LaborPress

NEW YORK, N.Y.— Graduate student workers at Fordham University in the Bronx have voted overwhelmingly to join the Fordham Graduate Student Workers union.

“We did it!” one called out from a balcony in the student center’s atrium after the results were announced April 7, as a few dozen supporters gathered below.

The vote was 229-15. The bargaining unit, part of Communications Workers of America Local 1104, will include about 360 graduate student workers at both the University’s Rose Hill campus in the Bronx and its Lincoln Center campus in Manhattan.

“It’s a very clear message: We want a union. We got it,” Nick McIntosh, a third-year Ph.D. candidate in philosophy, told LaborPress. He was one of the eight to 10 people who started the union drive in the late spring of 2020, near the peak of the pandemic.

The result was “the culmination of so much work,” he says. Union support “built slowly over time, and then it exploded all at once” during the fall semester.

When the Fordham Graduate Student Workers began petitioning for a vote in February, more than half the bargaining unit members signed union cards within two weeks. 

The reasons union support grew so quickly, McIntosh says, were varied. Some were material, such as low pay — graduate student workers, whose jobs range from administrative tasks to teaching third-year-level ethics classes, start at $26,000 a year — as well as high healthcare costs and high fees — “having to pay to work,” McIntosh calls it. International students had their own issues, such as limited legal protections. And for others, it was “autonomy as an essential part of what makes this university run,” he says. “We finally get our voices heard.

“The University is pleased that the process played out fairly: We accept the results of the vote and respect the student workers’ decision,” a university spokesperson told LaborPress. “We are proud of members of the University community who engaged in respectful and constructive conversation with one another and with the administration. It is clear that everyone involved in the conversation had the best interests of our graduate student workers at heart.”

He said contract negotiations are likely to begin in the coming months, “and the University is committed to working with the union and its members in good faith.”

Sam Brewer, a first-year Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at Fordham, said he joined the union “as soon as I was notified” after he arrived on campus last August.

“I believe workers should have the right to determine the structure of their workplace,” he told LaborPress. He called the overwhelming vote for the union “a sign of the growing momentum of the labor movement in general, both in the university context and outside.”

Fordham is the first private university in New York organized by Local 1104, which represents more than 5,000 graduate workers at State University of New York campuses. 

Growth in South, Midwest

Another CWA affiliate, the United Campus Workers, describes itself as a “wall-to-wall union” for staff, faculty, and graduate and undergraduate workers. It has locals and chapters in seven Southern states, with members at the University of Tennessee, University of Kentucky, University of Georgia, University of South Carolina, and Louisiana State University, as well as Texas State Employees Union members at the University of Texas. 

On April 4-5, more than 2,600 graduate workers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology voted to join the United Electrical Workers union. 

At Indiana University in Bloomington, another UE affiliate, the Indiana Graduate Workers Association, is considering whether to go on strike if the university does not grant it a way to win recognition. The IGWA requested an election last December, after more than 60% of the about 2,500 graduate workers signed union cards, but the administration refused, saying it had no obligation to bargain with them because they are academic appointees, not staff employees.

On Apr. 5, Indiana University provost Rahul Shrivastav sent graduate workers a letter threatening to fire anyone who participated in a strike. “I do not believe that we need a union to improve graduate education and I will not re-visit this decision,” he wrote.

More than 850 graduate workers have signed strike pledges, the IGWA told the Indiana Daily Student on Apr. 5.

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