There are only eight recognized graduate worker unions at private universities in the U.S. Three of them, at Brown, Harvard, and Georgetown, ratified their contracts since stay-at-home orders went into effect last March. No doubt, the pandemic made their organizing more challenging. At first, Zoom negotiations made it easier for the university to skip out on bargaining meetings; in-person actions temporarily ground to a halt. But the pandemic also highlighted the reasons many graduate workers are fighting for a union: funding security, improved healthcare, and a say over their working conditions as universities planned for reopening. For the university, the transition to online teaching also made clearer the significance of the work graduate employees do in the classroom. One Harvard graduate student speculated that the university agreed to settle a contract with the union — after two years and one strike — to avoid another strike at a time when undergraduates are dependent on graduate workers to guide them through remote learning.  

This past summer, The Forge’s Lindsay Zafir sat down with Sam Klug, an organizer with the Harvard Graduate Students Union (HGSU), and Dennis Hogan and Audrey Massmann, organizers with the Brown Graduate Labor Organization, to talk about the road to winning a union for graduate workers, how they waged a contract campaign during the pandemic, and their vision for building power across the ranks of the academic labor movement. This interview has been edited and condensed. 


Lindsay Zafir: How did you each get involved in your unions and what has your role been on the campaign?

Sam Klug: I got involved in what would become the Harvard Graduate Students Union well before it was officially a union drive, in the 2013-2014 range. At that point, it was a very small group of people, some of whom had come out of Occupy, doing work to figure out whether a union campaign at Harvard would be possible. And that developed into, by the fall of 2015, an authorization card drive for the Harvard Graduates Student Union, UAW, and, ultimately, a union with a contract. So it's been a long road. I was especially involved in the organizing committee through both of our elections in the fall of 2016 and 2018, then got more involved again in the lead up to our strike this fall. I'm currently working as a part-time staff organizer with the union.

Dennis Hogan: I got involved with the organization SUGSE, which was, at the time, just SUGS [now Graduate Labor Organization (GLO)] in 2014-2015, my first year of grad school. Before I had come, there was a big funding crisis that particularly affected humanities and social sciences graduate students where sixth-year funding, which had essentially been a handshake deal, got taken away from a lot of folks with very little notice. So they changed the entire structure for how people applied for sixth year funding and a lot of people who had been expecting it or who had been told by the department that they didn't have to worry about getting it received notice from the graduate school that they weren't getting it. It caused a huge range of problems but it led to a huge upswell in grad student activism. And there was so much energy and so much pressure that the University reversed course very quickly after a few weeks.

When I got to campus, people were asking how to sustain that mobilization and how to make it so that people were not just fighting reactively but continuing to fight proactively. That first year, we were able to campaign on dental insurance for grad workers and won that by the end of that year. Over the course of the next couple of years, folks came to realize that we were going to have to move into something that looked more like a union if we were going to be able to continue to win. 

Audrey Massmann: I came to Brown in 2018, which is when SUGSE had negotiated this election outside the NLRB, so they’d just had that success and were whipping votes, getting everyone to stick up to all the closed door boss meetings and vote yes. I got roped into that because I had previously worked as a teacher so I understood how unions worked even though I hadn’t organized one before. I began to take more of a leadership role when I served on the election committee setting up the vote for our bargaining team, after which I joined a couple other members in rebuilding our organizing structure by going from lab to lab and office to office and talking to as many people as we could one-on-one. Tangentially, when we finally won our contract, I learned that many of my fellow organizers suspected we would never get a contract and felt relief and disbelief that we have won. I have no idea how they kept showing up for this kind of work every week. For me, I always had faith that we would get a contract; it was just a matter of when.


LZ: Why did you change the name from SUGS to SUGSE?

DH: So the E stands for employees. When the group was founded, it was called Stand Up for Graduate Students and when, in 2016, we decided to move towards organizing the union, the E was added to show that we didn't consider ourselves to be only students.

LZ: Why do you think it's important to organize grad workers in the private sector and has your thinking about this changed over time? Dennis, you mentioned that the Brown union started over fights about funding and dental care, which are both bread-and-butter issues, but graduate students are also entering a precarious industry. How do you think about unionization in the context of both those material concerns and broader concerns about the future of academic labor?

