What’s Drawing Academics to the UAW?

Apr 30, 2018

Columbia University graduate workers.
Credit UAW / https://bit.ly/2I4px9g

Academics make up almost a sixth of the United Auto Workers’ union members. Teaching and research assistants at Harvard this month became the latest (and one of the largest) student groups to join the UAW. Meanwhile, graduate students at Columbia University went on strike last week to demand the university recognize their union.

“There’s momentum around the idea of rights on the job,” said Julie Kushner, director of UAW region 9A, which covers the Northeast and Puerto Rico.

Science runs on what is essentially an apprenticeship system. Students conduct research and, in many cases, assist with teaching. It’s part of their training, but it is also work. And it’s that fuzzy line between education and employment that has made student unionization campaigns controversial.

Students who unionize are largely looking for fair compensation and benefits for the work they do. Kushner says respectful workplace protections and dispute resolution are also big drivers, noting that 44 percent of female graduate students report having been sexually harassed.

“They’re looking for a strong union that has an established track record at the bargaining table,” Kushner said.

UAW has embraced its academic members, adding science advocacy and sponsorship of the March for Science to its more traditional political activities.

“Having the ability to bring to the [science] movement support from other kinds of workers, including auto workers, just makes it a stronger voice and a more powerful movement,” said Kushner.

Kushner says that the expansion of UAW’s umbrella has benefits for both new and traditional members, from academic researchers, to submarine manufacturers, and auto makers.

“What’s amazing is they all understand each others’ issues,” Kushner said. “Of course, many of these issues, they didn’t realize until they started talking to each other – they share the same issues.”