by Ahmed Akhtar and Jess Banks
May 18, 2021
Graduate student employees have fought for decades to form unions. In the 51 years since teaching assistants at the University of Wisconsin won the first graduate worker contract in the nation, our right to unionize has been only intermittently protected by the National Labor Relations Board, depending on which party sits in the Oval Office.
The end of the Trump era and Biden’s promise to be “the most pro-union president you’ve ever seen” have meant a changing of the guard at the NLRB, opening a path to unionization for hundreds of thousands of graduate student workers at private universities.
But the first group of graduate workers to organize in this new era may instead be in the public sector: approximately 17,000 graduate student researchers in the ten-campus University of California system and Lawrence Berkeley National Lab have just taken our unionization campaign public, after our own decades-long fight for a union.
Student researchers in the UC system began organizing alongside teaching assistants in the 1980s under the banner of the United Auto Workers. After a series of strikes and years of legal struggles, in 1999 UC finally recognized UAW Local 2865 as the union of teaching assistants (TAs), tutors, and readers (graders), and agreed to a first contract in 2000.
But the legal decision that led to this temporary truce maintained that the work of graduate student researchers, unlike TAs, was primarily educational—and as such researchers were not employees, but students receiving financial support to complete our studies.