SK: At Harvard, we're driven by both desires to make day-to-day changes to people's lives and working conditions and by a broader vision of democratizing the university to support people's aspirations much more than it does now when it's so organized around corporate concerns. A lot of the drive for a union were the concerns that Dennis has already outlined surrounding healthcare benefits, dental care, childcare benefits, parental benefits, and also for the kind of basic protections that everyone deserves at work. The protections not to be harassed. Protection not to be subject to sexual harassment or racial discrimination or other forms of discrimination. And those became increasingly important in our election campaign that led up to the 2018 election, as we had not only a national Me Too movement, but also a number of high profile cases at Harvard where prominent professors had been abusing their power in this horrible way for decades, and nothing had been done about it. 

That is one of the very basic bread and butter issues that has motivated a lot of this, and it's connected to this broader question of democratizing some of the relationships in the university as a whole. To say that, in fact, simply because of one's status in the academic hierarchy, one shouldn’t be given certain privileges and impunity.


LZ: How much did you think about the work of your campaign as changing graduate students’ conception of themselves as workers deserving certain rights and a voice on campus? Did the way people saw themselves change as you were pushing toward an election and a contract?

SK: I've definitely seen a change. Part of the organizing for the authorization card and for the election — the organizing around forming a union — a lot of that work was going to people in different work situations and just asking them what they did and what complaints they had and what visions they had for making what they did better. The consciousness-raising part of that was taking those visions and taking those grievances and illuminating how they were broadly shared, even across divisions that might seem unbridgeable, like someone working in the Division of Medical Sciences in a hospital and someone in the History Department doing very different kinds of work, but actually having some of the same kinds of aspirations. You could see that the things that united them were often things that had to do with their conditions of employment.

I do think that [the way grad students viewed themselves] changed a great deal after we had secured an election victory and secured recognition and then moving into the contract organizing and, ultimately, the strike. It's very clear when you're organizing for a strike that what you're asking people to do is withhold work. By the point when we had more than 2,000 people vote to authorize a strike, I think that shift in consciousness had to have already been achieved.

DH: I think that as the conditions in academia get progressively worse, especially with this new economic crisis and the response to the pandemic, people are finding it harder and harder to maintain any sort of illusions about the kind of work that they're engaged in or their relationships to these institutions. When it seems that institutions are far more worried about getting back to in-person instruction so that they can make sure that they get tuition dollars than keeping their graduate students safe from being infected, it's really hard to maintain any sorts of rosy views about the life of the mind or the ivory tower. 

There was always a divide between the sciences, the hard sciences, the experimentalists, and the social sciences and the humanists on this. Experimentalists were much more likely to see themselves as workers because they were much more likely to see their PI [principal investigator] as a boss who actually stood over their shoulder and made sure that they did what they were supposed to do, who actually noted whether they came into the lab on time. And we heard so many stories. I remember one worker told me about having a PI who would show up to the lab on the day before Christmas, or the day before Christmas break started, just to see who was there so that they could make a note of who was there and who wasn't. Not that you were required to be there, but they were interested to find out who was really dedicated. Not to say that these little ways of exercising arbitrary power over grads don't happen in the humanities and the social sciences, but it's a lot easier to see it in the laboratories.

LZ: Your organizations were all started by graduate students who then later decided to affiliate with unions. How did you make the decision to affiliate and what has the relationship been like between the rank-and-file organizers and the staff?

AM: I was not around when we did the affiliation vote. I was not at Brown yet at that point in time, but...[affiliation] is not [currently] on most people's radar. Most of our members might not be fully aware of the fact that we have a national affiliate [the American Federation of Teachers].

DH: Certainly during the election, they tried to third-party us by talking about bringing the American Federation of Teachers onto campus. I'm sure, Sam, this also happened at Harvard, like, "Do we want the auto workers to represent us? We're not auto workers. We're not teachers." 

SK: At Harvard, we had a vote [to affiliate with the UAW]. I think we had around 300 people participate in the affiliation vote back in the fall of 2015. That vote came down overwhelmingly in favor of affiliating with the UAW, and since then, we've had a very productive relationship. We also are very rank and file driven. Most of the organizing that is happening throughout both the election campaigns and the contract campaign has been grad worker to grad worker, and that remains the case.

