How a Small Left-Wing Union Is Helping Drive the Unionization Wave in Higher Ed

The past two years have seen a wave of graduate worker strikes, new organizing drives, and big union election victories. The independent, left-wing United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America has played an outsize role in this upsurge.

The Indiana Graduate Workers Coalition members hold placards while picketing for union recognition on April 15, 2022, in Bloomington, Indiana. (Jeremy Hogan / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images)

The past two years have seen a fresh wave of graduate worker militancy marked by bold strikes, new organizing drives, and whopping union election victories. Indeed, the six largest union filings with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in 2022 were all for graduate worker unions.

Amid this surge, one union is showing up a surprising amount: the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, or the UE. Graduate worker union drives affiliated with the UE have popped up at Indiana University Bloomington, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), University of Chicago, Johns Hopkins University, Dartmouth College, Northwestern University, Princeton University, University of Minnesota, Stanford University, and elsewhere.

With around thirty-five thousand members, the UE is not a huge union. It was once the third-largest — and arguably the most left-wing and democratic — member of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, with around a half-million members in core industries, until it fell victim to postwar anti-communist purges, raids from other unions, and plant shutdowns. But the union revived itself by the 1990s. Famously, UE workers at the Republic Windows & Doors factory in Chicago occupied their plant in 2008, and today the union boasts a range of affiliated locals across sectors and industries from California to Vermont.

Why is the UE — which prides itself on being an independent, member-driven union — proving to be a magnet for graduate workers right now? Truthout spoke to some UE organizers and members at the forefront of its graduate campaigns to hear what they had to say about their ongoing successes.

Key to the UE’s appeal for graduate workers has been its respect for local autonomy, its emphasis on rank-and-file democracy, its confidence in member-driven campaigns, its focus on facilitating worker-to-worker solidarity, and its old-fashioned, militant organizing playbook that has quickly proven itself in practice. Indeed, it’s not entirely accurate to say that the UE has organized thousands of graduate workers; rather, thousands of graduate workers have organized themselves, with UE affiliation serving as a vehicle that facilitates, connects, and strengthens these efforts.

“We stand in contrast to what we think of as a staff-led model,” said Valentina Luketa, an anthropology PhD candidate at Indiana University Bloomington and the UE’s national coordinator for higher education. “We lean heavily on workers and big organizing committees led by workers. All of our election successes have been the result of our graduate workers organizing themselves to sign cards and to make it to the polls.”

“The UE Was Encouraging Us, ‘Just Go for It’”

While graduate workers have been unionizing for decades, the past few years have seen a new organizing surge spurred on by several factors. The COVID-19 pandemic threw graduate workers into a period of crisis and uncertainty. Crucial decisions over their working conditions — from compensation to workplace safety — were controlled by opaque and top-down administrative whims. The sense of insecurity was worse for international students, who make up a huge chunk of the larger graduate worker population.

This crisis moment intersected with a shifting generational mood among graduate workers that was shaped by the post-2008 realities of economic precarity and more open to union militancy. The examples of the Amazon Labor Union and Starbucks Workers United were inspiring, and Bernie Sanders’s primary runs and the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests broadened a sense of possibility.

Crucially, with the academic job market in perpetual crisis under a neoliberal higher education system that increasingly relies on low-paid adjunct labor, there has been a rising sense of the need to win good jobs through collective power now. A green light to unionize also came from the NLRB in March 2021, when it upheld the collective bargaining rights of graduate students at private universities.

Graduate workers had organized with the UE before — for example, in the late 1990s at the University of Iowa — but this new context set the stage for breakthroughs in 2021 and 2022 that paved the way for the UE’s emergence as a graduate organizing powerhouse.

One pivotal development came at Indiana University Bloomington. In 2017, graduate workers there formed the Indiana Graduate Workers Coalition to fight for issues like a living wage and a waiver for mandatory student fees. They later developed a relationship with the UE and, in late 2021, affiliated with them with the intent of officially unionizing.

