Interview with Ella Wind on US Grad Student Organising

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On 14 September 2018, NCAFC member Dan Davison interviewed Ella Wind, a Sociology PhD student at New York University (NYU) involved in the Graduate Student Organizing Committee (GSOC), the union of graduate employees affiliated with United Automobile Workers (UAW) Local 2110. For more info about GSOC-UAW Local 2110, visit their website at https://makingabetternyu.org/.

Q: In the UK, grad students are often members of the University and College Union (UCU), the national trade union for academic staff in higher education. There is no equivalent national union in the US, and many grad students are instead members of UAW and other unions not specific to the higher education sector. Could you please explain how this situation came about?

A: Not only are graduate students members of the UAW, but they’re also members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU); the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), which is probably the closest fit – that tends to be the national teachers’ union; and UNITE HERE, which usually does hotel and retail workers. So graduate students and adjunct staff [1] tend to be part of a variety of national unions, none of which are exclusive to academic workers.

I actually don’t know the exact history of how that came about originally. I imagine it’s just that academic workers really began to unionise after there was already the rapid decline in unions in the United States and so there was never really a national union created, but it really creates this interesting system. I was just at the Coalition of Graduate Employee Unions (CGEU) conference – that’s for all the graduate workers across different unions in North America, so Canada and the US – and a really interesting feature of that conference is how much of an emphasis there is on militant unionism and a sort of anti-business unionism common sense, which is really lacking in the general American labour movement.

I was reflecting on why that was the case at that conference and I think part of it is that, because graduate workers are so spread out across so many different union sectors and national unions, no one national is able to dominate a conference like that and set the tone from a top-down perspective. So actually it makes things more grassroots and I think that it creates these interesting dynamics in terms of how academic workers organise themselves, and what sort of information gets shared between people in terms of best organising practices and such.

Q: Has the lack of a national trade union for education workers presented a serious obstacle to better pay and working conditions, and have there been efforts to coordinate workers across multiple institutions in the absence of a national union?

A: I think it certainly does present obstacles, although I actually cannot think of any concrete examples of things that I’ve come across in organising myself. I think – possibly because of the nature of our work, in which we tend to be organised in cross-national networks by the nature of our research, where our workplaces aren’t just these physical places but very much exist on the Internet and in these sorts of inherent national/international networks – that graduate workers have been rather successful in coordinating across our different small union units and even across national unions. And that’s really picked-up pace in the last few years, I think.

So CGEU Conference has been around for a while – the conference we just had a month was the 27th annual conference – but it’s really picked up steam in the last few years and has a lot more attendees. It’s become a lot more active and taken on a life of its own even compared to historically. There’s also all this other coordination that is going on beneath the surface. We, for example, we have XCRF, the Cross-campus Rank and File Movement. It’s basically this cross-campus network that we have in New York City metro area because New York probably has the highest union density for graduate workers in the country, in line with New York having the highest overall union density in the United States. We have an email network where we send each other questions about organising things, we get in touch with each other if we need strike preparation help, and we hold a few in-person meetings and retreats annually – all sorts of different communication and collaboration happens.

There’s also this new initiative that’s just come out of XCRF a month ago, called the File, which is going to be a free, online resource for graduate worker organisers. Eventually, it’s going to have templates for training sessions for organisers or all the contracts that have been negotiated across the country, or guides to organising around specific issues, which aren’t available anywhere right now as one single resource. Any kind of information that gets produced in terms of best organising practices is all going to be put into the File (after ‘rank and file’ – it’s play on that!) and that’s actually an outgrowth of this cross-campus coalition listServ/New York organising group that we’ve been putting together for the last few years.

Also, the CGEU listServ is fairly active and people email each other asking questions like ‘What does your contract look like in terms of these specific provisions for breastfeeding facilities?’ or other things that you wouldn’t necessarily just have as language in your contracts.

So there’s lots of different organising going on in terms of how people are coordinating and I think it’s been fairly effective, especially considering how new the upsurge has been and, like I said, I think that’s partially a product of the nature of academic research and work. A lot of it is sort of new, so maybe it will all fizzle out, but so far I feel fairly optimistic about it.

Q: Could you please describe how you went about unionising grad students on your own campus? How did you set up the union and persuade people that it was worth joining?

