Why Clark Grad Workers Decided to Unionize

  • Reading time:46 mins read

Graduate student workers at Clark University in Worcester are organizing a union. On Friday, Shane Levett, who was a peer learning assistant and student worker while an undergraduate at Clark, spoke to two members of the CUGWU-Teamsters organizing committee. William Westgard-Cruice and Patrick Geiger discuss what drove the decision to organize their workplace, the university’s “mental gymnastics,” and how grad workers fit into the labor movement. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

WM – Could you tell me about your job and the work you do as a grad student worker?

WILLIAM – Formally my job is as a teaching assistant. This semester I’m a TA for an earth system science introductory course. Last semester it was for an advanced environmental politics course.

For context, in the geography department here at Clark, geographers, especially human geographers, are often moving between human and physical geography, and teaching different kinds of classes — be it on GIS, urban geography, or physical geography, like earth system science.

Sometimes we serve as research assistants as well, and I’ve done that in the past too.

WM – And are those the two positions that really make up the bargaining unit — graduate teaching assistants and graduate research assistants?

WILLIAM – For the most part, yes, although there are some exceptions. There are more senior graduate students who are in their sixth year or so of their PhD who’ve come back from field work and are writing their dissertation. Several of them are working as instructors, usually for introductory courses. There are also some people who have slightly different arrangements with their department. Their responsibilities often transcend being only a teaching assistant. For example, they may also have to write for department publications.

WM – How has your work been affected by the pandemic?

WILLIAM – Personally, I was relatively lucky during the 2020-21 academic year in so far as I was able to work remotely as a teaching assistant for one semester and as a research assistant for another semester. However, a lot of people didn’t have that choice. They could express a preference, but if they were told they needed to be here, then they needed to be here. This was especially true for international students, who were often not able to be paid without being in the country because of federal law.

But now this year, I’m a TA for a class with 75 students. For Clark, that’s relatively large, and we were in a classroom with a capacity of a bit over 100 so there’s basically zero social distancing. Thankfully, I have not gotten COVID, but many of us have been quite concerned about the university administration being a bit too lax around these issues of workplace health and safety and feel that this was expressed in the fairly high COVID numbers at the beginning of the semester.

For us as workers, the issues are a few. If we get COVID, what’s going to happen to us with sick leave and in making up the work that we need to do? And also, as members of the working class, part of what is concerning to us is the situation in hospitals across the country and across the state. If nurses, doctors, techs, and other healthcare workers are under unbearable stress because the government has failed to handle the pandemic, arguments about the relative danger of the Omicron variant are frankly kind of nonsense. What matters is the absolute number of people who are in hospitals and the effect that that has.

WM – And since you mentioned it, what is the situation with paid sick leave for grad student workers?

That’s a good question actually. Technically, we’re eligible for Massachusetts Paid Family and Medical Leave. However, when that was originally passed, we were not informed that we were able to access that. And generally, I would say [pained laugh] there’s a dearth of good information and communication about our rights and access to such programs.

WM – Also, on the topic of the pandemic, something we’ve seen is this attempt to redirect culpability and divide the working class. For example, trying to pit families against teachers and create this idea that workers’ demands for a safe workplace come at the expense of students’ education. Have you experienced anything like that from the university?

WILLIAM – In terms of workplace health and safety, we’ve been on the same page with the undergraduate students.

The administration has to a certain extent tried to say they’re attempting to deliver the real Clark experience, and what that means is in-person teaching. I think in-person teaching is obviously better than teaching on Zoom. We all believe that, for the most part. The question is, are they using all the resources they could to, for instance, space out many of the larger classes? That’s not entirely clear.

There have also been some other issues, such as providing substandard masks. We’ve certainly had questions that we’ve addressed to the university administration about how serious their pandemic response has been, and the undergrads have been with us in asking those same questions.

WM – Turning to the union drive, how did that start and what do you think it was that really got it started?

