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Students at the University of California, Berkeley, protesting in favor of unionization.

Physics graduate students join their peers in unionization efforts

16 May 2023

Federal and state legislation, along with COVID-19, set the stage for graduate students to push for contracts that guarantee them higher wages, health care, and protection from harassment.

Students at the University of California, Berkeley, protesting in favor of unionization.
The first day of the strike at the University of California, Berkeley, in November 2022. Credit: Greg Ottino

Four years ago, Cory McCartan started graduate school at Harvard University to study Bayesian modeling and causal inference. In his first semester, he found himself with other students on a picket line, striking to demand better working conditions. “Seeing everybody come together who makes the university work was a life-changing experience,” he says.

As a member of the Harvard Graduate Student Union bargaining committee, McCartan helped the organization secure its first contract, which was ratified in 2020—just four years after the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) gave students at private universities the right to form collective bargaining units. The contract granted the requested cost-of-living pay raises, including yearly increases for the next three years, and improved medical benefits, including dedicated funds to cover out-of-pocket emergency costs. It became one of the roughly 42 graduate student contracts at US universities as of September 2022, including nine at private institutions like Harvard.

Despite the success at Harvard, it hasn’t been a straightforward path for graduate students wishing to organize. After ruling in 2016 that research and teaching assistants at private institutions have the legal right to form unions, the NLRB proposed a rule in 2019 that would have reversed that decision, only to withdraw the planned rule two years later. Several states have long recognized collective bargaining rights for public-university graduate student researchers and teachers as employees under public-sector collective bargaining laws.

The COVID-19 pandemic raised new labor-related questions for graduate students—about what counts as acceptable provisions for working from home, assistance for international students, and safe conditions for returning to campus; reopening plans often required students to take health risks that made some feel uncomfortable.

Graduate students from many public and private universities are now voting to unionize so they can engage in collective bargaining with the university employers over their working conditions. By 2019, just over 83 000 graduate students in the US out of a total of roughly 3 million were in collective bargaining units, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. And that number is growing. Continuing goals for the unionizing graduate students include establishing procedures to address workplace harassment, paid parental leave, mental health care access, and basic lab safety.

Increasing support

There are two elements that have shaped the current graduate student bargaining landscape, according to William A. Herbert, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions. First, the pandemic brought to light the vulnerability of graduate students to abrupt changes in workplace conditions, without provisions made for work-from-home necessities and limited access to the lab. Second is a shift in attitudes on campus: Recent votes by students have favored unions, whereas “in the past, some votes were against them,” says Herbert.

For instance, in a 2021 analysis Herbert and a coauthor noted that the physics department at Yale University voted against unionization in 2017. (The mathematics and geology and geophysics departments voted in favor.) In 2022 graduate assistants at numerous institutions voted overwhelmingly in favor of representation, including at Yale, the University of Chicago, Johns Hopkins University, the University of Southern California, and Northwestern University. That trend has continued in 2023.

Among the issues cited are the need for better laboratory working conditions and the ability to file for arbitration over questions of harassment. “There are stories of abusive supervisors who bully their students and force them to work extra hours,” says Caltech astronomy PhD student Ryan Rubenzahl. “And COVID showed just how tenuous our health care plan was,” he adds, referring to a lack of guaranteed benefits at the beginning of the pandemic.

Those issues led Rubenzahl and his fellow graduate students to take steps to form a union. In January they distributed cards on which the signatory pledges to be a union member should a union form. Once enough eligible workers sign the cards, a petition can be filed with the NLRB for an election. The studies by Herbert’s research center suggest they’re likely to succeed. But it could take months, Rubenzahl says, because the board “is slammed with elections right now.”

One vote, held in January, resulted in the certification of Northwestern University Graduate Workers. Physics PhD student Jacob McLaughlin, chair of the union’s communications committee, says that members are now arranging a bargaining team with individuals charged to negotiate specific items, such as dental care. McLaughlin says, “One reason I got involved with organizing was that I lost several teeth in an assault and was in the hospital for 10 days.” That experience made clear the importance of an emergency fund for covering out-of-pocket medical copays and the need for dental coverage in his university’s medical plan.

Affiliation with a national organization helps students join forces with other university employees who are already union members. Academic workers with no local representation have long counted on established unions like United Auto Workers and United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America for support when working to define and expand their rights. That support, along with precedents set by contracts at other universities, gives new unions an advantage that their predecessors did not have.

Compromises and strikes

Until 2021, University of California (UC) graduate student unions represented teaching assistants but not research assistants. “Only half of graduate students had a union, which weakened our ability to bargain,” says Ahmed Akhtar, a physics PhD student at UC San Diego and a bargaining team member for UC Student Researchers United (SRU). Because many physics students split their time between teaching and research, work as a research assistant meant “you were an at-will employee and could be fired for any reason. That was the stark reality in a lot of STEM departments,” says Akhtar.

Legislation allowing research assistants at California’s public universities to seek protection led to SRU’s recognition by the state’s Public Employment Relations Board in 2021. Shortly afterward, SRU presented a draft contract to the university focused on wages that keep pace with housing costs. After months of debate, UC academic workers voted to strike, leading to the largest strike in US higher education history. Some 48 000 academic workers, including teaching assistants, research assistants, and postdocs, walked out for six weeks. Classes were disrupted, exams canceled, streets blocked, and research delayed. Eventually, on 23 December 2022, the strikers sealed SRU’s first contract. The student workers and postdocs won wage increases, support for child care, paid leave, and new protections against bullying and harassment.

“The university is a behemoth,” says Nick Geiser, a physics PhD student at UCLA and member of the SRU bargaining team. “We were negotiating not just with one campus, but with 10 campuses and a national lab.” Greg Ottino, a Berkeley PhD student in particle physics working at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and an SRU bargaining team member, says that “the cross-departmental solidarity and the collective sense of responsibility were powerful.”

Growing pains

Problems remain, and many unions and would-be unions have experienced pushback. In response to a strike, Temple University tried to revoke graduate students’ health care coverage and tuition benefits. And Northeastern University has disputed graduate students’ right to unionize, despite the NLRB ruling, one of its arguments being that unionization could negatively impact a graduate student’s experience. For example, the Office of the Provost’s website says, “Collective bargaining could mean that the university would have to deal directly with the union regarding terms and conditions of your teaching or research responsibilities. … The union could seek to limit your ability to work one-on-one with your advisor on aspects of your assignment and responsibilities.” Nate Avish, a Northeastern physics PhD student and union organizing member, says, “The university argues that any graduate worker paid hourly, and anyone on a fellowship, shouldn’t be part of the union.”

Sarah Arveson, who received her PhD in geophysics from Yale in 2020, campaigned as a graduate student for improved mental health care access and has continued with similar efforts as a postdoc at UC. She is now taking time off from research to serve as vice president of UAW 5810, the Union of Postdocs and Academic Researchers at University of California and Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. “The most unique perspective I can offer as someone who was a union leader in graduate and postdoc unions is that issues persist regardless of job title or location,” she says, “so you must actively build worker power to address them.” The UC graduate research student union was only possible because of a bill passed by the state legislature. Unionizing on campus is harder in states with less labor-friendly laws.

As more graduate students look at the university as an employer, they realize that they need unions for support throughout their careers, explains Arveson. “As you get older, things like parental leave and retirement become important for retention in the academic pipeline.” Her advice for others who want to work toward and reap the fruits of union representation? “You have to intelligently wield your collective power within both the university and the halls of government.”

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