- Interview by
- Sara Wexler
On Tuesday, January 31, and Wednesday, February 1, over two thousand graduate student workers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore voted on whether to form a union. The “yes” side won in a landslide, with 97 percent voting in favor of unionization. The graduate worker union, Teachers and Researchers United (TRU), is affiliated with the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), which also just scored a higher ed unionization victory at Northwestern University; another affiliated union election is still underway at the University of Chicago. Last week, Jacobin’s Sara Wexler spoke with graduate worker-organizers at Johns Hopkins about the history of their organizing effort and what they’re hoping for from a contract.
When and how did the organizing around the union start?
The earliest iterations of TRU began in 2014 and 2015. An important early campaign was around health insurance. That campaign predates all of us.
I joined about three years ago. When I started, we were a smaller group; we had maybe a hundred active organizers between all of our departments. So we were mostly focusing on outreach and trying to build some kind of support for a union. And it was very slow work. But we’ve really seen the campaign pick up in the last year or so — we built a lot of momentum ahead of our card drop rally.
Since then, it’s snowballed into this massive effort. We’ve had hundreds of organizers join us at this point, and everyone’s been putting in thousands of hours to get us to this point of the election.
Could you say more about how the organizing happened? Was it mostly through in-person conversations?
I came on about a year ago now, I think in March 2022. When I came on, generally there was a lot of emphasis, on department-level organizing. That is very issue-focused too: connecting with folks authentically, through departmental conversations and departmental organizers, about issues that we’re facing at a moment in time.
There was already a lot of infrastructure built on that. But what we grew on was to have that kind of engagement in all of the departments. We were doing that in a couple of ways — having one-on-one conversations and also having walk-throughs: talking to folks in the offices or in the labs and beginning these conversations of “What would make your life as a graduate student better? What would make our research conditions as graduate students better?” and engaging on that level. I think that that starts a very beautiful conversation and a very beautiful new moment of pausing, of thinking, “Oh, yeah, what would make our lives better? And how can we work toward that?” Because that becomes a very real possibility.
We organized in every way we could possibly think of. Begum was central to this really extensive walk-through mechanism where we went to people in their workplaces and asked, “What can the union do that would make your life better?”
But over the past couple of days, we’ve contacted every single member of our unit multiple times. We contacted them however we could get a hold of them, in order to talk through our perspective on what the union might be able to accomplish and to get their perspective on what they want the union to accomplish. So, we’ve organized online, in person . . . basically wherever people are, we’ve tried to meet them there.
It’s kind of a running joke that we’ve called the entire university three times. I know Begum has personally Instagram called someone as well, just to make sure that they were able to make it to the polls. So every resource has been used.
What were the main issues or catalysts that pushed you to fight for a union?
We have a lot of different perspectives here, because we’re from different departments. Based on which department you’re in, there are a lot of different motivations for why you might want to unionize.
My entire experience in academia shaped my reasons for wanting to unionize. I’ve had poor experiences with mentorship and advisors in the past, not just at Johns Hopkins. When I tried to go through the proper channels to find fair grievance procedures for these interactions, I was met with such a wall of indifference. I just came to the realization that some of the systems that are in place right now are not really there to protect the workers, are not there to protect the students, but they operate in the interest of the university or the institution, and they protect the mentors or the advisors in that situation. So there really was nobody that was working in favor of the students or working in favor of the workers.
One of the main catalysts for me was that I wanted to see fair grievance procedures, not just for me, but for so many hundreds or thousands of graduate workers who are probably in a similar situation. That was one of the main reasons that I was so passionate about doing this. But having fair grievance procedures works very well toward having a safe and reliable research experience. So many different reasons intersect there.
There are a million and one reasons. And each individual one feels important enough on its own to justify creating a union. For example, I’m taking this call in a communal workspace, where a friend of mine is working in the corner, because I don’t have any place to do my individual research or meet with students.
And of course, something that we’ve talked a lot about is that the wages we’re paid are not keeping up with inflation. Even before inflation, they were not living wages for Baltimore. I think that’s a really key, unifying issue. For a lot of us, we’re not getting paid enough to live, and the idea of what it means to live is very restrictive. It creates an idea of a very singular person who can be a grad student; it really narrows the range of experiences that are allowed to exist in grad school.
A really important reason for me was that there are real structural limitations on how Johns Hopkins currently interacts with Baltimore as a community. Our hope is that this can be a space where we help build with the community of Baltimore, for more equal and open avenues for resource distribution, and for what can be accomplished with us as members of the Baltimore community.
Improved support and conditions for international students was something that really resonated with me because I am an international student, and also, I am in a department that is, I believe, 69 percent international students. That’s not the entire demographic of the school; it’s a little bit less when you look at other departments. But that is a huge, huge percentage.
I have worked here for years, and I have built communities here and given a lot of labor. But at the end of the day, every single day, I wake up — or every single time I travel — I have to be afraid — is my visa going to be in jeopardy? Am I gonna face this issue? Am I gonna be able to overcome this issue? One way to overcome that is building through this collective movement.
Also, in that precarity, a lot of international students can feel unable to voice opinions or call for these better conditions. Unionization and that kind of collective effort really opens the way for discussion for folks that may be initially more afraid to speak on these issues, but who also really need to participate in this conversation.