WILLIAM – We’ve been organizing around employment conditions and issues of graduate student labor since December 2020. That’s when a bunch of us across different departments, mostly PhDs, got together because the university was passing the rising cost of healthcare premiums on to us, without giving us any raise and in the midst of the pandemic.

We organized to try to pass that cost back onto them, and we were successful in doing so, at least in getting 50% subsidies for this academic year for most PhDs. Many were excluded, though — for example, some PhDs in the Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies and master’s student workers, who often do the very same jobs as us. Seeing these exclusions eventually helped us realize that if we want to universalize these benefits, we need to get it on paper; we need a collective bargaining agreement.

And so gradually, I’d say over last summer, it evolved into an understanding that we need a union. We approached several, and the Teamsters were by far the most responsive. Local 170 is rooted right here in Worcester, and we thought who better to join than a union that already represents thousands of working people in Central Mass.

So we’ve been working with Teamsters Local 170 and the larger Joint Council 10, which is for all of New England, since about September, and as you know, the window for unionization really opened up with changes in the composition of the National Labor Relations Board.

WM – How did you personally become involved in the union drive?

WILLIAM – Personally, I was not satisfied with how much money I was making doing this job. I have friends who are doing PhDs in many different countries — Sweden, the Netherlands, and Germany — and I saw that many of them were making a lot more than I was to do very similar work. Sometimes we actually do more work than PhDs in other countries — for instance, in so far as we have to be TAs for more semesters than they do. And what has led to those better working conditions for researchers in Sweden is the fact that they’re a member of their national trade union confederation, and they’ve been advocating for this stuff for a long time.

And of course, we’re also paying attention to what’s been going on at Harvard, Columbia, and other universities, where there have been major union drives over the past several years and where they’ve made concrete gains, for themselves and for all of us. So on a personal level, it’s seeing how much better the conditions could be for graduate workers and also seeing healthcare as an essential part of that.

The American healthcare… Well, we don’t even have a system, properly speaking. We’re in a situation where we have to advocate for our employers to provide greater coverage, and it was just unconscionable to me that Clark would do what they did in the middle of a pandemic. And then as I’ve said, I’ve assessed the situation elsewhere and seen what all these places have in common: They have collective bargaining, they have representation, they have an organization that will fight to protect and safeguard their rights.

WM – And were you in the original core group of people or did you get involved part way through?

WILLIAM – I’ve been involved since the beginning, since December 2020. In that initial group, geography had a very strong representation as did psychology. Those are the two biggest departments at Clark in terms of graduate student workers. There were some really strong organizers from physics as well and other STEM disciplines.

Unless someone has graduated or gone off to do field work, pretty much all of the people who started this are still in it and have been pushing all the way. As we’ve continued to organize, we’ve attracted more people too from every graduate department in the School of Arts and Sciences and from IDCE, which is the International Development, Community, and Environment Department, and it’s just grown from there.

We all recognize that we form a community of interest with one another and that we need to work together to achieve a lot of what people have been trying to make happen in their own departments for a long time. In geography, we would say to our directors and the faculty in charge that we’re not getting paid enough, and the cost of living in Worcester is rising. And ultimately, they would tell us they sympathize but that this is something that has to be addressed with the administration because they set the budget priorities of the entire university. And for the administration, it’s a question of whether they’re going to invest in research and teaching by investing in graduate labor and paying us a fair stipend or…

WM – Or are they going to put it into the endowment. Or buying more land.

WILLIAM – Yeah, or the endowment or buying land. So Clark University is certainly not on the scale of Columbia University or of Temple University in Philadelphia in terms of the acquisition of land and the expansion, but they did recently buy a 7-acre plot on Park Ave and they’re making big investments at their own scale. They basically bought a college — Becker College — as well.

WM – You’ve described the earlier healthcare fight and how that primarily involved PhD students. How did you bring in master’s student workers?

WILLIAM – There are a lot of master’s students who are working side by side with us — many as TAs and research assistants for the very same faculty — so we know each other as people who often have contact on the shop floor. We would say, “We’re getting organized. We’ve won this stuff so far. Do you also want healthcare subsidies? Yeah? Come on board.” So it spread through word of mouth that way.