Indiana is a right-to-work state, and Indiana graduate workers that Truthout spoke with said other unions advised them to wait for better conditions to attempt to unionize. But the UE encouraged them to fight for their union now despite the legal obstacles, and it offered to help.

“The UE was very much encouraging us, ‘just go for it’,” said Anne Kavalerchik, a fourth-year PhD student in sociology and informatics at Indiana and former project staff organizer with the UE.

The Indiana graduate workers began a card campaign in the fall of 2021 and waged a two-month strike for union recognition in March and April 2022. While the university has yet to recognize the union, the workers have won major gains in pay and other areas.

More importantly, their struggle forged a cadre of steeled organizers who could pass on their lessons to the rising wave of UE-affiliated organizing drives.

Another key fight around the same time came at MIT. By December 2021, a majority of MIT graduate workers had signed union cards to set up an NLRB vote. In April 2022, MIT grad students voted in favor of a union with a 2 to 1 margin.

This was a huge win: MIT is one of the world’s most prestigious universities and a major STEM school. Graduate unions historically have had tougher times organizing the sciences, but at MIT many of the union militants wore lab coats and crunched math equations.

A “Robust Infrastructure for Worker-to-Worker Exchanges and Training”

Around this time, in late 2021 and throughout 2022, as UE-affiliated graduate workers from Indiana and MIT to New Mexico and Iowa were connecting with each other, and as interest from new schools was starting to come in, a critical mass was emerging for something bigger.

“That was the beginning within the UE of building a nationwide effort by graduate workers within the UE’s infrastructure to organize us across industry, with the intention to not only improve our working conditions, but to reclaim the educational missions of these institutions,” said Luketa.

The UE launched its Graduate Worker Organizing Committee (GWOC), which Luketa describes as a “robust infrastructure for worker-to-worker exchanges and training” that has been “the key to our success.” She said the GWOC is where the UE has “different campaigns talking directly to other campaigns to transfer knowledge” around everything from winning elections to bargaining strong contracts.

The GWOC reflects the UE’s larger organizing philosophy that’s appealing to a growing number of graduate workers: regular members, with assistance from the UE national office, driving the life of their union, expanding their collective movement through worker-to-worker organizing and support.

Through the GWOC, over Slack and Zoom meetings, graduate workers across institutions share advice and resources, organize trainings, coordinate attendance at rallies, and enlist campaign support. Kavalerchik says a meetup of UE graduate workers from several universities at the June 2022 Labor Notes conference was helpful in solidifying the UE organizer network.

“We’ve continued that into a network of organizers where every campaign has a pretty strong connection to all the other campaigns to make it really easy to organize,” she said.

While the UE national office offers legal and organizing advice built up over decades and provides on-the-ground staff support, its graduate efforts rest upon the workers themselves, who are often already highly organized when they connect with the UE.

“The UE model is not finding a campaign and then having staffers paratroop in just to win an election,” said Kavalerchik. “The UE model is one where the workers are doing the hard organizing, the mobilizing work of building up their unions, and then UE is there to support in whatever ways it can.”

“Tell Us How to Fish and Then We’ll Go and Fish”

While places like Indiana and MIT were in the heat of their struggles, graduate workers at other schools were taking a growing interest in the UE.

University of Chicago graduate workers had been organizing themselves for years as UChicago Graduate Students United (GSU) before affiliating with the UE in August 2022. A big part of the UE’s appeal was the support it could offer while respecting the GSU’s history and autonomy.

“Having people come and consult and advise us on best practices is what we wanted,” said Andrew Seber, a sixth-year history PhD student at the University of Chicago and a UE staff organizer. “We were like, ‘Okay, tell us how to fish and then we’ll go and fish.’”

Seber said organizers from Indiana and elsewhere came to help and passed on crucial strategies like “how to do a successful walkthrough,” where union members who work in specific buildings and floors regularly walk by the offices and labs of their coworkers to talk about what the union’s doing.

These walkthroughs became “the core of our model” for organizing, said Seber, rooting the union in the space where people worked and keeping the campaign at the top of everyone’s mind. The walkthroughs created tight-knit, granular structures of support for the union that served as antidotes to the administration’s anti-union tactics. “There are some buildings at the University of Chicago that you walk into and it’s like, the Graduate Student Union runs this building, and there is no question about that,” said Seber.