What’s the current situation with health insurance at your school? I know that has been a big motivator for unionization at other campuses.
This was one of the earliest foundational union wins, prior to even this election campaign. There was a really extensive campaign around dental and vision; we have dental and vision insurance because of a union campaign. It’s been central to proving that this is not a path of empty promises, but that when we work together, we really can win together.
Additionally, there’s been a lot of organizing — from people in the union, from people doing work outside of the union but in partial collaboration — on trans health care, supporting more extensive coverage of trans health care benefits, and strengthening our health care system and equalizing it across campuses, because there’s variation in kinds of coverage across campuses.
What challenges, if any, did you face when organizing?
One of the hardest populations to get through to was the one that was kind of indifferent — that wasn’t actively supportive, but also wasn’t actively unsupportive. Just people who we had to be like, “Hey, this is happening, can you please get to the polls by this time?” And they’re like, “Yeah, I’ll do it.” That group of people was the biggest challenge for us. Being faced with constantly trying to engage them took most of our energy, I think, rather than the few that were actively supportive or the few that we knew that didn’t really want to support the union at all.
A big challenge for us was being able to demonstrate to people that things can be better and that it’s possible for us to accomplish that. Nobody doubted that our lives could be improved, that conditions were insufficient, but the idea that it was possible to make that change seemed infeasible to a lot of people.
All the things we want to win seem a bit farfetched to a lot of people, and talking through that — like, “This is what other campaigns have won. This is what we have already won here, even without a legally recognized union,” was key to changing that tenor. But it was still really difficult, given the insufficient amount of unionization in the United States at the moment, to tell people who weren’t like myself — not from union families — that it doesn’t have to be this way. That was certainly a challenge we’ve overcome. The margin of victory says that basically everyone on our campus believes that things can be better and that they will be better through a union.
You won the vote with a 97 percent majority. How do you all feel?
We were just happy to win. But then we won so big that it was a shocking realization to us that everybody wants this union, and it’s very representative of how we all collectively believe that we deserve better. It’s very empowering to see that this is truly a collective decision that we’ve made. Now that we have this collective power, we’re very excited to go into bargaining, knowing that we have the supermajority of graduate students and graduate workers supporting this.
I’m still processing it a little bit — winning by 97 percent, it’s huge. But what’s also huge is that over two thousands students came in person to the polls within two days. We have a huge majority of students that don’t work on campus; we have a huge number of students that may live far, but people came to the polls in two days to cast their votes. That’s a huge success, because people are willing to go to the distance.
The first thing I felt was just unbelievable joy that we won it and we won with such a strong majority. And then pride in the work that all of the organizers working with TRU have done in multiple campuses and multiple cities, on a very short timeline, to make this specific outcome happen — and on a very long time line to make TRU possible here.
That a vast majority of people were able to vote, even though people who are out of the country could not vote, and even though there are still people who don’t currently live in Baltimore who couldn’t vote because we don’t have mail-in ballots. And there were people who came down from New York or came up from Richmond to vote. That this mobilized people and resonated so strongly, I think, portends long-term strength for a union.
What are some things you want to see in the contract?
I do want to keep pushing our platform. It was mostly shaped through these one-on-one conversations that we had with folks. The platform incorporates living wages for all, guaranteed on-time payment, improved support for international students, safe and reliable workplaces and transportation, effective grievance procedures, and a commitment to the city of Baltimore. Those overarching points are issues that we are going to begin to address through a contract. One of the things that we’re going to do moving forward is detailing out what that means. What does improved support for international students mean? We are going to start working on building the details of that contract.
The platform is going to be a foundation for what we know we want in the contract, and then the next couple months are going to be confirming with the whole unit how we win those elements of the contract and how we emphasize different parts of the contract. But, for example, it’s no question that we should win a living wage for everyone in the unit, and a living wage that includes the possibility of a family, the possibility of disability, and the possibility of transition — a living wage that is a fully realized life.
How do you envision the union changing life for graduate students? What role do you see the union playing in your academic life?
Even beginning to acknowledge the possibility that our lives and work could be different is the first step that the union opens up. Then there’s a second step that’s like . . . it’s both our current lives as workers in higher education as graduate workers, but also the possibility that this exciting higher ed unionization movement that we’re seeing across the country can build worker power at a variety of scales. We’ll all hopefully continue to build on and improve what it means to work anywhere in this industry.
I’m extremely excited about what this means on a wider scale: graduate workers taking back their power, because that’s not a conversation we’ve been able to have for a really long time. Seeing it in waves across the country right now — it’s inspiring and incredible to think that the future is shifting in the sense that we are able to take back our power as workers, and especially at Hopkins. Hopkins is the first research university in the United States. What does it mean that 97 percent of us are saying that we want to unionize? It means that to do better research, we need better working conditions and better research conditions.
It’s also an exciting time because of our reengagement and reconnection to the value of the work that we’re producing. We’re also connecting, with various other movements, across academia and outside of academia, and repositioning and gaining that perspective of, “What does our work mean? How are we contributing? How are we relating to our workplace or relating to each other? How are we relating to bigger movements?”