WM – What was it like to organize across departments? Would you say it’s a similar thing where you have existing connections with one another?

WILLIAM – The pandemic has made organizing across departments more difficult because there aren’t nearly as many social events bringing graduate students or graduate student workers together.

That said, we started with a strong foundation in each of the major departments and in some of the smaller ones as well. We also made a deliberate effort to build those connections. We’ve gone off in groups of two or three to people of different departments and just struck up conversations when people were on break.

WM – I’ve seen you received your bachelor’s and master’s degrees from universities in Europe. Could I ask, are you an international student?

WILLIAM – No, I’m not. I am a U.S. citizen — dual national with Ireland — however, I have experienced being an international student and an international student worker. I did my undergraduate and master’s degree in the Netherlands, and that experience of studying and working in an entirely new country has made me more aware of the kinds of the difficulties that many international student workers face here in the United States.

There are definite commonalities in terms of how confusing it can be, especially if there’s a lot of misleading information from the university about things like the U.S. employment and taxation system. I personally have been working on some issues around that this year as well because I would say perhaps even a majority of our bargaining unit are international student workers. I don’t have solid numbers for you, and we don’t automatically ask people where they’re from or their citizenship status — that can be a discriminatory practice that we don’t engage in — but international student rights have been really essential to our campaign, especially since this past fall, and there’s definitely good representation on our organizing committee.

WM – You mentioned low pay earlier. What is your stipend and general compensation like right now?

WILLIAM – I make $19,220 a year in gross pay for a 9-month appointment, which is about average in the geography department. Unlike some other universities, we don’t have guaranteed funding for every summer so we often have to go out and find summer funding.

There are economics students who are making significantly less than us actually. If I recall correctly, some are making between $15,000 and $16,000, which is… I don’t know how people survive on that. And then there are some STEM students who are making slightly more than us, I think ranging between about $22,000 and $24,000, but that’s not so much more. And it’s not nearly as much as at other universities, especially those that are unionized.

WM – And you had also brought up the cost of living. What are some of the concerns of members of the bargaining unit there?

WILLIAM – I’ll start with childcare because that is a huge issue. While we don’t have our bargaining priorities formally set — we’ll do a democratic process with a survey and voting on these priorities — I personally will be advocating quite strongly for more robust support for childcare. Because while the university talks a lot about diversity, equity, and inclusion, the reality is, for someone who has a child and doesn’t have a very well remunerated partner, graduate school and the graduate training you need in order to teach at the university level is often not feasible for them. We do not have any subsidies currently. That’s the type of thing that people have won at many other universities.

WM – Subsidies for dependents?

WILLIAM – Yeah, so there are a couple of different things. There’s healthcare coverage, or subsidies, for dependents, which we do not have currently, and there’s also childcare subsidies. So if you need to send your child to daycare while you have to be at work teaching or researching, we do not have that covered right now. It’s probably something we will be advocating for in order to make graduate school here at Clark much more accessible to people.

A former colleague of mine had a child about 8-10 years old. The child was in the local school, but that ends at 2 or 2:30 p.m., and the colleague in question still had to be here, often trying to juggle taking care of his own child and being attentive to his responsibilities as a teaching assistant. This colleague of mine eventually left the geography program, and I talked to them about it afterward and they said that one of the reasons was just that the cost of living in Worcester was so expensive. They had come from a master’s program at a Midwestern geography department where they had lived more comfortably on an even lesser stipend.

Now some of the issues with living in Worcester are not things that Clark can directly control — like the fact that the WRTA is not serving communities in Main South nearly as well as it could, in terms of, say, people being able to get to and bring things back from the grocery store. Clark has things like shuttles and so on, but when you’re an adult trying to raise kids and work both as a teaching assistant and on your dissertation, the services they have, mostly for undergraduate students, are not always the type you’re looking for. The point is that people have been at this university as PhD students and left, and a big reason why some of them have left is the cost of living in Worcester not being met by how much we’re making, especially for those with dependents.

