert Chlala, Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences

5 Reasons We're Forming a Graduate Student Union at USC

 
As you may have heard, graduate students at private universities recently won the right to form unions. We’re writing you today to tell you why we’re organizing to form a graduate student union at USC.
 
1. Together we can fix a broken system.
 
Our colleges and universities are becoming a luxury for the wealthy instead of a pathway to the American Dream. Students spend their entire lives trying to pay off debt, yet instructors are paid so little that they qualify for food stamps — all while top administrators pay themselves millions. Together we can fight to restore the promise of higher education: a commitment to quality, accessible instruction that graduates students without debt, pays educators a living wage, and generates more opportunities for everyone in our communities.
 
2. Gaining a voice on campus.
 
Graduate students are the glue that binds our university together, but all too often we’re overlooked and overworked. A union is a way to be heard. A way to come together, build collective power and help bring about greater change at our and other higher education institutions.
 
3. Getting back control of our work.
 
A Graduate student union will bring more security and control over the terms of our work, teaching, and research. Our working conditions directly impact student learning, research outcomes, and our own health and well-being. By forming a union, we can secure a strong, collective voice for ourselves, our work, and the students we teach.
 
4. Winning the better pay and improved benefits we deserve.
 
USC relies on us for undergraduate and graduate instruction, to support research projects, and to further the work of tenured and tenure-track faculty, all of which contribute to maintaining an exceptional academic experience, improved student outcomes, and increased university rankings. But despite our importance, our work is often undervalued and under-appreciated. We teach and research without an adequate voice in pay, healthcare coverage, and university fees, even when the cost of living in Los Angeles continues to skyrocket. Graduate students and faculty who have formed unions have won landmark improvements in wages, access to benefits, and professional development in their first contracts.
 
5. We’re in this together.
 
As the fall semester continues, USC graduate students are organizing to build a strong union on campus, and we’re not alone. Graduate student organizing campaigns are underway at universities across the country, including Duke, Saint Louis University, Northwestern, American University, and Vanderbilt.
 
As graduate students, we need a strong, united voice to effect change. We believe the best way to improve our working conditions and fix higher education is by coming together to form a union.
 
Will you join us? Take the first step: fill out the confidential form below to show your support.
 
All the best,
Victor Sánchez, Research Assistant, Program for Environmental and Regional Equity
Peter Guekguezian, Teaching Assistant, Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences
 

Graduate Students Are Uniting to Change Higher Education

Dear Fellow Graduate Student Employees: 

We are writing to share why we are coming together to improve our working conditions and to ask you to join us.

As you may have heard, graduate student teaching and/or research assistants at private colleges and universities now have the the right to form unions and negotiate over the terms of their employment. Graduate student workers are vital to the mission of higher education. Our teaching, grading and instructional support are core components of undergraduate education; our lab work and fieldwork underwrite major new discoveries and innovations; our research and scholarship contribute both to the broad advance of knowledge and to the reputation of our institution.
Yet graduate needs, perspectives and voices are too often overlooked. Over the past few months, we have spoken with our colleagues across our universities about a range of issues impacting graduate students. Several core themes emerged from these discussions, including: concerns about rising costs of living; inadequate flexibility in healthcare coverage; lack of basic workplace protections; the need for better workplace harassment and discrimination policies; the imposition of continuation fees and other financial burdens; and sudden changes to our contracts and work conditions.
As graduate student workers, we need a strong, united voice in order to effect change on these and other issues. We believe the best way to improve our working conditions is by coming together to form a union for graduate student workers on our individual campuses and to unite with our peers at universities across the country.
While graduate employee unions are not new, we are now part of a national movement. We are standing up and saying it’s time for the people responsible for the core mission of instruction and scholarship to have a voice in the decisions that impact our degree path, our livelihoods, and the future of higher education.

In the past three years, non-tenure track faculty at nearly 50 universities voted to form a union under the banner of SEIU Faculty Forward—joining a nationwide movement of 120,000 SEIU members who work in higher education. Graduate student unionization campaigns are underway at peer institutions such as Duke, Northwestern, Saint Louis University, Vanderbilt and others. By forming a graduate student union with SEIU, we can join our colleagues on campus and across the country in order to improve our work conditions and the quality of higher education as a whole.

Improving our working conditions will benefit not only graduate student workers, but also our students, our faculty and the administration:

  • Undergraduate students deserve teachers, graders and teaching assistants who can be fully engaged in providing the best possible education. Financial insecurity, inadequate health and childcare, unclear teaching guidelines, and uneven work expectations detract and distract from this mission.

  • We also believe that workplace protections, fair grievance procedures and consistent, transparent employment policies for graduate student workers will improve health, productivity and outcomes.

  • Faculty rely on graduate student workers for assistance with research and instruction and will benefit from healthy, happy, productive graduate students, as will the university as a whole.

By working together, we can positively impact our working conditions in ways that benefit the educational and research mission of our universities.

If you’re ready to take the first step to making improvements, click here to sign a union authorization form today, or fill out the form at the bottom of this page. You should also feel free to contact us directly to answer questions about how forming a union would raise standards for our jobs, students, and profession and to find out more about how you can get involved.
We hope you will join us!

Edward Muna, University of Southern California
Kenneth McCarthy Bolster, University of Southern California
Petrina Crockford, University of Southern California
Sabeen Ahmad, Vanderbilt University
Jackson Christopher Bartlett, Northwestern University
Jean Clifford, Loyola University of Chicago
Elizabeth Eikmann, Saint Louis University
Max Freeman, Northwestern University
Connor Gadek, American University
Justin Hubbard, Vanderbilt University
Lisa Madura, Vanderbilt University
Paulo G. Martinez, Vanderbilt University
Ben Meiners, Washington University in St. Louis
Jesse Montgomery, Vanderbilt University
Imani Mosley, Duke University
Aitza M. Haddad Nuñez, J.D., Howard University
Sebastian Ramirez, Vanderbilt University
Lyle Rubin, University of Rochester
Shahrazad Shareef, Duke University
Kelly Swope, Vanderbilt University

 

Are they Students? Or are they Employees? NLRB Rules that Graduate Students are Employees

The Washington Post reports on the NLRB’s landmark ruling clearing the way for graduate students to organize unions on their campusesL

The National Labor Relations Board ruled Tuesday that graduate students who work as teaching and research assistants at private universities are school employees, clearing the way for them to join or form unions that administrators must recognize.

Debates about the role and rights of graduate students have emerged as more universities rely on low-paid adjuncts and doctoral students, rather than full-time professors, to teach — a model that has been widely criticized as exploitative. Though adjuncts are making inroads in their fight for higher wages, graduate students have struggled, in part, because the work they do is often a component of their education.” 

Read the whole thing here.

NLRB Reports USC Violated Federal Laws

From the Daily Trojan: “A report released by the NLRB Monday supported these objections and rendered the original Dornsife vote invalid. The ruling, issued by NLRB Hearing Officer Yaneth Palencia, found that Quick and the USC administration broke federal labor laws by attempting to dissuade adjunct faculty from voting for the union. Though the University will face no legal action, the vote results will be set aside and a new vote will take place within the coming weeks. Votes at the Roski School of Fine Arts and the USC International Academy, which voted to unionize, will remain in place.”

NLRB: USC Broke the Law in Faculty Unionization Vote

Inside Higher Ed reports on the lengths USC administrators are willing to go to stop faculty unionization efforts: “’Provost [Michael] Quick engaged in conduct that was so aggravated as to create a general atmosphere of fear making a free election impossible,’ such as by allegedly suggesting that joining a union would make faculty members ineligible for various forms of shared governance.” More here.