So NYU has a particular history. We have a very unusual union – to this day, we are still the only private university in the United States where graduate students have a recognised union with a contract, and we actually have that designation as the first and only union with that two times in a row! We were first established in the 1990s: that’s when the campaign kicked off for a union at NYU for graduate workers, GSOC, and we were able to organise, win a contract, and then, after the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) changed under George Bush and reversed precedent on whether graduate students were considered workers, NYU Administration actually unilaterally withdrew recognition of our contract and of our union. In response, we held a semester-long strike in 2005. It was extremely brutal from what I heard (I wasn’t around at the time) and it failed to re-win recognition.

Basically, we were operating unofficially in that we were unrecognised and without contract, for the following eight years until 2013. The UAW, our parent union, was just having us file these appeals to the NLRB for several years, filling out these petitions, taking trips to Washington to try to talk to lobbyists. From what I’ve heard from people who finished before me and were part of that period of our union, it was a very demoralising process and there wasn’t a lot of thought to how the union could still try to fight for better working conditions, even outside of recognition – a kind of a rank and file approach where our power comes from being organised as a group of workers versus a more legalistic approach in which our power comes from official recognition and representation.

My understanding from GSOC members who were around in this period is that, with the rise of Occupy Wall Street (OWS) in New York City, a lot of people who had been involved in union efforts got pulled into New York University for Occupy Wall Street (NYU4OWS) and got really interested in organising and much more interested in left-wing politics. People started to read Jane McAlavey – I’m not sure if you know here in the UK, she’s a well-known organizer and writer in the US labour movement on rank and file organising in ‘right to work’ states. [2] She works with nurses and she’s a really big advocate of open bargaining. People are very inspired by that approach.
Coinciding with these organisers becoming more interested in a rank and file approach and becoming more radicalised by Occupy Wall Street, there was an opportunity where NYU had a series of scandals that gave it a lot of bad press. (In New York City there was already really no love lost for NYU). That, coupled with anticipation of the Obama NLRB board coming in, created this opening where NYU as a gesture of goodwill negotiated with the UAW to have us re-recognised, or to have a vote for us to be re-recognised if we got majority support for reinstating the union.

That kicked off the big campaign to have a union election which we won by a huge, huge margin and then, when we started contract negotiations again,there was already this core of organisers who had been organizing on and around campus for the previous few years through the work through OWS, and had been radicalized through that and by reading this more radical union history and literature. They were really excited to try to implement some rank and file-driven and militant organising principles. There were a lot of struggles as to what kind of strategy we were going to take, but ultimately I think that group won and we were able to have this really dynamic organising campaign around our contract, which ended up netting us a very successful contract in my opinion!

Q: In the UK, one common barrier to collective solidarity and action amongst PhD students is the felt need to get experience and keep management happy in order to progress in their careers. How have grad student unions in the US managed to overcome this barrier?

I think it’s a problem we definitely still struggle with and have not fully solved. It may be the biggest challenge for academic worker organising: this very strange, sort of feudalistic relationship that we have with our supervisors in which they have this incredible amount of power over us in ways that can really be so personalistic and unusual. We’ve recently had at NYU the Avital Ronell scandal, which I suppose you’ve heard of: just one close-to-home example of this obviously huge and widespread problem.

Part of the way you see this play out is that certain types of disciplines are more likely to become involved in union organising than other types of disciplines. I’m a sociologist – I think that my relationship with my adviser, while still having that kind of potential for high levels of personalistic control through the need for a favourable letter of recommendation, is less acute than, for example, someone working in a lab with a Principal Investigator (PI). [3] I think we often see in the union that people in the humanities, people in the social sciences, tend to be overrepresented as a percentage of activists in our unit versus people who are in biology, computer science – even psychology, for example – and a lot of times the way people explain this is simply by an ideological commitment (‘sociology has all these Marxists’). This may be part of the explanation, but I think we end up underestimating how much that really intense PI relationship is a crucial factor that inhibits people in STEM from union organising.

It seems that there is a growing recognition of that. Previously, I think that people always just said this was fully explained by the ideological aspect, ‘Of course the people in social sciences are going to become more involved!’, but recently there’s just been more of a realisation that, actually, what may be more important is that STEM has this particular structural aspect, which makes get those grad workers involved in organising especially difficult and especially important.

At the CGEU conference last month, we had an ‘Organising in STEM’ panel, which I didn’t attend unfortunately, but I heard was one of the most popular panels at the conference. People thought it had these really interesting insights into the specific structural issues that STEM students face. I think that looking more closely at that is going to be what we need to do in the next few years because those disciplines are so inhibited from getting more interested in organising because of the particularities of that relationship.

