As millions tuned in to see the final presidential debate Wednesday night, about 100 graduate student workers at Northwestern University gathered to watch two unions debate which one can represent them best.
The event was organized by Northwestern University Graduate Workers (NUGW), an organization of teaching and research assistants seeking to unionize in the wake of the National Labor Relations Board’s landmark ruling in August that said graduate employees at private universities are indeed workers covered under labor law.
Representatives from the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) were present. Both unions say they were approached by graduate student workers looking to affiliate with them.
When two unions compete over who will represent a group of workers, they typically make their cases in separate presentations. Wednesday night’s debate was unusual.
“The rationale was to assure that graduate workers have a side-by-side comparison of the two unions, their strategies and what each has to offer,” NUGW organizer Kevin Baker, a history Ph.D. student, told In These Times.
At public colleges and universities — where graduate workers have been unionizing since 1969 — the AFT represents some 25,000 graduate employees nationwide. The union’s statewide affiliate, the Illinois Federation of Teachers, represents graduate workers and faculty at multiple public institutions.
Meanwhile, SEIU — known for its ambitious campaigns like Fight for $15 — is comparatively new to organizing academic workers. Through its Faculty Forward campaign, SEIU has unionized non-tenure-track faculty at dozens of private colleges across the country in recent years. In just the past year, SEIU Local 73 in Chicago successfully organized adjuncts at Loyola University and the University of Chicago.
In response to the NLRB’s August decision, SEIU launched a national graduate worker union drive focusing on private colleges. At the University of Chicago, where the AFT-affiliated Graduate Students United (GSU) has been fighting to unionize since 2007, SEIU recently offered to become the workers’ new representative, but GSU members voted to reaffirm their relationship with AFT earlier this month.
Speaking on behalf of AFT on Wednesday night were Samantha Jordan, a national representative for the union, and Michael Billeaux, an activist with the Teaching Assistants’ Association at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Representing SEIU were the union’s director for higher education, Malini Cadambi Daniel, and Jason Grunebaum, a senior lecturer at the University of Chicago and Faculty Forward activist.
For 90 minutes, they answered a series of worker-submitted questions about their respective unions’ backgrounds and strategies. Although all agreed on the necessity of member-run unionism and person-to-person organizing, each tried to convince the audience of his or her union’s own distinctly beneficial structure and vision.
“Typically AFT has single-unit locals, which means there’s one bargaining unit per local. That gives us a great deal of autonomy over our bargaining priorities and political priorities. It means the leadership of your local is always going to be grads,” Billeaux said.
Cadambi Daniel explained that SEIU focuses on “trying to build worker density in a particular market or city. So we have locals that represent multiple types of workers … Some of our locals are massive and have a lot of revenue, so they support organizing in far-flung places. There’s a real ‘pay it forward’ model here because we can’t just look out for own smaller community.”
Billeaux responded that by having their own autonomous locals, the priorities of AFT-affiliated grad workers can’t be “diluted” and graduate student workers are able to maintain “full control,” noting that SEIU Local 73 is currently under trusteeship imposed by the international leadership.
“SEIU has an incredible vision of where the labor movement can go,” said Grunebaum. “The more we can stand together with our brothers and sisters in other sectors, the stronger we’ll all be together.” He added that as a member, he feels there is “a lot of local autonomy” in his union.
“AFT is a union of educators,” Jordan said. “We’re uniquely positioned to build a graduate employee movement” and “to defend the idea of education as a public good.”
For its part, Northwestern’s administration is openly opposed to the campaign. In an August statement, the university warned that unionization “would significantly change the relationship between these students, their faculty mentors and the University” and states that “unionization and collective bargaining are not the appropriate methods to address concerns raised by graduate student assistants.”
NUGW activists say they want to unionize because they believe collective bargaining will give them more voice in decision-making and provide more certainty about their pay, benefits and working conditions. Going into the debate, they appeared to be split over which union they want to represent them.
Matilda Stubbs, a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at Northwestern who works as an adjunct at other Chicago universities, told In These Times she’s inspired by SEIU’s “recent success at raising the consciousness of adjuncts” around the city and believes the union is “a logical fit” for graduate workers.
Baker, who prefer AFT, says, “I like their more decentralized approach. I like the idea of having our own local and being in charge of our own contract negotiations.”
Next steps are still under discussion. But whatever happens, both AFT and SEIU said they will support the unionization effort — no matter which union ends up taking the lead.
“It’s really up to you. We are looking forward to standing shoulder-to-shoulder regardless of who you affiliate with,” said Grunebaum.
The author of this article worked on an SEIU-funded campaign from 2011 to 2012 and has been a member of the Graduate Employees Organization at the University of Illinois at Chicago, an AFT-affiliated graduate student local, since 2015. He and his local are not involved in the national AFT’s efforts at Northwestern.
Jeff Schuhrke has been a Working In These Times contributor since 2013. He has a Ph.D. in History from the University of Illinois at Chicago and a Master’s in Labor Studies from UMass Amherst. Follow him on Twitter: @JeffSchuhrke