Last week, graduate student workers at Northwestern University voted to unionize by a landslide margin. We spoke to some of the worker-organizers about why they wanted to unionize and how they won.

Northwestern University Graduate Workers march in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo courtesy NUGW)

On Thursday, January 12, the Northwestern University Graduate Workers (NUGW) union announced victory in its union election, with 1,644 yes votes to 114 no votes — that is, with 93.5 percent of ballots cast for the union. The election win comes after six years of organizing by graduate student workers at the Evanston, Illinois–based university; it follows another recent victory by private university grad workers at Yale University and occurs against the backdrop of a wave of academic labor strike action. After the election, Jacobin’s Sara Wexler spoke with Eskil Elling and Audrey Nicolaides, Northwestern PhD students and organizers with NUGW, and Kitty Yang, the first cochair of NUGW, who is now a visiting assistant professor at Kenyon College.

Sara Wexler

When did the campaign for unionizing begin?

Audrey Nicolaides

The recent campaign that was successful started in September, so it’s pretty recent, but NUGW has been around for much longer. Organizers started the union around 2016. There was a first card campaign at the time, it didn’t pan out, and then we were organizing in the background. This fall, we decided to do another card campaign, which was successful this time around.

Sara Wexler

What were the motivations or the catalysts for trying to form a union?

Audrey Nicolaides

In 2016, there was the NLRB Columbia decision, when grad workers at private universities were recognized as workers. There was an effort on campus at Northwestern at the time to capitalize on that and try to unionize. But for a number of reasons, it didn’t work out. It was also soon after Donald Trump was elected, which put a damper on a lot of grad campaigns. But we continued organizing in the background, building infrastructure. This fall, we decided to give it another go, because we had the infrastructure in place, we had the organizing power, and we were in a good position. We felt that we had support from grad workers, and the timing was right; the conjuncture was right.

Eskil Elling

At the time the union started, our stipend was relatively competitive; this was before the pandemic and inflation and so on, and before a lot of other places unionized and brought up their stipends quite a lot, including Columbia. But a lot of what we were talking about was that there have been a lot of shifts, a lot of changes in our stipends and to some of the programs. For example, the music PhD used to be not a PhD but a DMA [Doctorate of Musical Arts], and changing it into a PhD improved their conditions quite a lot.

We were quite aware that all those gains were contingent on the administration. Part of it was just solidifying those gains and, of course, achieving others. It was about making sure that we had a seat at the table, both to secure what we had and also to gain more.

Kitty Yang

I think there were a lot of different catalysts. But personally, for me, it was realizing that the organizing I had to do and being an activist had to start locally. It was right when Trump had first gotten elected. We were all pretty despondent and trying to figure out what we do with all of this energy.

I had heard about other grads on campus thinking about unionizing. Before this, I had been a high school teacher in New York, and I was a part of a union. I enjoyed the benefits of having really good health care with really low premiums and never having to think about what that means — getting some newsletters from union leadership and kind of just skimming them and deleting them. But in this moment we realized, especially in terms of how precarious a lot of grad workers are, that we really needed to get together and collectively bargain.

Sara Wexler

Were there certain things that motivated people to fight for a union?

Audrey Nicolaides

On one hand, we had the organizing infrastructure to reach people. That was an internal factor. But there were a number of external factors. Inflation was a big deal—because our stipend, which used to be relatively competitive and comfortable, suddenly wasn’t so comfortable anymore. I think a lot of people who were less invested in the union before that were more receptive to the arguments we had to make.

But also, COVID really allowed us to reach people in STEM, because the working conditions in labs were not good at the time. COVID really allowed us to start organizing people in those departments, and then from there to go into engineering or the medical school, which are usually sites that are less friendly to unions.

Inflation was a big deal—because our stipend, which used to be relatively competitive and comfortable, suddenly wasn’t so comfortable anymore.

Eskil Elling

I used to walk around in the in the science labs trying to organize people, and we didn’t know our way around, because we had basically no involvement from those STEM departments. So we just walked around the STEM labs trying to find people to talk to. We would spend two hours walking around, maybe having one or two conversations, mostly not even finding the people we were supposed to talk to and not signing up anyone whatsoever.

What happened with the COVID pandemic was that people in the labs suddenly realized how bad they had it. A lot of the science departments in some ways used to have better conditions than us; their stipend might have been a little higher, but the main thing was that their job prospects are much better. So people had this mentality of keeping their heads down and doing whatever their PIs [principal investigators] wanted them to do, and getting through and then getting a nice, lucrative corporate job afterward or something like that. But during the pandemic, everyone who worked in labs was forced to go back into the labs quickly, under quite bad circumstances — there weren’t enough masks, and everything was just kind of chaotic.