We got a lot of third-partying the union, and particularly in our first election (which we had to redo because Harvard left 500 voters off the voter list). There was a very strong effort by the Harvard administration to make the case that we, Harvard grad students, have nothing in common with United Auto Workers, that these two groups of people are like night and day. And it was often done along very elitist, classist lines of, "Well, you're nothing like the people who work in auto plants. There's nothing there that would make you think that you should join this group. They're just trying to get your dues money."

And, of course, a lot of the organizing that has to happen in response is to, one, just call that out for being the elitist, ridiculous argument that it is, and two, to educate people around the fact that the UAW actually represents thousands of graduate students across the country, graduate students in the UC system. So we're constantly playing this back and forth of saying, "Well, okay, you don't necessarily think you have something in common with an auto worker. How about someone in your exact discipline at UC Berkeley?" Because they're in the UAW. And then through that, I think you can break down some of those prejudices that management is trying to inflame. And partly because that was such a terrain of struggle, I think, during the elections, people do definitely know that we're affiliated with the UAW at Harvard. There's no mystery about that.

The coronavirus has really made the third-partying argument that university administrators want to make completely untenable. Their argument relies on this notion that a union is going to be some kind of cabal of people who don't share your experiences, don't have your interests at heart, making decisions that are going to then affect you in drastic ways forever. And that's exactly what just happened with small groups of university administrators and their lawyers and their consultants in making decisions about how to respond to this pandemic. That's happening in terms of their financial decisions, in terms of layoffs and furloughs and canceling positions and hires but protecting their endowments, and that's happening in their decision making around reopening.

LZ: Let's talk about your campaign structures and how they changed over time — what kind of committee structures you built, how you kept members engaged throughout, the organizing work to win.

DH: At first, we made a lot of missteps, like a lot of really classic mistakes about thinking that we could email grads and invite them to a big meeting about unionization, thinking that we could have discussions in big open fora, thinking that we could just show up to a meeting of the graduate student council, explain why unionizing was such a good idea, and have folks be like, "Oh wow, thank you. Great plan. Let's join the union." And it was only through really hard, bad experiences of having meetings taken over, being yelled at, that we learned that we had to go about this in a much more deliberate way.

When AFT first came onto campus, we'd been organizing for almost a year in our own way. And, in some ways, we were able to build a committee structure that was highly ideologically coherent and also had really strong relationships among the members — and that was a strength. I think, in a lot of ways, we were trying to reinvent the wheel when there were probably things that we could have been doing if we had had somebody who had more experience guiding us, that we could have saved ourselves a lot of time and aggravation on. I think the affiliation vote was one of them. Looking back on it, we were really concerned about making sure that no one would be able to challenge the legitimacy or the democracy or the transparency of the affiliation vote.

And so we spent weeks explaining to people who were frankly anti-union what the affiliation vote was about, explaining to them why UAW was offering A and AFT was offering B and encouraging them to create an account on the platform and vote. And we probably could have had just the membership select an affiliate, and it would have had the same result, and it would have saved us a lot of headache. And people still challenge the legitimacy of the vote anyway. So it's not like we saved ourselves a huge amount of aggravation on the back end by doing all this work on the front end. When AFT came to campus, their plan was initially to run the classic underground phase of the organizing, where you're only talking to workers one-on-one and then you go public once you've got a certain number of signatures. But we were public. We had already had articles about us in the newspaper, we had already had this vote that hundreds of people had taken part in, and so there was no non-public option. We went a little bit back underground where we really built up a plurality on our mission statement before going public again. 

AM: I really got involved once we won the election and were moving into the contract campaign phase. A lot of people burnt themselves out trying to win this election, so there was just a lack of energy for a while, and things were very still and moved very slowly. And among general membership as well, people who were less involved were like "Oh yeah, we won that election. We have our union now. I'm sure you'll work out all the details in short time." It really felt like building from nothing and, of the people who are involved right now, it's very few of the same people who were involved in getting us to the point of having an election to form a union.

