reparing America’s youth for an increasingly uncertain future has never been an easy job for the millions of teachers in this country. As the Trump administration and the Betsy DeVos–led Department of Education continue to request cuts in public-school funding, funnel more students into charter schools, and force more students into debt, the job has only gotten harder. However, the dedicated, passionate workers whose labor keeps the school system running are currently fighting back in defense of their students and their own livelihoods.
It started in 2018, when a wave of teachers’ strikes took the nation by storm. Thousands of educators walked off the job and joined picket lines in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Colorado, citing low wages and a crippling lack of school funding. Their efforts gained much sympathy from the public — many of whom shared their stories of teachers in their own lives who went above and beyond in the name of education, despite poor pay and low funding. Students joined them, too, and the walkouts sparked debates over the government’s approach to educational funding and breathed hope into a besieged labor movement.
While the teachers’ strikes continue to force change, there are separate labor struggles playing out in other areas of the school system that command attention.
Graduate students, undergraduate student workers, adjunct professors, teaching assistants, clerical staff, cafeteria workers, schoolbus drivers, cleaning staff, and other campus workers are all crucial parts of the education industry. By and large, the people entrusted with the monumental task of cultivating education in this country are chronically overworked, understaffed, and underpaid. That’s why education workers are increasingly demanding the right to organize among themselves and collectively bargain with management on pay and working conditions — in short, to unionize.
Young people have been working hand-in-hand with their educators on some of these efforts.
In New York City, students at the New School, a university in lower Manhattan, took matters into their own hands after three separate labor disputes erupted between the school administration and the cafeteria staff, academic student workers, and student advisers, according to Pacific Standard magazine. The school had previously announced plans to bring its food service in-house, which would force the current cafeteria workers to reapply for their current jobs with no guarantee of renewed employment.
So on May 1, 2018 — or May Day, also known as International Workers’ Day — about 100 students sat down to begin an occupation of the cafeteria), demanding that cafeteria workers — who are represented by food service union UNITE HERE — be offered a reasonable contract by Chartwells, the third-party food-service provider contracted by the New School. They also called for higher wages, tuition vouchers, worker-student control of the cafeteria, as well as the resignation of Steve Stabile, the university’s vice president for finance and business and treasurer, who helped engineer the layoffs. That same day, there was a separate rally being held outside the school by student advisers (New School students who assist their fellow students with programs of study and act as faculty liaisons, who had recently had their paltry benefits cut) and academic student workers, who include course assistants, tutors, research assistants, teaching assistants, and teaching fellows, who were newly organized as the Student Employees at the New School with the United Automobile Workers Local 7902 SENS-UAW.
They launched their own strike on May 8, 2018, after spending nearly a year battling the administration for a contract that included livable wages and benefits, and all three groups took part in the occupation.
Additional students from the New School’s Communist Reading Group and others joinedthe occupation, working with other NYC leftist organizations to distribute free food, hold study groups, and practice radical solidarity.
“It was like Moses parted the sea; it was amazing,” New School cafeteria chef Michael Brown told Organizing Work. “They just came in, sat down, got on their bullhorn and said, ‘This cafeteria is closed.’ There was nothing else to talk about. They tell us they’re here for us; we tell them we’re here for you all.”
The action lasted a total of 17 days, ending on May 17, 2018, and resulted in wins for the cafeteria workers, who were (immediately rehired by the university as workers represented by UNITE HERE Local 100. Things took longer to resolve for the student advisers and academic student workers. They reached a tentative agreement with the New School in November 2018 and voted to pass a new labor contract with the New School administration on December 3, 2018.
Also in NYC, graduate-student workers at the City University of New York (CUNY) are currently advocating for fair wages for part-time faculty. Organizers have launched a campaign dubbed #7KorStrike, which demands an increase from $3,500 to $7,000 per course for adjunct professors (part-time faculty who are paid according to the number of courses they teach), which would lift the city school system’s adjuncts out of their current near-poverty wages. An organizer with CUNY Struggle who spoke with Teen Voguecharacterized it as “a moment when a rank-and-file movement led by seriously precarious workers is crashing into an ossified business union structure led by old rich professors, on the heels of the ‘red wave.’”
Their plight is common across the educational system, where adjuncts constitute 76.4% of U.S. faculty across all U.S. universities and colleges. As Karen Thompson, a lecturer in the English writing program at Rutgers University, said during her union’s own contract fight in April 2018, “One colleague calls us the ‘lettuce pickers’ of higher ed. Like farmworkers, we get paid by the bushel. A classroom of students is not a bushel of tomatoes but nevertheless [part-time lecturers] try to cover enough classrooms just as farm workers try to gather enough bushels to make a living.”
The CUNY workers’ union Professional Staff Congress (PSC) represents more than 30,000 full-time and adjunct faculty and staff across the city — and their members have already gone toe to toe with the New York Police Department, who arrested about 17 union activists in December 2018 during a protest outside a CUNY board of trustees meeting. The trustees released the text of their budgetary requests through the 2020 fiscal year last week, which noted a tuition increase but made no mention of adjuncts, despite the protests.
In response, PSC-CUNY members organized under the CUNY Struggle banner are calling for militant action, which could mean another significant strike.
These ongoing labor disputes are important for several reasons, chief among them that there is more than just one group’s future at stake. These campus organizers understand that working in the educational sector is difficult, especially when one is still a student. In return for labor, the institution must provide employees with the resources required to properly serve students. It’s not just about a paycheck; it’s about community.
Education-worker organizing is happening outside cities, too: Just look at Iowa’s Grinnell College. In December 2018, a historic vote was taken by student employees to join the student-worker-run union, thus adding over 700 student workers to the Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers (UGSDW). The college has only 1,700 enrollees, which UGSDW representative Nate Williams told Teen Vogue made Grinnell the most unionized undergraduate campus in America at the time — quite an impressive achievement, considering they only founded UGSDW in 2016.
The Grinnell administration was less enamored of their landmark vote. It has been actively opposing the newly expanded union and their student workers’ right to organize, as the Des Moines Register noted. The paper also reported that briefs filed with the National Labor Relations Board show that Grinnell — a private liberal arts college with an $1.8 billion endowment — spends less than 2% of expenses on student wages. In , the college administration appealed to the Republican-majority National Labor Relations Board to block the election in an effort to bust the unionization effort, but lost, in another victory for organized student workers.
Unfortunately, the story did not end happily. Later in December 2018, Grinnell’s union organizers withdrew their expansion request because organizers feared that the rejection of their request would harm other college unions’ organizing efforts. As Williams tells Teen Vogue, the administration was planning to appeal to the NLRB, and had that gone forward, an NLRB ruling could have undone an Obama-era policy, commonly referred to as the Columbia decision, that allowed students at private universities to unionize. Organizers ultimately decided that, given the Republican composition of the NLRB and the Trump administration’s anti-labor bent, the risk was too great.
“If (we) would have continued, we likely would have destroyed the rights of workers nationwide,” Cory McCartan, an organizer with the Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers, told the Des Moines Register
Hardworking education workers have proven that they’re in it for the long haul and certainly aren’t going down without a fight. According to the Coalition of Graduate Employee Unions (CGEU), as of June 2018, union organizing drives were underway or union committees were in negotiations with management at two dozen campuses across the U.S. As of 2018, graduate student unions are currently recognized at 33 U.S. universities, according to the group. As the teachers’ strikes continue to spread like wildfire, other education workers have shown their willingness to follow suit. To quote CUNY Struggle members, as written on their website, “Campus by campus, adjunct activists [and others] are leading the way. Join us!”