WPI Grad Workers Win Worcester’s Largest Union Election in a Decade

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WORCESTER, MA — Graduate student workers at Worcester Polytechnic Institute have voted overwhelmingly, 364 to 15, to unionize with the United Auto Workers (UAW). Based on a review of numbers from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the Worcester Polytechnic Institute Graduate Workers’ Union (WPI GWU) appears to represent the largest new bargaining unit won in a union election in Worcester in over a decade.

The historic vote was conducted by the NLRB in the Forkey Conference Room of WPI’s Harrington Auditorium on Wednesday and Thursday. With workers driving in from around the area and some flying in from across the country, over 70% of the approximately 535 workers in the unit participated, and 96% of valid ballots were cast in favor of the union.

WPI GWU filed for a union election on September 19 after over two years of organizing among teaching assistants, research assistants, and other graduate workers. One organizing committee member told Working Mass in an interview that major factors for workers in the push to unionize included “money, treatment, and healthcare,” and another pointed to the impacts of the pandemic and inflation on their working conditions and lives.

While the outcome was not a surprise — the union announced on October 24 that a majority of grad workers had already signed a public petition committing to vote “yes” — the win was still exhilarating.

“We’re all STEM, but we’re all in different fields,” said Andrew McReynolds, a second-year PhD worker in Learning Sciences & Technologies. “I’m more in psychology; they’re more in biomedical. There’s such a diverse group, and we’re such a cohesive team, and the fact that we had 96% voting for the union is a great sign to show that grad students want better, and we demand better. This is just the first step, and we can’t wait to move forward.”

“We’re overjoyed to have won our union election,” added Peter VanNostrand, a third-year PhD worker in Data Science. “We want to say thank you to all the organizers who helped make this happen and to everyone who turned out to vote ‘yes’ for our union to give us a voice and especially to all of our election observers who helped make sure that this vote would go off without a hitch.”

“Next we’re going to be forming a bargaining committee who will be soliciting grievances and suggestions and ideas from everyone to see what people want to see changed here at WPI to make their lives better, and then we’re going to be taking that information and going into the bargaining room with the administration where we hope to win great things for our members, like raises and better healthcare.”

Congratulations on the election win poured in from unionized grad workers at other universities.

Brandon Mancilla, the reform candidate for UAW Region 9A Director — which covers New England, eastern New York, and Puerto Rico — also congratulated WPI GWU, as did Professor John Sanbonmatsu, the president of WPI’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors, who tweeted that “this will change everything on our campus, and for the better.”

“People think that scientists are apolitical, and that’s not true,” said Sabine Hahn, a fifth-year PhD worker in Biology & Biotechnology who has been involved in the union effort for over two years. “We’re a community. And it’s been amazing seeing this community of graduate workers come together and work together to make our community better and stronger.”

Part of something bigger

In the late 19th century, WPI emerged as a sort of training ground for Worcester’s professionals and corporate elite. This mirrored national trends in which universities were evolving to become more central as sites of class reproduction and was when Worcester was among the 35 largest cities in the country (1870-1920), largely due to its burgeoning metal trades industry.

But the onset of neoliberalism later in the second half of the 20th century and the increasing proletarianization of academic labor have squeezed workers in higher education. This comes at a time when a university degree no longer translates into a guarantee of a future professional-managerial role and has caused many students to identify their interests more with the working class. Consequently, there has been an upsurge in organizing in the United States among graduate workers, undergraduates, and other academic workers that stands to have significant downstream effects on the labor movement and the class struggle in coming years.

Since Democratic appointees regained the majority on the NLRB in August of last year, the wave of graduate worker organizing across the country has been especially pronounced, and it continues to grow, with a successful union drive at MIT earlier this year and an ongoing one at Boston University both organizing thousands of workers each. Grad worker union drives had cooled during the Trump administration with the appointment of an anti-union, Republican majority on the NLRB. During that period filing union representation petitions risked giving the board the opportunity to overturn an Obama-era NLRB decision affirming the collective bargaining rights of graduate workers at private universities.

Militancy has been a hallmark of grad worker organizing thus far. The Clark grad workers, also in Worcester, initiated a successful strike for their first contract less than a month ago. On Wednesday, UAW members at the University of California voted 98% in favor of a strike authorization that could see nearly 50,000 workers walk out. Even over in the United Kingdom, over 70,000 academic workers in the University and College Union are preparing to strike later this month.

“I think militancy is a tenet that needs to be brought back to unionism in a broad sense,” said Jake Scarponi, a WPI PhD worker in Materials Science & Engineering who helped bring in one of the last workers to cast a ballot in the union election on Thursday night.

“This is the most exciting movement I’ve ever been involved in, and we’re doing it here as a huge amount of momentum builds in labor everywhere. Solidarity with all our friends across the world that are organizing with their fellow graduate workers. We’re rooting for you just as we know you’re rooting for us!”

Shane Levett is a member of the Steering Committee of Worcester DSA, a correspondent for Working Mass, and a member of the Massachusetts DSA Labor Committee and DSA’s National Labor Commission.

Featured image credit: A group of WPI grad workers gathers in a “voting party” to vote together on November 2, 2022. WPI-GWU

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