Make One Big Higher Ed Union

Hamilton Nolan

Higher ed is unionizing. Like crazy!

Last year, every single one of the five largest filings for NLRB union elections in America — each representing more than 3,000 members — were for graduate workers at various universities. University of California workers pulled off the biggest strike of 2022. New units of more than 1,000 people, rare in most of the union world, have become commonplace in academia.

This wave shows no sign of slowing. Just this month, thousands more grad workers at the University of Minnesota and Duke filed for elections. Since the beginning of 2022, more than 45,000 graduate and undergrad workers have made moves to unionize, according to Daily Union Elections, a site that catalogs union filings. And those workers have been voting “yes” for unions at nearly a 90% clip.

In many cases, these newly formed grad worker unions spring up alongside existing unions covering adjunct and full time faculty, as well as various service workers, on their same campus. In aggregate, higher ed today is the largest and most aggressively organizing industry in the union world.

There’s just one problem: They don’t have their own union. Until they do, they will never be able to exercise their full power in the fragmented and territorial union world. And that is bad news for all of us.

Thousands of newly organized grad workers have joined UE, a progressive union whose roots are among industrial workers. Thousands more are in UAW, making up a significant minority of the auto workers union. Other higher ed units are sprinkled among AFT (a teachers union), SEIU (a service workers union), CWA (a communication workers union), Unite Here (a hospitality workers union) and other big unions. All of those unions have one thing in common: They are not higher ed unions. They are unions that (admirably) organized higher ed workers.

Now, I ain’t criticizing anyone here. This is, in many ways, how union organizing should work.

When a gusher of interest leaps up in an unorganized sector, existing unions should see it as an opportunity, and should be happy to offer their services to draw these workers into the labor movement. Many different unions have done this in higher ed. Great! Love it! But this should be understood as one stage in an evolving process — a process that proceeds towards the creation of one big union with all of higher ed under one roof.

Today, the overflowing energy among grad workers specifically is powerful enough to be the engine that unifies all the splintered, existing units into one.

There are two main reasons to do this.

One is the same reason that all industries could benefit from having a single union representing all of its workers: It concentrates the industry’s labor power in one place and creates the strongest possible counterweight to the power of the industry’s employers.

Industrial unions, especially ones that can achieve high union density, are the most effective way to achieve a balance of power not just in one workplace, but in an entire field of employment. The industry-wide issues well known to all struggling workers in higher ed — the gig-ificiation of teaching, political assaults from right wing politicians, declining state budgets — take industrial strength to combat. Ten separate unions have a harder time concentrating their firepower than one big one does. This is a basic insight that should, ideally, drive all long-term labor organizing in America.

Unfortunately, unions have grown so weak that we tend to be grateful to find anyone willing to organize workers, and seeing these groups coalesce into a real industrial union becomes a faraway luxury. But guess which industry, above all others, now has the density and the fire to ascend to the next stage of development? That’s right — it’s higher ed.

This is not some grand insight. There is, in fact, a group called Higher Ed United that brings the many unions together for discussions and strategy. But there is not, so far, a meaningful effort to do the (tedious, time-consuming, and very worthwhile) work of starting a new union for these hundreds of thousands of workers to be a part of, as one.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on March 21, 2023.

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa se yon 3L nan Syracuse University College of Law. Li gradye nan Eta Penn ak yon diplòm nan jounalis. Avèk rechèch legal li ak ekri pou San Patipri Travay, li fè efò yo ekipe moun ki gen enfòmasyon yo bezwen yo dwe pwòp defansè yo pi byen.