LZ: How much opposition did you face from the administration in sitting down to negotiate a contract? 

AM: They didn't skip a bargaining session on us for a very long time. They were happy to show up because, frankly, grad students were very happy to be like, "Oh yeah, they're meeting. I'm sure other people are figuring this out." But then when it got to a certain point where enough drama had happened at the table that people could get up in arms about — maybe the fact that the administration is meeting with your union doesn't mean that you're going to get the childcare subsidy that you need. Then people started to be more willing to take action and then the administration started not showing up to meetings because they couldn't just twiddle their thumbs at them anymore.

DH: Yeah, that's totally right. I think that, along the course of the contract campaign, the administration's strategy was to keep it as boring and uneventful as possible. On the one hand, that meant that it was a lot less polarizing than during the election where there was really strong union support but there were also really strong opponents who were visible on campus all the time. But it also meant that people were just massively demobilized because they were like, "Well, you know, we're just waiting and seeing." And it was really hard to get folks to put together the fact that nothing is happening because you're doing nothing. If you start doing something, things will start happening. The [administration’s] strategy was to just, as quietly as possible, grind down the bargaining committee into accepting a bad contract.  But, obviously, all kinds of spring 2020 circumstances interfered with both our strategy and theirs.

AM: And I also think that some of the wait-and-see was, frankly, a result of the fact that very few people who had organizing experience ended up on our bargaining committee. The people who had experience organizing were generally just burnt out and wanted to check out for a little while and so very few people had the perspective that the administrator across the table from me is stalling on me, even now, and that this is something I should talk about with my coworkers and my department.


LZ: How did you get people to start organizing? And how did you keep them engaged through COVID? 

AM: I mean, when COVID hit, we were on a roll. We had done a march of 200 people all the way across the city to the random office where they had their negotiations, we were doing weekly pickets, and then COVID happened and so we couldn't use our bodies as leverage anymore. We reached that point of having so many people doing mass actions all the time just through repeated conversations. Just continually talking about what was going on and agitating around: Why isn't there movement yet? What's actually so difficult about giving us a raise or changing our healthcare? But then when COVID hit, we tried being keyboard warriors for a little while. We did a social media week. Nothing happened from that. The administration stopped meeting with us altogether. They didn't show up to their Zoom calls. And what we ended up doing was a car caravan around our president's house and that got them back to the table.

DH: A lot of the work around getting folks re-mobilized around the contract was also internal committee work. People were watching the clock ticking on the NLRB's decision, so when the comment period finally closed, that was a moment where people took a deep breath and said, "Wow. Maybe the NLRB will rule before we get a contract." And we had a private election. We had a recognition agreement that allowed us to have an election without the NLRB, but our recognition was still dependent on winning a contract before the NLRB overturned Columbia. Those were always the conditions that we were organizing in. 

AM: With the NLRB decision, a lot of people who had burnt out and checked out came back. That was the moment where people who knew what the NLRB was were very freaked out by that news and suddenly more active.

SK: We did have an NLRB election, and we had a very oppositional administration from the beginning. And there was a question after we won our election in spring 2018 of: Would they even agree to come to the table at all? There was a couple week period where we were really not sure about that and, honestly, that was the period when Columbia grad students had gone on strike. I think that, in many ways, the decision by the Harvard administration to come to the table in the first place was in some ways motivated by the fact that Columbia had gone on strike right at that time. And then, of course, we dealt with the same kinds of issues that Audrey was talking about in terms of just slow-walking the bargaining process to an absurd degree.

And we also dealt with the demobilization issue. We, at that point, had basically three years of pretty intensive organizing, from the card campaign to the first election to the rerun election of 2018, and so people, not only organizers like myself, took massive steps back. Rank-and-file graduate student workers were like, "All right. Enough of this. Can we just have some time where we don't have to think about the union?" And so it took a lot of work by our bargaining committee, which was elected, to convey the urgency of member action to get back to a place organizing-wise where we could put sustained pressure.