WM – Childcare is very important, and it’s clearly an issue for working people across all kinds of jobs. I think of this Dunkin’ Donuts I frequently pass through where there’s a worker who has this young child with her there while she’s working, and that’s a crushing thing to see.

WILLIAM – Yeah, and many of us have had that in common. And whether that’s in the formal, physical workplace or whether that’s at home throughout much of the pandemic, balancing those duties has been a real difficulty with the current conditions that we have.

WM – With healthcare costs, the university has said that they would go to subsidizing 100% in the future up from the 50% you won for this year. What do you make of that?

WILLIAM – I think the direct quote is “pending budgetary approval,” and this would be 100% subsidies only for the same set of PhD student workers who they subsidized 50% this year. Now, as I mentioned before, part of what got us to really organize on this basis is trying to extend those benefits to everyone and to get them in writing because we heard about this subsidy last year, perhaps in April, and we haven’t heard anything since.

WM – It seems like something that can drive interest in unionization is seeing that you can’t really trust your employer’s promises, or even signed agreements, but that you can trust your fellow workers and the collective power you all hold to force your employer to follow through. That’s what actually turns a promise into an agreement and an agreement into reality. It’s not their signature; it’s your power.

WILLIAM – Correct, and especially if you have the Teamsters behind you! [laughs] — or pretty much any union, but we’re very happy to be working with the Teamsters because of the experience they have — for instance, in winning great benefits for UPS workers. When we first went to a meeting with the Teamsters, one of the things they talked to us about is the disparity in benefits and pay between UPS workers and those doing very similar jobs at or with Amazon. It’s just very clear that when you build a strong union, you’re going to be able to enforce promises that are otherwise not worth the bits an email is encoded in.

WM – And besides the things we already covered, are there other major concerns for graduate student workers? For example, I know setting up and improving harassment processes have been important to other grad worker unions.

WILLIAM – Again, our bargaining priorities will be set democratically by our membership. However, we are taking inspiration from a lot of other unions of grad workers across the country, and we think trying to create truly independent procedures for handling harassment, discrimination, and intimidation is very important. There have been some cases at Clark where we’re just wondering who students are able to go to, and that’s not always clear when they feel they’re being wronged, whether by an administrator or a professor, an advisor, and so on.

We want students to be able to reach out to their union because these issues are work issues and a union can lead on these things and stand up for survivors who have been ignored or felt uncomfortable and unable to reach out to the people who they should be able to reach out to because of potential conflicts of interest.

[pauses] And my colleague Patrick is here as well! [laughs] He just came in a few minutes ago.

PATRICK – Sorry! I was supposed to be here, but I was talking with a psychology student who had many questions.

WM – What has the university’s response been so far — to your prior organizing and to your recent announcement?

PATRICK – In our prior campaign, we were successful in actually forcing the university to change. So we won the 50% health insurance subsidy, and Clark also changed its policy of not paying international students until they provided a Social Security number, which is not what is supposed to happen. You’re supposed to be able to be paid while your application is pending, and our organizing got them to comply with labor law.

So they’ve been somewhat responsive to some campaigns so far, but they have not responded to us about unionization yet. Clark has, however, sent an email to all faculty saying they hope to engage in dialogue with faculty on the issue of grad worker unionization. While we’re not opposed to dialogue, faculty are our bosses. Fundamentally, the decision to unionize rests with us, and any faculty interference would be union busting and also violating labor law.

We would have hoped that they would have first extended the branch to grad workers. In that memo, they said that they are adopting a neutral stance…

WILLIAM – No, actually, they said they are not adopting any stance, including a neutral stance. So it’s some mental gymnastics there that are… incredible. But go on. [laughs]

PATRICK – From our perspective, a truly neutral stance would be voluntary recognition via card check because a supermajority has already spoken and anything else would just be a delaying tactic meant to slow down the bargaining process and effectively be union busting.

