Our new issue is out now. Get a discounted subscription today!

The University Is a Battleground

Zach Schwartz-Weinstein

The legal status of academic unions has always been precarious. But that hasn't stopped graduate workers from organizing.

Graduate student Jeffrey Tang holds his son Kieran Tang while he walks the picket line during a strike by University of Pennsylvania graduate students February 26, 2004 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. William Thomas Cain / Getty Images

Interview by
Michael Schapira

Academic worker unions have faced two major challenges in recent decades: the invalidation, legally and politically, of their status as workers on campus, and the increasing corporatization of universities. Just at the moment where universities are imposing increasing austerity and precarity on their own workforces, they, often with the help of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) are often denying graduate workers, teaching assistants, and adjuncts the designation of “worker” with a right to collectively bargain.

But what these unions do have is a history: of labor organizing, of all kinds of workers, on their campuses. This history has served as a major resource for sustaining organizing campaigns even when university administrations would like to deny their existence. Here, we speak to Zach Schwartz-Weinstein, an independent scholar and veteran of multiple organizing campaigns. We discuss the cross-union and cross-campus solidarity that’s kept academic worker organizing alive, graduate workers’ changing status at the NLRB, and how strikes and picket lines can serve as a new source of learning at the university.


I wanted to start by talking about your biography, because you studied at Yale and NYU, two institutions that are so important for drawing this history of grad student organizing back into the nineties and before. Could you give a brief autobiographical statement about arriving in Yale and some of your organizing efforts there, which was a little after the first wave of organization that goes back to the seventies, and then arriving at NYU when you arrived in the middle of the 2005 strike?


When I got to Yale in 2000 it had been a hotbed of labor organizing, for basically seventy years. The first organizing there happened in the 1930s among the janitors, maintenance, and custodial workers, or what then was called the Heat, Light, and Power department. They successfully unionized in 1941 after a one-day strike for recognition, and over the course of the 1950s organized the dining hall workers. From 1968–1977, they went on strike every contract expiration date over the course of a decade — four times in nine years.

At the close of that decade they returned to what had been an ongoing attempt to organize the clerical and technical employees at the university, and finally did so in 1983. Both unions, the blue-collar service employees and the white- and pink-collar clerical and technical workers, went on strike together in 1984 and were out for ten weeks. The clerical and technical workers won their first contract and the blue-collar service union won the best contract it had ever had.

Coming out of that were the second stirrings of graduate student unionization at Yale. The first attempts had occurred in around 1972 after an earlier wave of strikes by Local 35, which was the blue-collar service workers union. There had been a series of rolling grade strikes by graduate students that started in the philosophy department and spread to political science and American studies.

They formed a TA union called the Teaching Assistants Organization during the spring semester of 1972, which fizzled out fairly quickly. They’d been inspired by the 1971 strike at Yale, which was a massive strike — the longest in the university’s history up to that point. It culminated in the New Haven police beating workers at the university’s commencement exercises. The workers had tried to charge the parade of graduates to prevent them from crossing the street, so the cops decided to crack some skulls.

The Teaching Assistants Organization was also inspired by TA unionization in public universities. It’s a couple of years after the TAA unionizes at Wisconsin, and around the same time as the initial GEO campaign at Michigan.

There had been some attempts to talk about unionization in the 1984 strike, which Peter Salovey, the current president of Yale was involved with. Salovey led a workshop on graduate student unionization during a student moratorium in support of the clerical worker strike, and walked the clerical workers’ picket lines. He had long since abandoned this stance by the time he became an administrator.

There was an organization that formed a couple years later called TA Solidarity that in 1989 voted to become a union and a year later becomes the Graduate Employees and Students Organization, or GESO.

By the time that I got there in 2000, GESO was affiliated with the other unions on campus, with Locals 34 and 35, and was actively pushing for recognition, as it has now been doing for decades. I got involved with organizing my first year on campus. I found Yale to be a really atomizing place that I didn’t understand, but I saw that the only organization that was fighting what seemed to me an entrenched culture of deep institutional racism was the labor movement.

There were a number of students at that time who were trying to figure out different ways to be in solidarity with workers on campus. We eventually started our own organizing committee, trying to organize large numbers of undergraduates to engage in direct action in solidarity with other campus workers, especially during the two strikes that took place in 2003. In the first of those two strikes, which took place in March, all of the unions on campus were on strike together, and the graduate students really took center stage in a lot of ways.

I got to be very close to a lot of organizers of that strike and learned a lot from them about the political economy of higher education, about the casualization of academic labor, and about the politics of university finance — hedge funds and endowment investments.

