Grad Student Organizing “19th-Century Style”

Against the Current, No. 114, January/February 2005

Ursula McTaggart

AS A GRADUATE student in English at Indiana University (IU), I am the sole instructor for 46 students in W131, Introduction to Composition.(1) W131 is a writing course, and students compose rough and final drafts for four essays in addition to several smaller writing assignments.

Instructors teach three sections each school year and are officially assigned to half-time positions. Many W131 instructors, however, find that the time commitment exceeds twenty hours each week.

Taking only formal essays and drafts into account, an instructor grades approximately 2500 pages in two semesters. Class preparation, office hours, movie showings, quizzes, and minor assignments require additional time.

If IU were to take a cue from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), however, the graduate student instructors who perform this labor would not qualify as employees. In July 2004, the NLRB ruled that Brown University graduate student employees are primarily students and, by extension, ineligible for collective bargaining rights under the National Labor Relations Act, reversing a 2000 ruling that classified graduate employees at New York University as employees.(2)

While private universities fall under the purview of the NLRB, public universities are subject to state labor laws. Graduate employees at state universities in California, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois (to name only a few) have fought for or benefited from favorable labor rights legislation.

Indiana, however, awards no collective bargaining rights to public employees. The nascent Graduate Employee Organization (GEO) at Indiana University, then, while not directly affected by the NLRB decision, shares with its companion organizations at private schools the daunting task of organizing in the absence of basic labor rights.

Faced with the prospect of a conservative judicial atmosphere in the years to come, graduate employees must rely on the power of mass mobilization to achieve either union recognition or substantive change in wages and working conditions. As GEO member and Latin American history student David Woken remarks, we’ll have to organize “nineteenth-century style.”

On an ideological level, the NLRB’s insistence that graduate employees are students, not employees, discounts the real work that graduate students perform in the university’s most fundamental courses.

Graduate employees view their teaching work seriously, and their reluctance to strike stems in part from a sense of professional and personal responsibility to their students. In non-unionized environments, however, exploitation of graduate student labor thrives.

IU graduate student and GEO member Melissa Lawler, for instance, signed a contract to work twenty hours each week as a discussion leader and grader. In fact, she has worked up to sixty hours a week to meet the expectations of her supervising faculty member, and her poorly paid teaching interferes with her own studies.

Her labor, like that of many graduate employees, goes unrecognized academically and under-compensated economically. And contrary to popular belief, for many there is no light at the end of the tunnel.

Graduate employees’ poverty-level wages, minimal health care, and inadequate grievance procedures are not fleeting moments in the training process for an academic job. Doctoral students spend many years as graduate instructors (in IU’s English Department, it takes, on average, seven years to complete a PhD), and many have children or partners who rely on their paltry incomes and benefits.

When they do receive degrees, former graduate instructors have less chance than ever of earning tenure-track positions. These jobs, in fact, belong to graduate students and adjunct faculty, who now act as instructors for a substantial majority of instructional hours at nearly all universities.

While two thirds of PhDs in the 1970s succeeded in finding permanent academic jobs, less than half of today’s PhDs will do the same.(3)

Long-term Struggle

At IU, mass mobilization may not be right around the corner. In its second year of existence, GEO remains a small presence on campus. As it enters into a cooperative relationship with the Communication Workers of America, who have a CWA campus local that represents IU’s support staff, GEO has yet to prove its staying power in Bloomington.

Graduate student unionization attempts at IU have emerged and died several times in the past twenty years. Graduate employees express dissatisfaction with stipends, health care and working conditions, but the university’s strategy of decentralization has led most of us to fight for redistribution of wealth and benefits within the departmental rather than the university structure.

Decentralization prevents graduate employees from recognizing both common causes and disparate experiences. Although few graduate employees know the conditions of their colleagues across campus, wages and conditions vary immensely.

While some half-time associate instructors at IU make approximately $12,000 for two semesters of teaching, others make only $8,000.(4) Even within departments, work loads vary dramatically depending on the number of registered students, the demands of supervising faculty members, and instructor experience.

Graduate employee organizations, then, aim to bridge the gap between departmental and employee experiences. GEO has attempted to rally graduate students to a cross-departmental cause by campaigning for dental care — a benefit that employees at many unionized schools receive, while those at non-unionized schools do not.

Already, GEO has generated a small and informal venue for inter-departmental interaction. As we move into our upcoming organizing drive, where we will gauge support through one-on-one interactions, we can begin to compile a list of grievances that are specific to certain departments.

Ultimately, we aim to establish a collective sense of graduate employee experience and to advocate for more consistent working conditions and wages between departments.

Creative Activism

Organizing without legal protection will not come easy. While closed shops and collective bargaining rights allow unions to display passive support through elections, IU and its companions at private universities will have to take an activist approach to organizing.

Not only must we physically mobilize a larger proportion of our constituency, we must also employ creative strategies to pressure the administration. This will require an analysis of our vulnerabilities and strengths as graduate employees.

Here, we can take a cue from successful campaigns at public universities, but we may also need to set our own precedent. Perhaps the NLRB ruling will spark a wave of collective strategizing and organizing among private schools and non-unionized publics like IU.

In states like Indiana, graduate students face an even more severe lack of labor rights than private school students. While private university students retain some protections under the National Labor Relations Act, Indiana students lack even this minimal protection against intimidation and termination.