WILLIAM – Yes, the decision has already been made in that sense; a supermajority of the workers have spoken up for a union, and we’re waiting for the university to recognize our rights. We want to get going because we need these protections that we’ve talked about as soon as possible, and not coming to the bargaining table on their part is clearly an instance of stalling, of delaying. They have acknowledged receipt of our letter asking for voluntary recognition and notifying them that we filed with the NLRB, but as Pat said, nothing beyond that.

PATRICK – We filed while seeking voluntary recognition for a reason — because we know we have the support. So the university can act now, or we can go through with the NLRB election. We hope it’s voluntary recognition, but we’re not going to wait around while they hire some anti-union law firm to come in and try to dissuade folks from voting yes.

I do think grad unionization is so hard because there’s such a high turnover. We have members of our organizing committee who are going to be going to different countries to do field work next year, and we’ll have people who graduate. The university can try to take advantage of that high turnover through delaying, but that’s something that we’re prepared for in that we’ve filed, and this is going to go forward. We hope that Clark starts this off on a collaborative basis, rather than a confrontational one.

WM – And other than the administration, what has the response been like from undergraduate students, your supervisors, and faculty generally?

WILLIAM – Undergraduates and their student organizations have been very supportive. Many we’ve spoken to think this is the type of democratizing initiative Clark needs because, whether or not they are student workers, they feel like they really don’t have a voice either.

With the faculty, many of them had been supportive of our earlier campaigns — for instance, around healthcare. They recognize that in order to be able to attract the most qualified graduate workers they need to have competitive working conditions here and as more and more universities are getting unionized, that means having a unionized workforce at Clark. Many of them see that, and many of them have been supportive. On unionization itself, it’s so new that we don’t have a complete sense of where most faculty stand. We have also reached out to many faculty expressing why we unionized, why we urge Clark to take the path of voluntary recognition, and asking them to support that as well.

WM – Clark is a liberal institution that markets itself as socially conscious. But do you think there’s been a tension between the image that Clark would like to project of what it is and what its values are, and how the university actually values you and your work as graduate student workers?

PATRICK – Clark likes to bill itself as an institution that responds to feedback and encourages dialogue, but that has not been the case with graduate workers. We have been excluded in a number of ways, and I think where we feel it most strongly is in the COVID response. We were told, just told, that we had no options to work remotely, and we were not part of the same dialogues with the administration that the faculty were able to be a part of. And in many cases, we had faculty advocating for us to give us the option of doing a research assistantship that has no requirement that we be on campus, but that is one tangible way in which I don’t feel it’s been very collaborative.

WILLIAM – If I can specify, remote work was possible at one time under emergency conditions and then it was ended, basically without any input from us.

WM – Could you share more about the timeline of that?

WILLIAM – It’s with this academic year, I believe, that they ended the possibility of remote work.

PATRICK – Yes, in the 2020-21 academic year there were options for remote work available, and if I’m recalling correctly, we individually got to choose. That was not the case starting this fall. We had to be here in person if we were working.

As to Clark’s vision, we’ve seen examples, such as at Georgetown University, where graduate workers unionized and the university responded positively. In that case, Georgetown agreed to an election outside of an NLRB then run by Trump appointees because the graduate workers appealed to the university’s Jesuit values. At Clark we have values that aren’t Jesuit per se but values of social justice and our motto even is “Challenge Convention. Change our World.”

We’re not as concerned about what has happened in the past so much as we’re concerned with the present and the future. Voluntary recognition of our union is the perfect opportunity for Clark to live up to its values.

WM – Since capitalists’ offensive against unions in the 1970s and 1980s, many working people in the United States today have never been in a union. What has your prior experience been with the labor movement and has it been a challenge to bring up unionization with those people who haven’t had much exposure to unions?

WILLIAM – The fact that many of our bargaining unit members are international student workers has worked in our favor because, while some are spooked by misinformation that’s out there on unionization and their rights as workers in the United States, many have positive experiences with unions in their own countries. They recognize the important work that unions have done, from South Korea to Ghana — really all over the world — and so they’re sometimes not as biased against unions as some people who have grown up in the United States may be.