I wound up writing about the history of the blue collar and service employees unions for my senior essay in American studies, and applied for graduate school in NYU. I got to NYU after taking a year to work in the labor movement and work on some other stuff. It was right after the Brown decision that removed federal protections for graduate employees at private universities, and NYU, which had been the first graduate employee union to be recognized at a private university in the United States, basically lost recognition from the university. The contract expired the day that I got there.

I signed my union card, and then I watched while about forty people got arrested in front of the library, which was also where the president’s office was, to protest the expiration of the contract and the refusal of the administration to negotiate with us.

GSOC (Graduate Student Organizing Committee) by that point had been in existence for a little less than a decade. It started as a group of graduate students, mostly in American studies and history, who were inspired by graduate employee unionization efforts at Yale and many public university campuses, where those struggles had been taking place in the mid to late nineties. They decided to organize themselves and won recognition in 2000 through the NLRB, through a strike threat, and finally won their first contract through another strike threat about a year later. They were under contract for three years, the contract expired on August 31, 2005, and about two months into my first semester of graduate school we went on strike for seven months.


I had a broad question about periodization. There is the pre-Brown phase, the post-Brown phase, and then the post-Columbia phase (with a separate, post-Columbia, post-Trump’s reconstituted NLRB). Does that periodization make sense?


If I were to do periodization, there would be one period from 1964–2000. That is the period that sees the mass organization of many public universities, starting with some of the early attempts in the UC system, the Teaching Assistants Association at Wisconsin, at Michigan, and then organization spreading at public universities across the country.

In 1970 the NLRB assumes jurisdiction over workers at private universities, so that is when we see the first handful of campaigns for graduate employees at private universities — Yale in 1972, NYU in 1977, none of which are ultimately successful. There are also some faculty campaigns at private universities, some of which are successful. 2000 is the NYU NLRB decision, which then spearheads a number of campaigns at other private universities including Brown, Cornell, Penn, Columbia, and a few others. The Brown decision comes down, and many of those campaigns dry up. The center stage for the private university struggle then shifts to the ongoing campaign at Yale and the NYU strike.

That year, 2005–6, all of those other campaigns in many ways were being put on hold, and people were being sent to NYU to sustain the strike. It’s really seen as the pivotal struggle for the future of the movement.

The post-Brown period after the NYU strike is a very difficult one. There is a sort of war of position at NYU between the union and the administration, wherein we took control of the company union they invented to replace us. We won a super-majority of the delegates and proceeded to confer with them, since we didn’t have a bargaining committee, but had a conference committee. We conferred with them for about fifteen months. Nothing happened, so we basically went back to organizing.

The other thing that happens in that era is the GSU campaign at the University of Chicago starts up in 2006–7. So even after Brown there is still organizing, despite the fact that there is no prospect of legal recognition any time soon.

You could argue that the Columbia period really starts earlier than the Columbia organization drive rekindling. It really starts in 2008 when Obama is elected and it becomes clear that at some point the NLRB is going to reconsider the question. You see new organizing drives not just at Columbia, but at Brown, Harvard, Boston College, and a number of private universities as well as public universities, like at UConn.


I have some questions about the NYU strike in particular, but more about the relationship between public and private universities. I was looking back at The University Against Itself, and there is stuff about the relationship between GSOC at NYU, and then the Professional Staff Congress (PSC) at CUNY, which is organized very differently. Surely there was solidarity between the groups, but I was wondering how your different institutional contexts become clear as your struggles were unfolding next to one another.


Because all of our focus was on winning back recognition at that point, the solidarity from the PSC, and from the Rutgers AAUP local, was pretty much focused on that. So the tensions within those organizations that included both graduate employees and faculty wasn’t something that really factored into solidarity in those strikes. It was all just about demanding that NYU negotiate.


In The University Against Itself there are back to back essays about the role that full-time faculty play and about the role that undergraduates play. Given that you’ve had experience passing through different roles, and this being a notorious challenge for organizing graduate student movements, what has come up as a recurrent obstacle for coalition-building across these unstable categories?


I think that NYU and Yale were very different. I was really struck by that. At Yale the faculty were for the most part, Michael Denning being a key exception, very against the union. Even in departments that were mostly made up of left-progressive faculty, there was a real hostility to GESO. Whether it was expressed as a critique of its message, a sense that it was too aggressive, or a belief in the idea of the university as a collegial space, they were threatened by the union. The Yale administration was much better at winning faculty to their administrative project than the NYU administration was.

The faculty at Yale were really an obstacle that the union there had to organize around. At NYU that was true to some extent, and there were some faculty that were really bad during the strike, but there were also hundreds of faculty members who were coming out to our picket lines and marching with us and signing solidarity statements. The day before our strike a contingent of faculty went to confront the president of the university and ask him to negotiate with us. He told them that the union would either die a quick death or a slow death. I’m very happy that he was wrong. The amount of solidarity that faculty at NYU showed, even if it too was imperfect, was really stunning to me, having been through this other wave of struggles.