Such vulnerability ironically leaves the door open for actions against the university that typically fall outside labor protections. Consequently, graduate students can make strategic use of partial strikes or third-party actions that offer them the most power while minimizing the risk of reprisal.

They may also take a page out of the undergraduate organizing book, where a lack of traditional economic power has led groups like United Students against Sweatshops (USAS) to employ sit-ins, nationally coordinated actions, and widespread student pressure against administrations.

While such organizing certainly has its limits, USAS has demonstrated remarkable success in achieving its demands. Graduate employee organizations may borrow from models like these in this era of unprotected unionizing.

Protection and Allies

Two strategies in particular stand out for early organizing efforts. First, we can take advantage of the university’s decentralization to protect ourselves against retaliation.

Work stoppages target the university administration, but graduate employee assignments are typically given by departments. Although Yale graduate employees did face recriminations from faculty members following their 1995 grade strike, faculty anger is largely ideological rather than economic.

Opinion among faculty members, then, is likely to be mixed, and anti-union intimidation within a department may encounter faculty as well as student dissent (such dissent did aid Yale strikers).(5)

Second, graduate employees facing legal difficulties have essential allies in their fellow workers on campus. Yale’s Graduate Employees and Students Organization demonstrated the power of such solidarity in March 2003, when graduate employees participated in a five-day walkout with clerical, technical, service and maintenance, dietary and hospital workers — more than 5,000 campus workers confronted Yale in unison to demand improved wages and benefits.(6)

For Indiana University’s GEO, support from CWA Local 4730 provides the group an immediate set of local allies. In addition, IU’s physical plant workers, represented by AFSCME 832, are happy to offer solidarity.

As President Randy Pardue notes, AFSCME owes its own existence on campus to the active support of IU students in the 1960s; a generation later, AFSCME members hope to reciprocate.

These connections are crucial because all university employees feel the effects of cost-cutting and threats of privatization. At IU, AFSCME has struggled for several years against privatization attempts while CWA worries about IU’s increasing reliance on part-time, hourly employees.

Coordinated actions could increase the security and power of all three organizations, collective bargaining rights notwithstanding.

Coordinated work with fellow campus workers can also broaden the political and social consciousness of graduate students, who often see themselves as professionals in training rather than workers.

GEO and its fellow organizations ask graduate students to recognize that, by settling for poverty wages and substandard benefits, they are eliminating their own future jobs. While fighting for more tenure- track positions on this broader scale, however, graduate employees must also question the elitist ideology of the academy.

In an era when more than half of Ph.D.s will not become tenured professors, the renewed interest in organizing indicates that graduate students have already begun to identify with their working-class colleagues rather than solely with their professors. Our economic futures, in fact, may resemble those of clerical and physical plant workers more than those of our professors and administrators.

A successful organizing project, then, will reject elitist systems of university education at the same time that it demands greater job security and higher wages for instructors.

Expressing Solidarity

The key to graduate student organizing does not lie with the NLRB or with state labor laws, although favorable labor laws certainly help. Graduate employee organizing in private schools and in states like Indiana forces graduate instructors and their affiliated unions to rethink their codified notions of unionization.

It leads them to focus on organic expressions of solidarity among diverse groups of workers; to forge mass democratic and activist movements in place of bureaucratic hierarchies; to show their strength physically, at the window of the administration building, and not at the negotiation table.

This is no small task, and Indiana University’s GEO has yet to prove its ability to garner this vibrant mass support. As recent movements at Brown, the University of Illinois, the University of Iowa and the University of Pennsylvania have demonstrated, however, such mass mobilizations are possible.

While graduate employees often see their positions of exploitation as temporary, strong union movements now may benefit their future lives, whether as tenured faculty, temporary instructors, or rank-and-file workers in a non-academic field. In solidarity with campus workers, graduate employees can demand a major restructuring of university economies and cultures.

Lacking the legal rights to bargain collectively, we should embrace the opportunity to reinvigorate labor organizing, bringing the history lessons from the early days of the labor movement into a new era.

By adding the precarious vibrancy of organizing “nineteenth-century style” to the anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-homophobic lessons of recent years, we can define what it means to organize “twenty-first century style.”


  1. Many thanks to my colleagues in GEO, especially to Dave Woken and Melissa Lawler, who provided valuable input. In addition, I would like to thank Randy Pardue, Susan Baxter-Fleming, Abbey Grodin, and the members of CWA 4730 and AFSCME 832 for their support and solidarity in our efforts.
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  2. Brown Univ., 2004 WL 1588744, at *1 (N.L.R.B. 2004); New York Univ., 2000 WL 1643529, at *1 (N.L.R.B. 2000).
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  3. Kimberly Quinn Johnson and Joseph Entin, “Graduate Employee Organizing and the Corporate University,” New Labor Forum, 30 June 2000, 99.
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  4. The range of stipends is likely much larger than this, but because IU has not released detailed salary information, GEO’s information relies solely on its members’ experiences.
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  5. Joshua Rowland, “‘Forecasts of Doom’: The Dubious Threat of Graduate Teaching Assistant Collective Bargaining to Academic Freedom,” Boston College Law Review, July 2001.
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  6. Debra Chernoff, “Five-Day Strike at Yale Seeks Better Working Conditions and Respect,” Labor Notes 289, April 2003.
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ATC 114, January-February 2005