Speaking for myself, I have not been a member of a union previously, but I do have family members who have been active in the trade union movement and some experience in solidarity work from when I was doing my master’s in the Netherlands.

PATRICK – For me, my father was in a union and still is — the United Steelworkers — and I went to college in part on a union scholarship so that definitely colored some of my perspective on unions growing up.

I was then involved in a campaign to form a graduate worker union at George Washington University, where I got my master’s degree, so I’ve been involved in grad worker unionization before. That was not a successful campaign because we were organizing right after Donald Trump was elected, and we weren’t able to actually file with the NLRB or get the university to agree to a neutral election like at Georgetown.

I think talking to people here, one thing I have not seen is any anti-union sentiment among graduate workers. We see some initial confusion about what it means exactly, and people want to learn more about unions and how they affect their visa status, what dues are and what they support, and how we vote and ratify a contract, but I have not really talked to anybody who has said “I’m not interested in this” or “I’m anti-union.” Our work is educating people, and they’ve been hugely receptive.

WM – Naturally, there may be some people outside of the university who look at you as students and as people pursuing advanced degrees and find it hard to believe that you could have serious concerns or a need for a union. How would you respond to that?

PATRICK – For anybody questioning the need for grad worker unionization, imagine living on less than $20,000 a year for six years of your life when you already have student debt from your undergraduate or prior education. If we’re committed to making higher education accessible and not exclusionary in the way it’s historically been, which I view as something that’s important not just for academia but for society as a whole, then unionization is a very concrete tool to make that happen. We need to support people with families and people from underrepresented communities in academia, and make it so that people who are not wealthy can pursue an education and a career in higher ed. For me, that really underscores the importance of unionization, not just at Clark but everywhere.

WILLIAM – I would also say that there are a lot of misconceptions in society about what graduate student workers spend their time doing. Yes, we are enrolled in classes, we read articles and write papers, and we engage in seminar discussions. But we spend the vast majority of our time doing one of three things: We teach, either as a teaching assistant or as a sole instructor; we do research, not self-directed but under an academic supervisor who is ultimately the principal investigator; and we work on our own dissertations, which is something we are not formally paid for — unlike PhD researchers in many other countries, which recognize the significance of advancing science and pay workers throughout all scientific and humanistic disciplines to do that.

But we are spending most of our time doing work of one of those three types, whereas the popular perception might be that we’re just sitting around in seminars all day, and that’s actually a very small part of what we do.

WM – There’s this idea called bargaining for the common good, which is essentially when unions use contract fights as an opportunity to organize with community partners to advance a set of demands that benefit not just the bargaining unit but a broader community. For example, a teachers union might bargain for free bus passes for their students or for the school district to retrofit buildings to cut climate emissions. Have you thought about that at all and do you think there’s a place for bargaining for the common good at Clark?

PATRICK – I definitely do. I may not have much in the way of concrete examples yet, but since you mentioned building retrofitting, the geography department is not accessible, which is completely unacceptable and is absolutely a labor issue. I can’t guarantee that we’ll be able to address it in collective bargaining, but it’s these types of concerns that without a union we have no way of even raising the issue. And so there are myriad ways in which we want to use unionization for graduate workers here at Clark to improve the lives of everybody who interacts with the university in any capacity.

WM – Since the 2016 NLRB decision that granted student academic workers at private universities the right to unionize, we’ve seen student workers across the country pursue unionization. The MIT Graduate Student Union filed for an NLRB union election earlier this month, there were the strikes at Harvard and Columbia last year, and student researchers at the University of California won recognition for a unit of almost 20,000 workers in December. Have you had any contact with any of these union members at other universities and to what extent have you been following what’s been happening at other institutions?

WILLIAM – I would give a shout out to the Harvard Graduate Student Union and NYU, in particular. These two unions, who we were in touch with earlier last summer, were incredibly helpful in developing our strategy and sharing their organizing experience. We’ve certainly been following the contract fights at Harvard and Columbia very closely too.

