Graduate Student Workers at the University of Southern California Have Won a Union
The unionization wave in higher ed continues apace, with grad student workers at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles winning a union election in mid-February. Jacobin spoke to USC worker-organizers about their win and their contract demands.
- Interview by
- Sara Wexler
On February 17, the Graduate Student Worker Organizing Committee–United Auto Workers University of Southern California (GSWOC-UAW USC) announced that it won its National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) union election at USC by a 93 percent margin. USC grad workers join a wave of recent union victories at private universities across the United States, including Yale, Northwestern, and Johns Hopkins. The USC union election also comes on the heels of a massive academic workers’ strike across the public University of California system. Jacobin’s Sara Wexler spoke with two GSWOC-UAW worker-organizers about their effort and what comes next.
First and foremost, the reason we’re looking to form a union at USC is to get an equal position at the bargaining table with the university and have a say in our working conditions. Right now our entire working conditions are determined by the university. Our pay, our class sizes, any sort of disciplinary procedures — it’s all decided without our input. With the union, we’ll be able to negotiate for higher wages and more, and have input into our working conditions.
From the perspective of the sciences and what we’ve heard from people working in labs, the expectations and workloads are excessive. That’s definitely something we want to fight hard for: decreasing that excessive workload. And also in the sciences, I think harassment from advisers or PIs (principal investigators) tends to be very common; we’ve definitely heard a lot of those stories. That’s something we want to address through a more effective grievance process than Title IX.
Who would be recognized, or who do you hope to be recognized in the union? It is pretty unique, I think, to have master’s students involved.
In mid-February, we voted to certify our union. Before that we had conversations between the union, the USC administration, and the NLRB. We ended up agreeing on a unit that consists of anyone who has the job title of research assistant, teaching, or assistant lecturer, as well as internal fellows in STEM. A couple categories were put under challenge, but we were able to include a lot of people in this unit who have often been disenfranchised by other universities and other union drives.
To my knowledge, it’s one of the most expansive units in terms of who’s included.
Can you give me a general timeline of the organizing and how it happened? Was it through mostly in-person conversations?
We started organizing in the fall of 2020; things really kicked off in fall 2021. We built a strong, diverse leadership committee that then expanded to build majority support through a card drive. Once we had supermajority support, we filed for an NLRB election, which we won by a 93 percent margin. Now we’re in the process of bargaining. So we are going to be figuring out our bargaining demands. We’re going be figuring out who will be on the bargaining team, and then we’re going to negotiate with the university and hopefully come to a strong contract.
To your question about how we went about organizing, we focused on one-on-one conversation tactics, encouraging people to talk to their lab mates and coworkers, answering questions, and addressing misinformation that USC was spreading. That was the strategy that worked really well for us — relying on a grassroots-style, one-on-one-conversation drive.
Was the union drive sparked by certain conditions?
There were a few things. One was the pandemic, which showed a lot of people that the university doesn’t really care about them. A lot of people were all of a sudden thrown on their own without any support.
The other thing is, Joe Biden became president and Donald Trump’s NLRB became Democratic, which is important in our case because grad students do have the right to unionize, but the Republican NLRB could have potentially made that difficult. So having a Democrat in office meant that the people at the NLRB were now more on our side.
You’ve already touched on this, but I wanted to ask about the fact that the union received a 93 percent yes vote.
In addition to getting such a strong yes vote, we also saw that a majority of folks who are eligible voted yes. So we’re proud of the strong mandate that we were able to turn out to vote yes, and we’re hoping that it’ll put us in a great position when we go to bargaining. USC will see that the majority of graduate students voted yes.
What do you hope to win in a contract? What are your demands?
That’s what we’re working to formulate right now. We’re going to put out our initial bargaining demands within the next few weeks. I can tell you now that they will certainly involve things like higher wages (getting us to a living wage), protections from harassment and discrimination, having a real independent grievance procedure, better health care, better benefits (especially for dependents), and protections for international students.
How has the university responded to the union so far?
Between when we filed and when the election was held, the university sent out maybe four or five emails with a version of an FAQ. It made it very clear that it did not think that this was a good move for us. It very explicitly said that it doesn’t think graduate students should unionize. When we initially filed, the university didn’t want to have a conversation with us about voluntarily recognizing the union or anything like that.
Given that stance, we might not be the most optimistic about bargaining, but we’re hoping the strong mandate that we were able to get through the election will show the administration that we’re serious about this. Despite it not thinking that this is the best choice for us, we’ll still come to the table and bargain in good faith.
What challenges did you face in organizing?
Things are very siloed at the university. If you’re in English, you’re not really talking to anybody in chemistry, you’re not talking to anybody in engineering. So I think the biggest challenge we had was breaking through those disciplinary silos, to build a union that is strong across the entirety of the university.
One of the big challenges organizing in STEM is that folks often are just very busy. It can be difficult for folks in STEM to prioritize this kind of effort over lab work. It’s something that I prioritize very highly during my time in grad school, so I’ve definitely put a lot of time toward it, but I think for some people it can be hard to take time away from the lab. I’m hoping now that our union has been certified and that we’re moving toward bargaining, people will see that this is actually happening, and realize, I need to put time toward this to make sure that my voice is heard.
Have you been in touch with other grad unions? UCLA was just part of the historic University of California strike.
We’ve gotten a tremendous amount of support from UAW locals nearby. [University of California grad worker union, UAW Local] 2865 has been incredibly supportive of what we’ve been doing, and we’ve gotten a lot of help from them. Their strike was very inspiring; they won an amazing contract, and it’s fired people up here. I talk to people, and they tell me that they saw massive raises, and they want to get that here as well. I think having the strike happen so close to our election is partially why we had that big margin.
How do you imagine a union changing grad student life on your campus?
It would really be night and day. The experience of grad school can be very isolating; it can be extremely challenging. People feel like they’re on their own. They’re putting off adulthood in many ways; they’re not being paid enough to have stable housing, to have kids; they live at the whim of their adviser and their department.
With more schools unionized, there’s a path to being able to have a dignified life with protections, with good pay, while you’re in grad school. There’s no reason it shouldn’t be that way.
Will the union make any demands in the contract or bargaining process about USC and its relationship to the Los Angeles community at large — concerning rents, inequality, gentrification?
I think those types of things fall outside of the scope of labor negotiations. So the contract will include things like our wages and working conditions.
In terms of the wider scope, because we’re organized as a union we’re able to do other things. The union isn’t just: every three or four years you have a contract, and that’s it. It’s an institution that can do so much more. I think there’s going to be a lot of interest in our union working with community partners, working with elected officials to not just make USC a better place to work, but to make Los Angeles a better place to live.
We’ve already seen organizing and relationships starting to build between our union members and elected officials; we saw a lot of support from elected officials after we announced that we won our election. So I think we’ll be able to build on that — not necessarily through a contract, but just because we’re so organized and there’s so many people who see these needs as urgent and important.
[Democratic Socialists of America–endorsed Los Angeles city councilor] Hugo Soto-Martinez gave us a huge amount of support ahead of the campaign, including a really nice video. UAW has endorsed him, and I’m sure that we’ll work with his office on a whole scope of progressive changes to the city of Los Angeles.
Can you tell me why you’ve been fighting for a union at USC?