Graduate student teaching and research assistants at Syracuse University celebrated a major victory on April 4 as hundreds voted overwhelmingly in favor of forming a union. The two-day election process saw 95% of eligible graduate voters voting to unionize with a final count of 728 for and 36 against. Over 1,000 graduate workers will now be represented by Syracuse Graduate Employees United with Service Employees International Union Local 200United. In this landslide win, graduate workers at SU join a growing chorus of organized graduate labor across the country, sending a clear and resounding message to university administration: Graduate workers are a vital part of what makes the institution run, and workers will have a say in improving working conditions and achieve the dignity and respect they deserve!
Graduate students first formed SGEU following a 2016 decision by the National Labor Relations Board, which ruled that graduate student assistants at private universities and colleges were employees covered by the National Labor Relations Act with the right to unionize and collectively bargain. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, graduate employees make up around 38 percent of the instructional and research workforce at SU.
Universities and colleges are increasingly reliant on graduate labor as the number of graduate student employees has increased by 44% nationally over the last 20 years. This growing trend has been embraced by university administrators as they seek to increase revenues by keeping wages and benefits low for precarious workers on campus. Graduate employees along with non-tenure-track and adjunct faculty form a majority of the academic workforce in higher education.
After the last fiscal year, Syracuse University reported record high operating revenues and a $67.8 million surplus from operations. Meanwhile, graduate students working full-time on campus earn around $22,000 on average in a city where the annual living wage is $32,000. To make ends meet, graduate workers have had to depend on food pantries on campus and around Syracuse.
Fed up with struggling through the pandemic with poverty wages and a lack of benefits and protections, graduate workers from across the university joined SGEU’s ranks, bringing new life to the movement to form a union over the last two years. After months of meeting and speaking with nearly 1,000 fellow graduate employees about their issues and concerns, graduate organizers publicly announced the campaign to unionize in January. The campaign demands included a living wage for graduate workers, workload caps, better health care, and support and protection for graduate student workers of color and international student employees. Only a month later, having gained wide on-campus support from unionized facilities workers, faculty and undergraduates, as well as endorsements from community organizations in Syracuse, SGEU won a neutrality agreement with SU administration.
As SGEU organizer Katie Mott put it, “Even prior to the union election, the collective power behind our unionization movement could not be denied. Unions improve lives, give structure and organization to the working class, and work toward building a better future. I continue to be in awe of and inspired by my coworkers who fought tirelessly to win our union.”
When asked about what comes next for SGEU, Mott responded that the fight for graduate workers continues. “Over the next several months, we will democratically elect graduate workers to serve on our bargaining committee, continue hearing what graduate workers would like to see improved in our first bargaining contract and participate in negotiations with administration,” Mott remarked. “Alongside this, we will continue our commitment to organize graduate workers who were not included in the bargaining unit, namely hourly workers.”
The union victory for graduate teaching and research assistants at SU comes at a time nationally when graduate union activity, strikes and victories — particularly at private universities — are at a historic high. Late last year and earlier this year, graduate workers at Boston University and Yale University, respectively, overwhelmingly voted in favor of forming a union. Even more recently on April 15, union leaders representing 9,000 employees at Rutgers University won graduate assistants a roughly $10,000 pay increase in addition to salary increases for postdoctoral fellows and adjunct faculty. Commenting on the contract victory at Rutgers, Mott states, “It is clear that unions benefit everyone. We are confident that we can win big here at Syracuse University, too.”