Strikes and unions: Graduate students marshal their forces nationwide

Johns Hopkins and Yale grad students recently enjoyed landslide victories to form a union this year, while Temple University is in the midst of a union strike.

Temple’s ongoing graduate student strike catching national headlines did not happen in a vacuum. Across the country, many graduate programs at prolific higher ed institutions have gone on strike or unionized since fall 2022.

Grad student labor organizing has spiked in recent years, according to William A. Herbert, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions. He believes that graduate students have increasingly assumed the brunt of teaching and research responsibilities compared to tenured faculty, and, according to one of his articles, the employment growth of graduate students was triple that of tenured faculty. Herbert cites the cost of graduate student labor to be a leading catalyst to this trend. It’s simply far cheaper for students to do it than tenured faculty.

Another culprit in the rise of student unions is the insecurity students experienced during the pandemic. The Brown Daily Herald captured the frustration Vanderbilt union chair Alex Korsunsky felt when the school bungled its way through new protocols.

“Aside from these basic concerns … the administration didn’t take input from grads—or faculty, for that matter, or staff,” Korsunsky said. “They didn’t really consult anyone. There was no public participation, and their decisions were seen as having very little legitimacy.”

Livable wages, health benefits, and job security name just a few reasons students are incentivized to join a union, but when schools cannot meet their demands, clashes have emerged in the forms of strikes.

Here are some of the biggest colleges across the country that have dealt with the rise of a student union or clash with one since the start of the school year. Also included are a pair of schools that are voting to unionize soon.

More from UB: Eastern Michigan University faculty union hold strike vote Tuesday

Union students on strike

Temple University

Temple’s graduate student union comprising 750 students went on strike Jan. 31. The school has since withdrawn tuition assistance and benefits to those who have participated.

It’s the first strike in the union’s history.

University of California

The largest academic strike in U.S. labor history late last year—amassing a total of 48,000 employees—led to a deal that neither the school nor the school’s unions are satisfied with. While the unions did win a pay increase, many claim that it does not cover California’s steep living costs, which is partly why 38% of union students rejected UC’s offer. Updated accommodations include transportation subsidies and health benefits. One source projects UC’s deal with the unions will force them to fork out an additional $570 million, which may lead to reductions in graduate student enrollment.

The school has recently decided to retroactively dock the pay of those 48,000 workers. Expect another round of tough negotiations in 2024.

Students who won vote to unionize

Johns Hopkins University

In a landslide, 97% of students elected to unionize on the first of February. Their main points of negotiation are livable wages, improved support for international students, and safe workspaces, to name a few.

Yale University

Of the 2,000 votes cast to form a bargaining unit for graduate students and researchers, 91% voted yes in January. The union Local 33-UNITE HERE was partly inspired by the recent decisions to unionize at other Ivy League schools such as Harvard and Columbia.

Northwestern University

Protests erupted during the fall semester when the school refused to recognize a partnership between the Northwestern Graduate Student Workers Union (NUGW) and the nationally present United Electric, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE). As a result, graduates successfully voted to unionize last month with a whopping 93.5% majority, citing a desire for higher stipends, health insurance, and paid sick days, and PTO.

With expertise from UE, NUGW will soon begin formal negotiations with the school.

Students awaiting union status

University of Chicago

Held an election to unionize on Jan. 31 and Feb. 1 and is awaiting results from mail-in ballots. Students seem very confident. “We are going to win the election,” said Valay Agarawal, a second-year Ph.D. student in the chemistry department.

University of Southern California

Election to unionize Feb. 15 and 16, according to Daily Trojan.


Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and Florida Gator alumnus. A graduate in journalism and communications, his beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene, and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador, and Brazil.

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