Graduate employees call for social justice

August 20, 2015

Trish Kahle and Sean Larson report on the Coalition of Graduate Employee Unions conference and an important discussion on anti-racist organizing in the labor movement.

MORE THAN 100 representatives of graduate employee unions and organizing committees from across the U.S. and Canada gathered over the first weekend in August at the University of Massachusetts Amherst for the conference of the Coalition of Graduate Employee Unions (CGEU).

CGEU is a coalition of graduate employee unions that extends across parent unions and national borders. Member locals represented such national and international unions as: the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), United Auto Workers (UAW), United Electrical Workers (UE), UNITE HERE, Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), Teaching Support Staff Union (TSSU), American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and more.

One highlight of the three-day conference was the passage of two important resolutions in support of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. The first resolution pledged delegates to develop programs of political education and material support for BLM in their locals, while the second called for the disarming of campus police forces and the diversion of funds for them to instead support the recruitment and retention of Black students.

NYU graduate employees rallying for a fair contract
Graduate employees at New York University during their battle for a fair contract

Delegates also passed a resolution in solidarity with the ongoing TSSU strike at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia.

The votes on the resolutions followed a weekend of lively discussion and debate centered on key issues such as the ongoing neoliberalization of higher education, which has ratcheted up the exploitation of graduate employees, and the meaning of social movement unionism in the context of Black Lives Matter.

Additionally, Academic Workers for a Democratic Union (AWDU), a reform caucus within the UAW, raised discussion about union democracy across the weekend.

The comradely debate in the weekend's meetings covered a range of topics, ranging from intersectionality and the labor movement, to the Friedrichs court case that will give the U.S. Supreme Court a chance to decimate public-sector unions, to the challenges facing grad workers who lack legal status as employees at private universities.

The seriousness and wide scope of the discussion was emblematic of the vibrant potential of graduate employee unionism to raise the political level of the labor movement and link struggles of campus employees and students. But it also underscored the challenges before us.


IF THOSE challenges weren't clear enough already, two bad decisions from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in the week following the conference drove home the point.

First, the director of the NLRB's Manhattan region denied legal status as workers to unionizing graduate employees at The New School. While this ruling wasn't surprising, it ratified the NLRB's 2004 decision in a case regarding Brown University, when the Board declared grad employees at private universities had no legal status as workers and therefore had no protected right to unionization.

Then, on August 17, the NLRB dismissed a petition by undergraduate football players at Northwestern University. While the Board said the legal status of the athletes could not be directly compared to grad employees, the decision nonetheless reflected a broad hostility towards efforts to organize by highly exploited workers on campus--both the workers who sustain multimillion-dollar sports programs and those who teach growing percentages of college courses.

Despite the challenges that graduate employees face in our workplaces, we know that our struggle is not only an internal matter, confined to campuses. It is linked to the broader struggle for social justice, and in this historical moment, to the Black Lives Matter movement.

Solidarity is an essential principle of the labor movement, and in that spirit, CGEU spent much of the weekend debating how to show solidarity with BLM through the education of our members, the introductions of demands that graduate employees are particularly well-situated to fight for and how we can be engaged with BLM nationally and in our locals.

These discussions followed the passage of a resolution by UAW Local 2865--the local for graduate employees in the University of California system--which demanded the AFL-CIO expel the International Union of Police Associations (IUPA) from the federation.

"This organization," the statement reads, "is inimical to both the interests of labor broadly, and Black workers in particular...As a union, we argue that the International Union of Police Associations fails to adhere to the goals of the Federation, and therefore should not be included in the list of unions which are fighting for worker's rights."

The statement originated from the Black Interests Coordinating Committee, the recently formed Black Caucus of Local 2865, and was subsequently passed by the local's joint council. The local earlier in the year passed a resolution calling for divestment from Israel after a referendum of the membership.


THE PRECEDENT set by Local 2865's resolution presented CGEU delegates with several questions: As antiracists in the labor movement, how do we win broader layers of workers to our position? How do we make "Black Lives Matter" more than a statement put out by union leadership, and instead turn it into rank-and-file practice? How will sections of the labor movement that have already indicated their support for BLM be held accountable?

In response to these questions, Michael Billeaux from the Teaching Assistants Association (TAA) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison put forward a resolution outlining next steps for CGEU delegates to advance the antiracist struggle inside our locals and parent unions:

WHEREAS, the labor movement, as the potential champion for the interests of the immense majority of our society, and as the most racially integrated movement in the U.S. and Canada, has an obligation to support the aims and means of the #BlackLivesMatter movement; and

WHEREAS, the progressive wing of the labor movement has a proud history of supporting the fight for racial justice and equality, dating back to the beginning of the 20th century but also through the 1950s and 1960s, when many of our parent unions supported the struggle against Jim Crow in the U.S. South, and our support today would follow in these proud footsteps; and

WHEREAS, police unions, in contrast to the progressive record of organized labor, have regularly sought to advance the militarization of the police and policies extending police impunity while defending individual officers who commit racist murders,

BE IT RESOLVED, that all delegated representatives at the conference of the Coalition of Graduate Employee Unions commit themselves to return home to their unions and organizing committees and,

1. Engage in a campaign to educate and win over their local memberships to support for the #BlackLivesMatter movement,

2. Work within their own central labor councils, statewide bodies, and parent unions to win over affiliated bodies to give resources and material aid to #BlackLivesMatter organizations and actions, mobilize their union memberships for local campaigns, issuing public statements to formally put themselves on record in support of the movement, and preparing where necessary for the police union question,

3. Recruit our unions to help support the development of international expressions of the #BlackLivesMatter movement that will continue to engage in organizing across the U.S. and Canada.

This resolution passed unanimously.


IN RESPONSE to the murder of Sam Dubose by a campus police officer at the University of Cincinnati, delegates from the University of Chicago--which boasts one of the largest armed police forces in the world--raised another resolution that was also passed by the conference.

The resolution began by pointing out how the University of Cincinnati police force response for Dubose's killing during a traffic stop is "emblematic of violent, racist, unaccountable campus police forces across the country" that operate without adequate accountability, both on and off campus. The motion also linked racist policing practices to the neoliberalization of universities, as "funding and resources are being stripped away from student learning across higher education even as campus police forces acquire more weapons, equipment and personnel." The resolution concluded:

The Coalition of Graduate Employee Unions calls on all campus administrations to:

1. Disarm campus police forces,
2. Reduce campus police department budgets and allot those funds for academics, and recruitment and retention of Black students,
3. Remove campus police from operations off of university property, including all public streets.

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that all delegated representatives at the conference of the Coalition of Graduate Employee Unions commit themselves to return home to their unions and mobilize these organizations in support of this call.

Taken together, these resolutions demonstrate the potential of graduate employee unions--and all campus unions--to take a leading role in fighting racism on campus alongside students who have already been mobilizing for Black Lives Matter since last August.

While graduate unions have taken part in BLM protests over the last year, we want to expand this practice, supporting the movement in general and also its specific expressions in our respective locations. The labor movement cannot just issue statements of support, but must engage in concrete organizing and win all of our members to the fight against racism.

We know that Black lives matter--in the workplace, in the classroom, on campus and in the streets.

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