Militant Journalism

Campus Workers union wins grad student healthcare at U of South Carolina

United Campus Workers Local 3765 at the University of South Carolina won a major victory by securing fully subsidized graduate student health insurance plans from the university. The grad student health insurance campaign was UCW-SC’s first campaign since being officially chartered by the Communication Workers of America in the summer of 2020.

As of fall 2021, U of SC is now covering the full cost of grad students’ healthcare, whereas before the union’s campaign, students paid an average yearly premium of nearly $2,500.

UCW is a wall-to-wall union for higher education employees, with locals in Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Tennessee and South Carolina. Workers at U of SC’s Columbia campus began organizing their union local in the fall of 2019. UCW-SC launched the campaign for grad student healthcare in the fall of 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic.

How the workers fought and won

Union members held meetings and drafted a petition calling on the university to cover grad student healthcare premiums. Through regular outreach and tabling on campus, union members secured over 600 petition signatures from students, faculty and staff.

In the spring of 2021, a UCW-SC member introduced a resolution in U of SC’s Faculty Senate in support of the union’s demand, which passed with an overwhelming majority. A few weeks later, the union held a public demonstration on campus to deliver the petition signatures to the university administration. By the end of the semester, the University Provost and the Dean of the graduate school announced that U of SC would begin subsidizing the full cost of grad student healthcare plans starting fall 2021.

Liberation News spoke with Marilyn Wende, PhD., a U of SC alumni and former member of the union’s steering committee about the campaign. At the time of the campaign, Wende worked as a graduate research assistant and teaching assistant at the university.

Liberation: Why did you join the union?

Wende: I wanted to get involved in a union at U of SC due to issues arising in my department and school. I was experiencing issues related to pay lags, an annual salary of less than $20,000, [and] personally having to pay for healthcare. Upon talking with other graduate assistants in my department, I learned that most graduate students were experiencing the same issues. A fellow graduate research assistant mentioned that a union might help us form a collective voice and raise our issues in a way that was more effective. We connected with other students, staff, and faculty at the school that were also interested in unionizing. Next, we connected with a representative of United Campus Workers. After hearing from graduate students at other UCW chapters, I was convinced that having a union would be the best way to improve our working conditions and quality of life.

Liberation: What was your role in the campaign?

Wende: I was involved in engaging members in escalation tactics and power mapping during general meetings, trying to increase recruitment by contacting those who signed the petition, tabling to raise awareness on campus, working with fellow student organizations and planning demonstrations.

Liberation: What was the most difficult part of the campaign?

Wende: The most difficult part of the campaign was recruitment. This was our first campaign as a union, so we were still trying to increase the people power within our organization. On top of that, we were experiencing the COVID pandemic, so we had limited access to in-person recruitment. We often employed tactics of phone banking and different types of video-conference calls, but it was hard to engage people that way. Nonetheless, we found ways to talk with members one-on-one over the phone and do in-person recruitment outdoors with masks.

Liberation: How did having a union help?

Wende: While many people were discussing the need for graduate student health insurance before our union was formed, I think having a wall-to-wall union was crucial to getting graduate student health insurance covered by the school. Our collective voice and awareness of labor conditions gave us the fortitude to pose uncompromising demands. We were intentionally building more and more awareness around our campaign using strategies suggested by UCW representatives. This helped us follow a clear framework for recruitment and determine a strict timeline for getting our demands met.

The campus workers fight on

Following their win in the healthcare campaign, UCW-SC members are now fighting for fair pay and a living wage at U of SC. The demands of the fair pay campaign include a $15 minimum wage and a 15% increase in base stipends for graduate student workers. More information about the campaign, including links to a petition and UCW-SC social media accounts can be found here: UCW-SC links

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