Tactics like these also helped UChicago GSU build a strong base among STEM graduate workers. “People in the labs are working forty to sixty plus hours a week,” he said. “They have absolutely full-time jobs.” This was crucial for the union. “You’re not going to have a credible strike without STEM,” said Seber. “There’s no campaign without them. But also, they deserve a union just as much as everybody else.”

The UE campaign at University of Chicago culminated in March 2023, when graduate workers won their union with a 92 percent pro-union vote, with 1,696 voting yes against 155 no votes. They’re now starting to negotiate their first contract.

“The Demonstrated Success of Campaigns Elsewhere”

At Princeton University, graduate workers have been organizing for years through Princeton Graduate Students United (PGSU), which formed in 2016. In 2021, PGSU affiliated with the UE and a majority of graduate workers have now signed union cards.

Gaby Nair, a third-year PhD student in politics, said a range of grievances during the onset of the pandemic, especially the lack of transparency around university decision-making, intensified support for a union among graduate workers at Princeton. This came on top of issues like mounting housing costs and the lack of a neutral grievance procedure for graduate labor, all at an institution with a $35.8 billion endowment whose governance excluded graduate workers and other stakeholders.

Nair says Princeton graduate workers reached out to a few unions, but the UE held the most appeal for her. “The worker-led model was really persuasive for me personally,” she said.

Nair says Princeton graduate workers mostly spoke to other UE-affiliated grads in their initial discussions exploring affiliation with the union. The example of UE-affiliated graduate workers at MIT — a peer institution with many international students and a STEM focus — was influential.

“It felt like this campaign, their strategy, was really going to involve connecting grads to other grads and drawing on the knowledge of grad workers,” she said.

This grad-to-grad support has borne out at Princeton and beyond and has been central to the success of UE-affiliated graduate worker unions. Johns Hopkins grads joined Princeton grads at their union rally; Northwestern and University of Chicago grads supported each other’s card campaigns and attended each other’s victory parties; they, in turn, both helped the Johns Hopkins grads; workers from the Indiana campaign have supported and staff emerging campaigns elsewhere. The list goes on.

Luketa stresses that the lines of support — help with phone banking or passing on tips and tactics over Slack, for example — are always going in all directions, sustaining a vibrant web of worker-led solidarity. “There has been crossing paths of all of the campaigns simultaneously at the same time,” she said. “Literally everybody helps everybody.”

Nair said that, more than anything, the ongoing victories for graduate workers across the United States have helped boost the determination of many Princeton grads to win their union.

“I think the most beneficial thing for the campaign at Princeton has been the recent success of campaigns elsewhere,” she said. “That has been really a powerful message in normalizing and making very positive grad worker unionization across the country. The UE has been an integral part of that recently, obviously — not the only union involved in the recent wave, but one that’s involved in pretty big victories.”

“We Have a Bigger Imperative Here”

Kavalerchik stresses that the UE’s recent success in organizing graduate workers is not because of any secret trick, but the result of dedicated, worker-led organizing.

“We’re just working really, really hard with a tried-and-true method, and making sure that every single worker is talked to and every single piece is covered,” she said.

More broadly, the surge in grad worker unionization through the UE and other unions promises to have larger effects on the labor movement and progressive politics. The new graduate unions are big and militant. They are often located in major cities from Chicago to Boston to Baltimore, and their examples could inspire others nearby and anchor solidarity efforts. Moreover, thousands of pro-union graduate workers who have experienced organizing drives will disperse into hundreds of other workplaces, bringing their union consciousness with them.

For now, the UE isn’t just fighting to help graduate workers gain more power and better working conditions. It’s hoping to transform academia altogether.

“There has been a very strong sensibility within all our campaigns that our universities have been surrendered to neoliberal logic that puts profits first and education, students, academic workers, and other campus workers second,” said Luketa.

“Within the UE, we have a bigger imperative here: to reclaim the educational mission of all of our institutions.”