Make One Big Higher Ed Union

Campus workers are organizing more than anyone else. It’s time for them to unify.

Hamilton Nolan

This, more, together, everywhere. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Higher ed is unionizing. Like crazy! Last year, every single one of the five largest filings for NLRB union elections in America — each representing more than 3,000 members — were for graduate workers at various universities. University of California workers pulled off the biggest strike of 2022. New units of more than 1,000 people, rare in most of the union world, have become commonplace in academia. This wave shows no sign of slowing. Just this month, thousands more grad workers at the University of Minnesota and Duke filed for elections. Since the beginning of 2022, more than 45,000 graduate and undergrad workers have made moves to unionize, according to Daily Union Elections, a site that catalogs union filings. And those workers have been voting yes” for unions at nearly a 90% clip.

In many cases, these newly formed grad worker unions spring up alongside existing unions covering adjunct and full time faculty, as well as various service workers, on their same campus. In aggregate, higher ed today is the largest and most aggressively organizing industry in the union world. There’s just one problem: They don’t have their own union. Until they do, they will never be able to exercise their full power in the fragmented and territorial union world. And that is bad news for all of us.

Thousands of newly organized grad workers have joined UE, a progressive union whose roots are among industrial workers. Thousands more are in UAW, making up a significant minority of the auto workers union. Other higher ed units are sprinkled among AFT (a teachers union), SEIU (a service workers union), CWA (a communication workers union), Unite Here (a hospitality workers union) and other big unions. All of those unions have one thing in common: They are not higher ed unions. They are unions that (admirably) organized higher ed workers.

Now, I ain’t criticizing anyone here. This is, in many ways, how union organizing should work. When a gusher of interest leaps up in an unorganized sector, existing unions should see it as an opportunity, and should be happy to offer their services to draw these workers into the labor movement. Many different unions have done this in higher ed. Great! Love it! But this should be understood as one stage in an evolving process — a process that proceeds towards the creation of one big union with all of higher ed under one roof. Today, the overflowing energy among grad workers specifically is powerful enough to be the engine that unifies all the splintered, existing units into one.

There are two main reasons to do this. One is the same reason that all industries could benefit from having a single union representing all of its workers: It concentrates the industry’s labor power in one place and creates the strongest possible counterweight to the power of the industry’s employers. Industrial unions, especially ones that can achieve high union density, are the most effective way to achieve a balance of power not just in one workplace, but in an entire field of employment. The industry-wide issues well known to all struggling workers in higher ed — the gig-ificiation of teaching, political assaults from right wing politicians, declining state budgets — take industrial strength to combat. Ten separate unions have a harder time concentrating their firepower than one big one does. This is a basic insight that should, ideally, drive all long-term labor organizing in America.

Unfortunately, unions have grown so weak that we tend to be grateful to find anyone willing to organize workers, and seeing these groups coalesce into a real industrial union becomes a faraway luxury. But guess which industry, above all others, now has the density and the fire to ascend to the next stage of development? That’s right — it’s higher ed. This is not some grand insight. There is, in fact, a group called Higher Ed United that brings the many unions together for discussions and strategy. But there is not, so far, a meaningful effort to do the (tedious, time-consuming, and very worthwhile) work of starting a new union for these hundreds of thousands of workers to be a part of, as one.

Sign up for our weekend newsletter
A weekly digest of our best coverage

The other reason to unite all the campus workers is a structural one that should appeal to academics, if it appeals to anyone: To give higher ed workers their fair share of power within organized labor itself. You can think of the AFL-CIO as labor’s version of the U.S. Congress. It is an uneasy coalition of a bunch of different unions, controlled by a powerful few that tend to be adapted to slow, institutional decline, and produce a labor movement that is content to sit comfortably inside its shrinking walled garden, rather than rouse itself to national action to try to reverse its own decline. We all see the little pockets of encouraging activity in labor — Starbucks, Amazon, higher ed itself — but we should never lose sight of the fact that, on the whole, unions in America continue to lose density and power. The thing we need to do is to bring the pockets of heat into the big institutions of the union world, and light a fire under their asses.

As a group, higher ed unions (and especially grad workers) tend to be younger and more left wing than the average union in America. We desperately need that energy to be exerting influence in the AFL-CIO. Why? Is it because we want unions to be more white collar and only for educated people and exclusive blah blah blah? No, it is the opposite of that. We need the labor movement to go out and organize millions of workers, and its institutions are currently too comfortable and small-minded to think on that scale. We need the newly organized people with the most enthusiasm to push the machine to get to work everywhere.

I am very glad that the UAW and Unite Here and so many others have stepped up to organize in higher ed. But it is unlikely that higher ed members will ever become majorities of those unions and fully control them. (I myself have experienced the convulsive backlash of a union—the Writers Guild — dealing with a growing minority of members from a new industry, and it ain’t pretty.) This is not a knock on those unions. It’s just the way they are constituted. It is theoretically possible for the United Auto Workers to become a union of professors, but I very much doubt it will ever happen, because the legacy” members of these unions start to feel uncomfortably threatened as their majority disappears. Perhaps solidarity will overcome these misplaced fears, but perhaps not. Anyhow, why even worry about it, when you can have your very own ship to steer?

These many existing unions have done the labor movement the great service of getting all of these smart, pissed off, highly educated, underpaid and mistreated workers on college campuses into unions. There are a lot of them. Now it is time for them to make their own union, and push that spirit of organizing out into the whole wide world. It’s evolution, baby.

Please consider supporting our work.

I hope you found this article important. Before you leave, I want to ask you to consider supporting our work with a donation. In These Times needs readers like you to help sustain our mission. We don’t depend on—or want—corporate advertising or deep-pocketed billionaires to fund our journalism. We’re supported by you, the reader, so we can focus on covering the issues that matter most to the progressive movement without fear or compromise.

Our work isn’t hidden behind a paywall because of people like you who support our journalism. We want to keep it that way. If you value the work we do and the movements we cover, please consider donating to In These Times.

Hamilton Nolan is a labor writer for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. More of his work is on Substack.

Illustrated cover of Gaza issue. Illustration shows an illustrated representation of Gaza, sohwing crowded buildings surrounded by a wall on three sides. Above the buildings is the sun, with light shining down. Above the sun is a white bird. Text below the city says: All Eyes on Gaza
Get 10 issues for $19.95

Subscribe to the print magazine.