I think that spurred them on. We started getting really strong organizers from STEM, who then slowly brought in a lot of those departments. I think there were a lot of political things happening in general, and Black Lives Matter protests, obviously, with which we tried to show a fair amount of solidarity. So that really changed things.

Sara Wexler

Could you explain or summarize how the organizing happened? Was it mostly in-person conversations? Was it at the department level? Was it happening online?

Kitty Yang

When I first started in 2016, a lot of the organizing was done in person. We went door-to-door; we talked to our own departments, to other departments, and we had conversations with people about what their working conditions were. A lot of times in grad school, you are really isolated and only interacting with people in your labs or in your department and not understanding what other students’ and other workers’ lives look like. Being able to listen and understand about what a lab looks like and why you might be asked to come in at 2 a.m. to run an experiment; talking to Doctorate of Musical Arts students who do the exact same work as PhD students but for some reason are paid one-third the amount that PhD students are paid; understanding that this is what their lives look like but that they shouldn’t — it’s how you get other people to realize that we need to collectively bargain; we need to link together.

Eskil Elling

Before the pandemic and way back in the day, the main successful organizing we had was intradepartmental, because a lot of the humanities and social sciences departments had really good organizers, and most people were friendly to the union. So we got our numbers up in those departments quite a lot.

But the limit of that was that we had very few ins in other places — the STEM departments mainly. For that, we just had to knock on doors. We didn’t really trust any kind of online organizing; people weren’t using that as much at the time anyway.

Audrey Nicolaides

Over the past several years, we have built a structure of department organizers, and we try to train department organizers in every department at the university — several per department, ideally — and then these department organizers would do one-on-ones with our colleagues. In labs, I’ll try to have many as in-person conversatiosn as possible to get people on board with the idea of unionization, such that when we started the card campaign, we had a ton of momentum that was built up over several years that we were able to bank and release and use to drive the card campaign. Lots of organizing, lots of phone calls, lots of emails, lots of text messages over six years.

But the key really is department organizers. We have hundreds of department organizers now who are trained, and we have a lot of weekly meetings where they can come and ask questions and talk to each other about what they think is working in their departments and what isn’t working in their departments, and then they can go out and have conversations with their colleagues and talk about the union.

Sara Wexler

What made you all decide to affiliate with UE [United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America]?

Audrey Nicolaides

The NUGW used to be affiliated with the AFT [American Federation of Teachers], between 2016 and 2020. For a number of reasons, it turned out to be a mismatch. So we parted ways in 2020, and then we were independent for a couple of years. In that period of independence, we could only rely on ourselves and on our own organizing capacity and resources.

But we knew we would need the resources of a national union to get us over the hump, to get us through the election and into bargaining. Over the summer, we put together an affiliation committee, we reviewed a number of national unions, and we had several meetings with various unions. In the end, we went with UE, because it’s the union that was most democratic and allowed the most autonomy with regard to strikes and allocation and management of resources — because we had built this culture of independence, and we also had a less-than-ideal experience with AFT.

Eskil Elling

We’ve always been very concerned with being an independent union and being member-driven. We were starting to feel like the AFT were a bit too top-down with us, so that’s one of the reasons we disaffiliated. But it was so clear, by the time I left, that we needed full-time organizers and organizers with experience. I think the main reason we ended up with UE was because they focused on democratic leadership.

Sara Wexler

What challenges did you face in organizing?

Kitty Yang

The biggest challenge was fear from the students, in terms of what kind of repercussions they might face. For example, for international students, if they lose their visa, they can’t stay in the United States. That feels like a really legitimate fear, and it makes a lot of sense. I’ve talked to grad students who are parents who are like, “I don’t have time to even worry about this.” I think the biggest problem is that we are so busy and so afraid that we don’t have time to realize that if we just band together, we could be so powerful. That is what was so incredible to see from the most recent election — that 94 percent of the grad students who voted voted yes in the union election.

The biggest organizing challenge was fear from the students, in terms of what kind of repercussions they might face.

I think the administration is afraid to give up any modicum of power, because then they’re no longer in control of what the graduate programs look like. And they can no longer say, “We’re just going to take away six-year funding, because the stock market took a downturn, so our endowment is low.” They want to keep all of the power, and they’re afraid of what happens if they can no longer unilaterally decide where the money goes, unilaterally decide who gets positions, how many grad students there are, what I do.

Eskil Elling

I think the main thing that was happening by the time I left organizing to do research was that a lot of the main organizers had been organizing for a really long time. There was a problem with turnover where people were either leaving because they finished, or they needed to spend more time on their dissertation, or they were just exhausted.

So we really needed there to be turnover, because there was a limit to how many members we were able to organize. For however many new members you get, there’s only going to be a couple that are really interested in getting involved more. We needed turnover to get new people who are interested in being cochairs and leading committees. I feel like that didn’t happen quite as quickly as it could have. People were just drained at some point.

