Over the past two years, the Coalition of Graduate Employees (AFT local 6069), the union of roughly 1,800 teaching and research assistants at Oregon State University, engaged in what Jane McAlevey describes as "high-participation bargaining.” This campaign culminated in a marathon 17-hour negotiation session and a tentative agreement with the university in June 2020. We made significant gains, such as the expansion of gender-inclusive campus facilities, paid parental leave, reimbursements for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) fees, and wage increases. However, the union did not achieve our most ambitious proposals: a union-operated hardship fund paid by the employer, a public transportation package, classroom size limits, and childcare benefits.   

The stakes for organizing universities are high. Universities wield outsized influence within surrounding communities. Current challenges in organizing academic workers include high turnover rates for researchers and teachers; decentralized campus operations, which silo all workers; and the influence of the corporate elite over university operations. 

What follows is a case study of the Coalition of Graduate Employee’s high-participation bargaining efforts from the vantage point of a staff organizer and an elected member leader. The limits of our bargaining campaign demonstrates how — even with a high-participation model — campus unions can only achieve incremental changes absent a broad coalition of workers and community members. There is not enough potential power for any one section of campus workers to shut down campuses or, better yet, surrounding towns and cities. Overcoming these limits will require campus workers to organize into industrial unions.

 

High-Participation Bargaining to Build Union Capacity

Our high-participation campaign did not happen overnight nor was it a smooth process with majority union support along the way. In order to increase rank-and-file capacity, we crafted ongoing, interactive workshops on topics ranging from labor law, negotiation techniques, mock bargaining role plays, effective one-on-one union conversations, power structure analysis, story-based organizing, and strategic planning. Over the course of one year, staff gave no less than fifty different workshops, often with member assistance. Members who participated in workshops were asked to commit to joining the Bargaining Committee or the Contract Action Team (CAT), our union’s external organizing arm. 

By the time negotiations began, we had recruited twenty members to the Bargaining Committee, compared to our standard five or six, and thirty-eight to the Contract Action Team. We decided that union staff should not sit at the negotiating table to allow workers to advocate for themselves and avoid the dynamic whereby the university treats staff as the “professionals.” We also broadened our package of proposals to include more ambitious demands, such as investments in campus transportation and paternity leave, to raise expectations around what our union could, and should, negotiate over — and, in turn, generate wider participation from our membership. 

 

Methods of a High-Participation Approach

Our committee understood that participating in table negotiations alone would not accomplish these ambitious demands. We also needed numbers, coalitions, and pressure tactics, such as public petitions, strategic disruptions, large rallies, and confrontations with the boss.

During negotiations, our Bargaining Committee and CAT offered an expansive menu of opportunities for participation. Members were encouraged to recruit others to attend sessions, deliver testimonies at the negotiation table on their work experience, craft signs, use Bingo cards to mark likely management responses to our proposals, boo and hiss, sing parody songs, make memes, and participate in negotiation caucuses.

Our public sessions steadily had more than one hundred attendees, including faculty, staff, and undergraduates. Graduate student workers — along with faculty, staff, undergraduates, and community members — testified to the working and living conditions shaped by the university system. 

As we inched closer to the conclusion of our bargaining timeline, we staged several disruptive actions, along with a public petition, to escalate pressure on the university. Three noteworthy tactical disruptions included a march on the boss, which targeted the university provost during a class he taught; a public rally attended by more than three hundred campus workers and students; and a car and bike noise caravan that targeted the home of the university’s chief negotiator. We also issued a community-wide petition, which garnered 1,500 signatures, calling for top administrators to take a pay cut and reallocate resources to students, graduate workers, faculty, and staff. We used this platform, which we referred to as “Chop from the Top, Build Up the Bottom,” to execute a tactical “ring of fire,” where week after week members of our union fliered the neighborhoods of our primary targets, shaming them for their high pay. Through these disruptive tactics, we aimed to make our negotiation demands the moderate compromise for administrators.

Still, our contract campaign only accomplished a partial victory. The pandemic hurt us, to be sure, but we believe that our size was a more significant factor. CGE represents only one segment of the university workforce — in fact, we are the smallest unit on campus — so we could only build a limited bloc of power to threaten the university’s operations. 

We had the support of the leaders of the two other campus unions (one representing staff and the other representing faculty), and our union made multiple attempts to create coalitions across these groups of workers. We created sub-committees for organizing alongside faculty and staff. We shared our bargaining strategies and invited faculty and staff leadership to attend our negotiations. We also attended faculty negotiations (sometimes outnumbering the faculty in attendance), as well as a staff picket, to demonstrate visible solidarity. But these efforts were episodic and often one-way. Our unions did not advance a shared strategy against university management.

 

Industrial Unions Can Overcome Management Oppression 

Does our high-participation approach show us the pathway toward building worker power in the university? We believe our case study reveals that common good proposals, such as those around childcare benefits and public transportation, cannot be won by a single sector of workers in higher education. Despite drastically increasing member participation levels in both negotiations and militant direct action, graduate student workers at OSU did not possess enough potential power to achieve ambitious concessions. 

Often during campus protests at OSU, workers hold signs reading, “we make the university.” Underneath this statement is a concrete analysis of how universities are run: not through administrative committees, procedural paperwork, or incessant data collection derived from campus surveys, but through the daily labor of teachers, researchers, custodians, clerks, landscapers, librarians, and housing and dining employees. 

If the university is the company in the company town, the only way to win transformative change is to organize all the workers at the company — alongside members of the community — to make concerted demands. So long as union locals stay in their lanes, partial victories are the best we can hope to accomplish. 

One factor that complicates an industrial organizing approach is the lack of connection among campus workers. While a handful of active members in each union participate in joint events at OSU, workers in the different locals generally do not have deep relationships with one another. A shared strategy for building worker power wouldn need to overcome these divisions. 

But the primary resistance to industrial modes of organizing comes not from workers but from union leadership, who point to legal frameworks preventing coordination across campus unions. To that, we would argue: building worker power requires taking strategic risks. In fact, prohibitions on industrial worker organization demonstrate how threatening this model of organization is.  

The craft and trade union approaches might see durable contract gains and a number of improvements in campus policies but cannot stem the continued expansion of administrative power. Forming “one big union” is the way to meet the challenges posed by the neoliberal university.   

 

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