In Wake of NLRB Ruling, AFT and SEIU Vie to Organize Grad Student Workers at Northwestern

Jeff Schuhrke

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." (Northwestern University/ Facebook)

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

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