Jumping back into the present, I had another question about periodization. We are post-Columbia, but also post– Trump’s reconstitution of the NLRB, and a lot of campaigns simultaneously pulled their campaigns so as to not give the NLRB the chance to overturn the Columbia precedent.

While people are pulling their campaigns, they are simultaneously thinking about creative ways to follow-up on this recent period of mobilization. If it can’t cash out in the familiar ways like calling a strike, what sort of creative possibilities do you see in the current moment, given that it is a bit dire on the legal front?


I think that in some ways the obstacles on the legal front present some of the same opportunities that the post-Brown era presented. There is time and a space to strengthen organizing on a departmental level, and at the level of entire universities, into organizations that are fighting for immediate change from administrations on the ground, outside of the NLRB process.

I think the way you do that is by, on the one hand, creating democratic and accountable organizing structures. On the other, engaging in forms of direct action, and what Fred Moten and Stefano Harney would call “fugitive planning.” You really need to think strategically about how universities work, how they are trying to invest their capital, and then go after them on those grounds, and use our positionality as contingent academics to our advantage.


Do you see some fruitful examples of that?


The example I would go back to is the way that Yale graduate students challenged the university’s investments in a hedge fund called Farallon Capital Management, in the early to mid-2000s. Farallon was run by Tom Steyer, the now “progressive” billionaire who donates lots of money to environmental causes. But his hedge fund was invested in coal power plants across the Global South, in shoe factories in Argentina that hadn’t paid their workers in months, in an attempt to build an airport in southern California to distribute across the country goods from maquiladoras, it was invested in a scheme to siphon water from the great sand dunes national park in southern Colorado, and it was invested in the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). And Yale had a huge portion of its endowment invested in this hedge fund.

Graduate students at Yale were able to use a lot of research that they had trained themselves to do to expose these connections, and to pressure the university by going after its money. They worked with environmental and labor rights organizations, and people at other universities that were also invested in this hedge fund. One of their great successes was that Yale would not divest its money from the fund, but they basically strong-armed the hedge fund into divesting from this private prison corporation. That was spearheaded by an American studies graduate student at Yale.


I had a question about that, which might relate to your own research. There is certainly an aspect of education that occurs on the picket line. I’m thinking now about undergrads at Grinnell College. Grinnell hired the union-busting Proskauer Rose, doing the old playbook, and undergrads are learning about what that means, not just in terms of their own campaign, but how it relates to broader anti-labor policies and strategies in the United States. I was curious, thinking about the hedge fund example, what kinds of lessons you learned that proved to be fruitful for your own scholarly work.


During that March 2003 strike, I was part of an undergrad organizing committee. On one of the days of the strike we set up a bunch of blackboards in the middle of the street on campus. Five hundred undergraduates walked out of classes and met strikers on the picket line and used these blackboards as a space to teach each other about the different struggles that were going on on campus, and ways that we could support each other.

For me that was a really important and powerful moment in terms of thinking about the kinds of knowledge that these academic labor struggles produce. Different visions of what a university could look like emerge from those struggles. That’s really been an animating moment for my research into the history of university labor. What are the origins of that particular vision and what are the histories that help us get there?


One thing that we’ve had a little bit of a problem with is getting a sufficient regional diversity in contributions. There is so much intellectual energy that is oriented towards the Northeast, and obviously California as well. You’ve talked a lot about the broader historical context that goes back to organizing at public universities and how this relates to current work in private universities. But I’m wondering if there is any regional component to this that is often overlooked.


There has been a lot of energy in the Midwest, and some of that has been at private universities, like the ongoing fight at the University of Chicago. But a lot of that has been at public universities. There have been several attempts to organize the University of Minnesota. A lot of people have come out of that struggle. There have been lots of others at the University of Iowa, at Wisconsin, in the University of Illinois system, all of which have had important labor struggles over the past twenty years in higher education. But also UIUC has seen the graduate students go out on strike, and the University of Michigan.


Let’s also talk about organizing in the South. I know a few people at places like Vanderbilt and Duke who’ve had tremendous difficulties. For one thing, it’s been hard to sustain energy in Right to Work states. Do you have any reflections on organizing in that kind of context, which is structurally engineered to deflate or undermine these kinds of campaigns?


Organizing in a context in which there is no prospect of legal recognition, as graduate employee unions have had to do in the very recent past (and if this current strategy of pulling campaigns for some reason hits a snag, may have do so again at some point in the future) is actually really instructive for thinking about how to organize in a Right to Work context. I don’t know that I can get more specific than that, but it’s important to think about what a union can look like outside of the kind of protections afforded by a Fordist collective bargaining regime and the legality provided by the National Labors Relations Act. What kind of demands can a union make outside of that context? And what kinds of solidarities can be built?