PATRICK – Yes, we’re definitely in touch with folks. Folks have been incredibly generous and shown tremendous solidarity with us. We hope to do the same if MIT continues to union bust. If the MIT Graduate Student Union needs us over there in Cambridge, we’ll be there. We’re quite lucky to be unionizing in the Northeast where we have all these universities around us that have grad unions that we’ve been able to talk with, and we want to leverage that to build as strong a movement as possible.

WM – Along these same lines, there was of course the St. Vincent nurses strike last year here in Worcester, striketober in the fall, and this year especially we’ve seen this Starbucks unionization drive pick up. Rather than quitting bad jobs, it seems that at least some workers see building strong, militant unions as a better alternative. How do you see Clark grad student workers fitting into this bigger picture and how do you situate yourselves within the labor movement?

PATRICK – It’s a good question. I think that we should be supporting these movements everywhere and that our role in the broader labor movement is to show up.

We’re affiliating with the Teamsters, and UPS has a contract that’s about to come up, so it’s going to be important to us to practice solidarity with members of Local 170 who work for UPS and who are going to be fighting to achieve a fair contract. It’s a particularly exciting time to be organizing with a union like the Teamsters that is committed to grassroots organizing, with an international leadership that was elected on a mandate to unionize Amazon. We will support those efforts in any way we can.

Our role as academics will be varied. I know three people who have gone from organizing grad unions to now being labor organizers because they looked at academia and said this is not where change happens. But there are a lot of meaningful relationships that can be built between academia and the labor movement. We’ll be a part of that and that’s exciting for me.

WILLIAM – Yes, and it’s also about bridging a divide that has emerged within the working class between intellectual and manual labor. This divide is something that my own research is focused on very centrally, and I think that while it will be impossible to bridge that divide within capitalism, what we can do is begin to unite — in fighting unions — workers who have been pushed to one side of that divide or the other. And it’s frankly very exciting to be organizing backed by people who are in different industries and who can share with us their wealth of experience mobilizing and fighting across those different industries.

WM – Since you bring it up, William, I think in the United States there’s sometimes a perception that unions are for factory workers or people in the building trades, and there is, as you were saying, a divide perhaps between workers in those sorts of industries and others working white-collar jobs. Do you see any of that in the way Clark grad student workers think about unionization and then does that come into play at all in your interactions with the Teamsters, which some may think of as a more blue-collar union?

WILLIAM – I’ll start with the second end of it, on the Teamsters. When we first met with them, here at their local headquarters in Worcester, they made it very clear to us that they are interested in learning what our work process is like. The fellow who will be our business agent in contract negotiations with the university was democratically elected by his colleagues, and he told us frankly that he was willing to spend the time needed to learn everything about what our work process looks like, sitting down with us and figuring out what our issues are and deepening his own knowledge of what’s the same and what’s different from other industries he’s worked in.

On the question of whether people here have had the attitude that unions are for blue-collar industries, no. As Pat said before, there really hasn’t been anti-union sentiment among members of our bargaining unit.

PATRICK – [interjecting] We have a colleague who was literally a UPS driver and a Teamster!

WILLIAM – Exactly, and now he’s working as an instructor here at Clark. Our lives are not as clean cut between being in academia and being out of it as some people may think. And that’s very clear by the example Pat just gave.

PATRICK – Folks have a lot of very fair critiques of academia and the bubble it can be — and it is a tremendous privilege to get to do research — but this is also a job, and you can still be exploited in a number of ways. If you want to break that bubble, if you want to change academia, a union is a great way to do that.

By virtue of us being grad students, we will also be going out into a number of different places and industries. Not all of us will go into academia, but regardless, many of us will enter universities and workplaces that are not unionized, and we’ll bring this experience with us. And so grad worker unionization can have a lot of potential spill on effects to help build a strong labor movement.