That took much of the 2018-to-19 academic year. Ultimately, the issue that we were primarily organizing around was the fact that Harvard was trying to carve out discrimination and harassment proceedings from the grievance procedure. This became a key issue to organize around and led to a rally in the spring of 2019. It was our largest rally to that point. And then as we moved into summer and it became clear that they were still slow-walking the bargaining process, that there was still not enough movement, it became clear that strike organizing had to happen.

I've found strike organizing to be some of the most rewarding organizing and also the most difficult because, at that point, you are asking something different than the yes or no, do we want a union or not. You're asking people to imagine real sacrifice for an uncertain prospect of winning things that we all thought that we deserved. That was extremely, extremely challenging. And I think it's a testament to the fact that we had so many engaged members and organizers that we had a strike the size that we did and for the length of time that we did. But it also didn't win everything we wanted it to.

Harvard, like many universities, doesn't have a Title VII office as they do in Title IX, so they were very resistant to agreeing to interim measures for things that were not sexual harassment or gender-based harassment. Getting that in the contract was major, but we still need to keep fighting to get those things covered fully under the grievance and arbitration clause. And so even after this month-long strike, there's still a lot of work to be done and that was also a big challenge for all of us organizers to overcome. Just the feeling of, okay, we did this, we organized for this strike successfully, we had a massive turnout in the authorization, but we have thousands of people participating in a strike and yet it's still no guarantee. And that's the hardest work that we've had to do.


LZ: What are you most excited about having won in your contracts? 

SK: One of the things I'm most excited about are the immigrant and international student protections that we won. We got a commitment from the University that if a student worker is stuck outside the country and cannot return for visa issues or because there's been a travel ban, that the university will commit to finding those people employment and pay them for the work that they're doing. We got a guarantee of five days of paid leave for a student worker to attend their family’s immigration proceedings, and a number of other crucial immigrant and international student protections that I think are particularly important right now.

The organizer in me is very excited about the fact that we are going to get lists of workers every week from the University. This is going to happen. Particularly in our case where we literally had an election that had to be redone because Harvard left 500 workers off the voter list. But there's a lot of other good stuff. There's tons of things that we're still fighting for. I mentioned already the carve out of discrimination and harassment from the full grievance procedure, including third-party arbitration. That is a very central thing that we are going to fight for and our contract is only one year, so that fight is beginning now.

AM: I'm very excited about all of the parent provisions that we got in our contract. When I came to grad school, I thought that I might not be able to become a mother just because of the age that I am and how long grad school takes, and realizing that, by working together and fighting the boss, it could be different than that.

DH: For me, it has to do with the fact that the contract explicitly includes a lot of protections that were developed in response to the coronavirus pandemic. I was talking to one of the chairs of our bargaining committee right before I got on this call because I wanted to hear some of her thoughts about what changed at the table. What she said was that it seemed like before coronavirus started, the administration was treating the contract as something that was maybe a little bit annoying and they were just kind of slow-walking it through. After the pandemic, they obviously stopped coming to meetings, and we had to really mobilize around winning a contract at all.

But she said that she felt like when they came back to the table, there was a new understanding on both sides that the contract was going to be read as a moral document, that it was a statement of what workers need and what they deserve in light of unprecedented health, safety, and financial security challenges that are cutting across a lot of different divisions.

The thing that I'm most excited about is building out this organizing across the university. A really promising group of faculty, post-docs, adjuncts, non-tenure line faculty have come together with grad students to put out a list of demands around reopening that garnered hundreds and hundreds of signatures from across the community. If we can build cross-rank labor power in the university, we can move towards the kind of democratization that Sam was talking about. This is happening alongside a renewed movement for racial justice on campus that's including some promising organizing that the union's taking part in around reevaluating the role of the police on campus and, ultimately, moving the police off campus.

So I see this as a time when a lot of different struggles that have been being waged on a different timescales and by different groups are starting to coalesce. I think it's a moment of real opportunity. I know everybody on the left says that whenever they have to give a conclusion, so take it with a grain of salt. I also think that we have to balance that with the reality, as I think Audrey and Sam have both alluded to, that it's impossible to sustain full mobilization and struggle forever. There's always periods where that becomes intense and periods where you have to give people a break, and so recognizing your moment of opportunity and then building on what you've already built in the next moment of opportunity.


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