Fordham University Graduate Workers Are Unionizing

Fordham graduate workers are unionizing with the Communications Workers of America. It’s the latest in a wave of organizing at institutions of higher education, where workers are as beleaguered as they’ve ever been.

The Lincoln Center Campus of Fordham University in New York City. (myLoupe / Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

“Graduate student workers have dedicated their lives to their fields of study, teaching, and critical research, but these jobs do not provide a living wage, affordable health care, or support for working parents,” said Carolyn Cargile, a Writing Center fellow and PhD candidate in English at Fordham University’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, in a statement announcing today that an “overwhelming majority” of the school’s graduate workers have signed union authorization cards.

The graduate workers at the New York City school are organizing with the Communications Workers of America (CWA), which also represents graduate workers at SUNY. Their union, Fordham Graduate Student Workers (FGSW), delivered a letter to Fordham president Fr Joseph M. McShane today requesting voluntary recognition of what they estimate is a roughly 350-person bargaining unit. They have filed for a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election should Fordham refuse to voluntarily recognize the union.

The union drive is the latest in a spate of organizing efforts in higher education, which is as beleaguered as it’s ever been, with Department of Labor numbers showing that around 650,000 people lost their jobs in higher education just in 2020. Columbia University saw a 3,300-person strike by its unionized graduate workers late last year, shortly after some 3,500 faculty at the University of Pittsburgh unionized. Efforts to create a coalition of higher-ed unions are ongoing, a logical progression from the formation of 118 new faculty bargaining units, containing more than thirty-six thousand people, between 2013 and 2019.

Among FGSW’s demands are pay raises (graduate pay at Fordham starts at just under $26,000, well below a living wage in New York City), greater legal protection and financial support for international graduate student workers, affordable health insurance that includes dental and vision, and the creation of formal grievance structures that ensure effective protection and recourse against harassment, overwork, and other workplace issues.

Of that last demand, FGSW can point to the contract Columbia University graduate workers recently secured after a hard-fought strike. That agreement includes independent third-party arbitration for harassment and discrimination claims, the first such provision for graduate workers at a private university, and a major success after Harvard University refused to grant any such provision with its own graduate workers last year. During those negotiations, Harvard’s provost argued that such a provision “conflicts with federal regulations.” The university is now facing a lawsuit alleging that its current system for handling Title IX complaints by graduate workers is an appalling, egregious failure.

When Fordham’s more than eight hundred adjunct and non-tenure-track faculty unionized in 2017 as Fordham Faculty United / SEIU Local 200, the university administration fought the effort, objecting that the NLRB did not have jurisdiction over Fordham due to the school’s status as a Jesuit university. Eventually, Fordham president Fr McShane agreed not to further oppose the union, writing that organized labor has “deep roots” in Catholic social-justice teaching. The adjunct union ratified its first contract in 2018, winning 67 to 90 percent raises for the majority of its members. In 2020, graduate workers at Georgetown University, another Jesuit university, ratified their first union contract.

“We hope and expect that Fordham leaders will live up to these Catholic and Jesuit traditions once more, and support our effort by voluntarily recognizing our union so we can begin bargaining a fair contract,” said Benjamin Van Dyne, a teaching fellow and fourth-year graduate student in the Theology Department in the statement announcing the formation of the union.