WM – Pat, you touched on the winning slate for the international leadership of the Teamsters, and, William, you mentioned building unions as fighting organizations. Last year, we saw this fight for internal democracy and a rank-and-file revolt within a number of unions. There was the John Deere strike after workers rejected two tentative agreements and the fight for one-member-one-vote in the UAW, which includes many grad workers. We also saw it with the student workers union at Columbia, where they voted down a tentative agreement, voted out their bargaining committee, reformed their bylaws, and then went on strike and won big. This seems to show that part of building a strong union is building union democracy, beyond just electing leaders who then go off and make decisions for everyone else. Could you tell me about rank-and-file engagement within the union that you’re building at Clark and also how you hope to empower workers to drive decision-making?

PATRICK – It’s a big question, but it’s something that we’re very committed to.

I was having a conversation with a student who we hadn’t been able to get in contact with yet, and I was explaining to him where we’re at in the campaign, and he said something like, “OK, so it really doesn’t matter if I sign a card or not? This is gonna happen?” And I said, “Yes, but: Here are all the ways in which your individual action is going to help us win a better contract for graduate workers. You’re graduating soon, but there are going to be people coming in after you who need a strong contract, and here are the ways you can help us achieve that.” And immediately this person was on board.

Part of our organizing process has been to have these individual conversations with every graduate worker. We have not had, for example, virtual card signing on our website where people can just go, sign a card, and then check out. You have had to talk with one of us and with an organizer from the Teamsters, or at least that’s been our goal for everybody, because we’re trying to cultivate, like you said, this rank-and-file understanding of the union and trying to cultivate this idea that each one of us needs to be a part of the process for us to get as strong a union as possible. It’s something that people have been incredibly receptive to, and I hope that continues.

WILLIAM – Yes, the engagement in organizing and doing it face to face the old fashioned way has been one of the ways we’re trying to cultivate this while we’re still emerging as a union. One of our first tests is going to be setting our bargaining priorities, and we want the university to come to the table immediately so that we can begin getting an even stronger sense of what our membership wants to see in the first contract. The priorities themselves are going to be subject to democratic ratification, as will the contract, and it will ultimately be up to the workers who make this place run to decide what the contract looks like.

WM – William, I’ve seen some of your writing in Jacobin, and I’ve also taken a look at some of the research and personal interests of some of the other people on the organizing committee. To close it out, could I ask how your understanding of capitalism impacts your organizing at Clark and your desire to unionize?

WILLIAM – Ooh, that’s a big one. [laughs]

PATRICK – You asked an economic geographer about capitalism! [laughs]

WILLIAM – Where I would go with this is that a recognition of capitalism’s impersonal character is very important for an understanding of what we’re up against. We are not up against evil individuals who don’t want to see a union; we are up against the compulsions of a system that agents are forced to operate under themselves — to lower costs, to raise productivity, and to basically eliminate any sort of obstacles to the production of profits. Technically, the university is a nonprofit organization, however, it is nevertheless subject to these very same imperatives to raise its endowment, to acquire more property, and on and on.

So part of the way it’s influenced our strategy is not making this about us versus any one person. It’s about us asserting our rights and our need to have reasonable living and working conditions so we can produce the best work and science we can under the often inhuman conditions of the society that we live in. And we see that the best way to do that is forming a union.

And so my specific understanding of capitalism and it’s impersonal character makes it very clear for me that this is not about the personal inclinations of any university administrator or any faculty or anything. This is about us asserting the need to have humane conditions to do science in a society that often denies that.

PATRICK – I don’t know if I could really add to that. I’m an urban geographer. I study cities, specifically the criminalization of homelessness and how that is a product of these histories and imperatives of racial capitalism. And I don’t want universities to just be a part of this process that William was talking about wherein they seek to buy more land, accumulate their endowment, and forget about what’s going on in their buildings and in their communities. And I think unionization is just a very concrete step where workers can start to address some of these issues.

William Westgard-Cruice and Patrick Geiger are PhD student workers in Clark University’s geography department.

Shane Levett is on the Steering Committee of Worcester DSA, an editor at Working Mass, and a member of National DSA’s Democratic Socialist Labor Commission.

Featured image credit: Kenneth C. Zirkel, Jonas Clark Hall, Clark University, CC BY-SA 4.0

Leave a Reply