More generally, I think that at core this is a collective action problem, which requires collective action solutions. I know that people who were involved at NYU as the campaign was picking up steam leading into our election said that there were these certain departments where the culture was really, really terrible in terms of what professors could expect to ask of their grad students. The sort of Avital Ronell-esque stuff, you know, like ‘Can you pick up my dry cleaning?’ or very weird sorts of requests that just should not be happening in terms of the proper boundaries of the professor-graduate student relationship. When there were campaigns for everyone to wear union buttons or other campaigns that made it clear that the majority of graduate students in that department were really supporting the union, those requests quickly declined and became a lot less common.
I think that’s why organising beyond one-on-one conversations is so important – we need to have these union actions be public, have people come out as a collective. I know it’s just the clichéd union stuff, but it’s kind of clichéd for a reason! I don’t know if that answers the question, but where I think that’s where the wins we’ve had have been and where our future challenges lie.

Q: What is solidarity like between undergrad and grad students? Are undergrad student activists keen on supporting the specific struggles of grad students and vice versa?

My understanding is that part of the reason that the 2005 strike was not successful was a lack of strong undergrad support, which made it less costly for NYU to just ignore us for a full semester of striking. That led to people being very careful when we were having strike preparation during our contract campaign to very early on cultivate ties with undergraduates.
I think we also benefited, like I said, from this changed political culture in the United States post-OWS where there was a very active student group on campus: for example, the Student Labor Action Movement (SLAM), which would work on things like unionising janitorial workers on campus, so they were already a great undergraduate group for us to reach out to as we were ramping up our contract campaign. We had these organic ties to groups like Students for Justice in Palestine and through those groups we started building out networks with undergraduates.

We also tried to incorporate undergraduates in a lot of different ways. For example, we implemented open bargaining in the Jane McAlavey style, and we had one open bargaining session where we had undergraduates attend and they actually gave testimonials as to why their Teaching Assistants (TAs) were so important for their education. A lot of them said that their TAs were much more important than their professors in terms of what they learned in undergrad! They talked about specific TAs that they had really just loved and thought were incredibly effective educators. Being in the bargaining room is generally just a really empowering experience for people and those undergrads who came to testify then came to all kinds of action we held afterwards. I think it kind of sucked them in.

We also developed a guide to talking to your undergrads after class about the upcoming strike: telling them why we’re going on strike, the issues with our contract, what they’re trying to offer us, what we’re asking for, etc. I believe that this was effective and, for me, the proof was what happened, when we were on the deadline of the strike (I think about two days before) and NYU sent out this email to the entire campus – professors, undergrads, every member of NYU campus – about how we had these really unreasonable demands and we were threatening to go on strike irresponsibly. We started to immediately get flooded with these CC’s of professors and undergrads responding to this email from NYU Administration, telling NYU Admin that they were disgusting or that they should be ashamed of spreading these lies. Then a group of undergrads spontaneously self-organised to have a petition, and they got around 1000 signatures and had a rally to deliver the petition to the President’s office in the library. That was all when we were too busy preparing for the strike and I do think that is part of the reason why NYU caved on the night of the strike deadline: because the show of undergrad support was much bigger than it had been during the previous strike.

The levels of undergraduate-graduate solidarity I think really vary from institution to institution, so that’s just our personal story, but I do think some of the general parameters – in terms of there being these student labour groups on campuses now, and also groups like the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), in the kind of post-OWS, post-Bernie moment – really help give a base for doing that kind of work in terms of reaching out to undergraduates who would be sympathetic.

Q. Is there a general sense that precarious employment is not taken sufficiently seriously as a sector-wide issue by more senior members of staff?

Yes, that’s a very common complaint people have about their academic advisers: that they completely underestimate how bad the job market can be, especially in certain disciplines. I think also at schools like NYU we have the sort of ‘prestige hand waving’ argument: like ‘Well, yes, the job market is bad, but you know – you’re an NYU student: what are you worried about? You will be the one to get those few jobs that exist!’

So yeah, that is a definite common complaint people have about the way their advisers talk about the job market. But I also think that’s become less true over years because it’s gotten much more difficult to deny how bad it is at this point, and I think that’s part of what accounts for the rise in support for and kick-off in organising graduate worker unions across the country recently.


Q. Are student and education worker struggles on campus in the US generally conceptualised as a fight against marketisation the way they are in the UK?

At NYU, it’s funny that we’re the first and still only union with a contract at a private university because NYU is sort of the cutting edge of the corporate American university! It’s almost like the Ivy League of that! They’re really kind of the innovators in terms of best practices from a corporate perspective of how you create this university that has big profit margins, etc.

