In the face of declining union membership, young people are organizing in an area not typically associated with the labor movement — the research labs and classrooms in the ivory towers of academia. And though universities have not met these attempts with much acceptance, these workers have justice on their side — justice that should be extended to all student-workers.
According to data from the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics [BLS], since 1954 — organized labor’s peak — union membership has shrunk by over two-thirds, from 34.8 percent of the labor force to just 11.1 percent.
And, as Pew Research points out, millennials — persons aged 18-29 — are least likely among other age groups to be in a union. However, these same young people, as a group, hold the most favorable views of unions. This paradox can be explained by the fact that organized labor, for various reasons, has not been as effective at organizing the information and service sectors of today’s economy — which young people predominantly work in — as it was with the factories of the industrial era economy. Millennials, thus, have less practical opportunities to join unions.
Recently, however, young workers — in the shape of graduate-level research and teaching assistants — have been pushing to unionize at many prestigious universities. In 2013, assistants at New York University organized and persuaded their administration to acknowledge them as a union. And just last week, their union struck a contract with the university that resulted in higher wages, expanded healthcare coverage and extended benefits.
Workers at Brown, Cornell, Yale and Columbia have also started drives. Those organizing at Columbia, for instance, have garnered support from upwards of 1,700 of the 2,800 graduate assistants.
Despite this great deal of support, the administrations have been highly uncooperative. The administrations at Yale and Columbia, for instance, justified their resistance by expressing concerns about denigrating the relationship between their universities and students.
This reasoning, however, is silly.
Graduate assistants work for and are paid by their universities. So, Columbia and Yale don’t need to acknowledge a union to denigrate the relationship to that of a worker-employer. The relationship is, indeed, already one of worker-employer.
As graduate-assistants are workers, it thus follows that they should have a collective say in deciding their pay and benefits.
Furthermore, graduate assistants aren’t immune to workplace injustices simply because they work in academia. Academia, in fact, has done its fair share of treating workers unjustly. For instance, adjunct professors, who now constitute 77 percent of faculty across all American colleges and universities, are subjected to miserable and unfair working conditions. As a report conducted by the United States House of Representatives highlights, a majority of these educators live below the poverty line, most work over 60 hours weekly and 75 percent receive no benefits from the institution(s) for which they work.
In short, the ivory tower can be an oppressive work environment, too — and workers are better equipped to combat these injustices when they are organized.
Ultimately, grad assistants should have the right to play a role in constructing and governing the environment in which they work. Indeed, what is at stake here is not whether or not graduate assistants are workers; what is at stake here are principles of justice and democracy.
And this line of reasoning should be applied to all workers, even those at the undergraduate level. In fact, by organizing and demanding that they be recognized as unions, undergraduate student-workers would not only immediately gain practical benefits, protections, and power; they would also be more adept at organizing upon entering the post-undergraduate labor market. This would help stem the tide of union decline, and ultimately produce a more powerful American labor force, equipped to combat our nation’s Gilded Age-esque income inequality, and thus actualize a more just and democratic society.