Audrey Nicolaides

At first there was a lot of inertia. We had a relatively comfortable stipend compared to the cost of living in Chicago. So for a lot of people, there wasn’t a ton of urgency. And of course, the university is not welcoming of union efforts, so there’s always a little bit of union busting going on.

You don’t start a campaign with a bargaining unit this size and win it in three months. It takes years of building up the infrastructure, training department organizers, training leadership — building a group of people and an organization from the bottom up. So we had a lot of learning to do on the way to this victory.

Sara Wexler

How do you see the union changing graduate students’ experiences and lives on campus?

Eskil Elling

Our stipend is not competitive anymore, so I imagine we won’t have too hard of a time negotiating some kind of bump. There’s a variety of other benefits that I hope we’ll have a better job with. But the main thing is having a sense that the conditions of our work aren’t constantly precarious. Our stipend hasn’t been following inflation for the last couple of years, so we’ve essentially taken a pay cut. I feel like the sense of security that that won’t happen again will be a really big thing.

I haven’t been so active recently because I’m on medical leave. The reason I stopped being a union officer was because I had a concussion and so I was unable to work for a long time. Then I got COVID, and that reactivated the damage from that concussion. I basically can’t read right now. It’s a mess, and it’s lasted a long time. Part of that time I was on external fellowships, so I wasn’t on medical leave, but since I got back to Chicago, I’ve been on medical leave. It used to be that medical leave was only 80 percent; they paid for six months. That has changed — we assume partly due to the university feeling the heat of the organizing effort — so that we’re now 100 percent funded on medical leave for six months, which was enormous to me because it meant it felt financially viable for me to go on medical leave and get that time off from my work to recover. Already, the organizing has made a difference there.

You don’t start a campaign with a bargaining unit this size and win it in three months. It takes years of building up the infrastructure, training department organizers, training leadership.

Audrey Nicolaides

The first thing would be an actual contract with terms. But then, immediate improvement in our quality of life and working conditions, including higher stipends or better health care, and provisions that are professional standards and safety measures, in labs in particular. And, in general, finally having a say in working conditions — having real power in the university, which we didn’t used to have.

Before we were unionized, if you had a problem, it was up to you to navigate the university structures to figure out if you could fix your problem one way or another. What we found over and over again is that this kind of  individual effort is often unsuccessful because the problem lies at a much deeper, systemic level. The only way to really have power over that is to come together as a group, as part of the union, and put some real pressure on the university to change things across the board for hundreds, if not thousands, of people.

Kitty Yang

I have to imagine that, at the very least, maybe students will have dental care. I can’t tell you how many of us were just foregoing dental care because that was not part of the health care package we had. A joke was always that we don’t need teeth. That’s a very direct health care issue. But I think what’s more important is just being able to see the specific departments and the specific labs in which grad students are mistreated. . . . I’m really hoping that there is an avenue for them to use the rest of the union and help them get better treatment.

Sara Wexler

What’s the next step in this process now that you have voted to unionize?

Audrey Nicolaides

We just won the election this week [the week of January 15], so we’re all taking a rest. The next major step is to get ready for bargaining. In the next few weeks or months, we’re going to have conversations among ourselves, but also with other unions, to figure out how we want to structure a bargaining committee. We’ll probably have to release a bargaining survey to hear from membership what they would like in the contract. What is most important to them? Then, we’ll have to start negotiating with Northwestern and go to the table and work with them to come up with a contract that serves the interests and needs of all grad workers.

This month alone, UE is unionizing ten thousand grad workers; at the end of the month, Chicago and Johns Hopkins are both going to have their elections. NUGW’s victory is only one in, I think, an incoming wave of grad student organization, or a wave that’s already here. I think that speaks to the broader moment we’re in in this country, when unionization efforts are on the rise at Starbucks, at Amazon, and in all kinds of industries. I’m very happy to have been a part of this particular effort at this university, but it’s certainly one piece of a broader movement. I’m hoping that this movement will lead to changes in academia and help make universities better workplaces but also better learning places, which is our primary function.

Kitty Yang

There’s a similar unionization push at Kenyon College for undergrad workers here. One thing they’re noticing is that the people who were graduate union activists a couple years ago and now are in visiting assistant professor jobs, postdoc jobs, maybe tenure-track jobs at some point, are also supportive of the graduate and undergraduate unionizing. It’s quite important, because they’re workers too. You’re seeing, across undergrad campuses, that they’re learning from the grad students, and they’re getting the support of former grad labor activists. Undergrads who are part of the mobilization effort will go on to become grad students, and hopefully they will be labor activists at that stage. All of us see this as a movement throughout academia. It’s not just isolated to the grad students, but we’re banding together to change academia for the better.

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