So our experience has been as workers in sort of the ultimate expression of a university which is already highly ‘marketised’. I should first say also that the recent wave of university unionising in the United States has focused around private universities, which until now have been, as I said, totally underrepresented in terms of organising, but actually are very ripe for it because they have these big budget surpluses and endowments so they could actually afford very easily to pay their workers a lot more. Like at NYU, what we were asking for in our contract amounted to a tiny, tiny sliver of what they have in excess every year!

But in terms of what I know about workers in public universities – public universities in the United States have had graduate worker unions and academic unions for much longer. I think the University of Wisconsin-Madison was the first public, unionised university. [4] University of Michigan, University of California… a lot of these big universities have historically had unions and they have definitely been involved in the fight against marketisation, especially now in this changing political culture in the United States.

I know that, for example, at the University of California (UC) – which has one of our major sister unions under the UAW – they were highly involved in the campaign a few years back against tuition hikes. Just as the OWS experience breathed life into the union at NYU, I’ve heard that the tuition hike protests at Berkeley hat was actually a really big part of reviving the union — people getting involved in the activism around that broader issue helped bring new organizing dynamics in the lead up to a contract campaign later. And it was also sort of a point of contention between the UC union and the UAW national union, which tends to be a bit more narrowly focussed on just negotiating the contract and not as much on these broader issues of, for example, democratising the university.

Another great example is at the University of Wisconsin when they had the big protests at the Capitol: that was one of the early waves of protests in the US in the Occupy Wall Street era. It’s my understanding that the University of Wisconsin-Madison union was very involved in that and they sent a lot of people to the capitol. That was also a big part of reviving organising in their union.

In short, yes, at public universities, they’ve been very involved in the fight against marketisation. At the same time, I should say, public universities struggle a lot in terms of organising because we have these laws in the US that prevent them from striking in a lot of cases. That’s the case in New York State: under the Taylor Law [5], in the City University of New York (CUNY) system, their academic workers cannot go on strike – they are forbidden by law and that is of course a huge impediment to effective organising! There’s been some grassroots campaigns like CUNY Struggle to have illegal strikes, which haven’t quite become successful yet, but have had some wins in terms of pushing the union to be a little bit more militant.

Now the public university unions are going to face even more obstacles coming forward with the Janus decision from the US Supreme Court. It will be, at least in the short term, a huge blow. I’m sort of sympathetic to the argument that there could be some really big wins in the long term, in terms of that ruling, but in the short term it’s going to be extremely devastating to public university organising, and that’s really unfortunate because that is the vanguard of protecting the public university system in the US from these constant efforts to undermine it — charging ever-more tuition that goes to a larger, highly-compensated, upper-level bureaucracy while undermining the job security of the people who teach students.

Q. What’s the most important lesson to carry forward to grad students? What message should we give them to encourage them to stand up collectively for their rights?

Our unofficial slogan in our union is ‘Collective action gets the goods!’ and I think that it’s proven to be true. We really reoriented our union in a very dramatic fashion towards organising that was as collectively focused as possible; as much oriented towards big, public actions as possible; oriented towards getting graduate workers in the room bargaining, seeing the actual mechanics of bargaining, seeing what the other side says in bargaining. All that I think is incredibly powerful and I have to believe is a big part of why we were able to negotiate a contract which has been celebrated in the academic labour movement as an example of what a successful graduate worker union can do when they really organise.

I think that principle – of having actions that really put the rank and file first, and the belief that our power comes from our collective abilities and not from our strict legal representation – is really important to keep always at the front of your mind.

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[1] An adjunct staff member in the US is roughly equivalent to an associate staff member in the UK, i.e. someone who teaches part time on a limited term contract.
[2]‘Right to work’ states are states with statutes prohibiting mandated union membership and dues. In this context, ‘right to work’ is essentially a right-wing euphemism that allows employers to frame union-busting as a defence of personal liberty.
[3] The ‘Principal Investigator’ (PI) is the lead researcher of a grant project who acts as the head of the laboratory. From this position of authority, the PI controls people’s access to new experiments, authorship attributions on group-written research papers, etc.
[4] This was the Teaching Assistants’ Association (TAA), formed during an anti-conscription sit-in in the spring of 1966, inspired in part by earlier efforts to unionise student workers and in part by the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley. The TAA completed its first contract with the university in 1970 and still exists today.
[5] Also known as the Public Employees Fair Employment Act, the Taylor Law was put in effect in 1967 and curtails the right of public employees to strike, with a penalty of an additional day of pay for each strike day, removal of Dues Check-off, and imprisonment of the Union president.

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