Working Students Unite!

The state of intersectional graduate student organizing.
By Gabi Kirk

billboard with flyers about grad student demands

Feminist student organizing on campus has entered a new era. Student movements are pushing back against a damaged Title IX system that is failing survivors of sexual violence, and #MeToo testimonies have brought the systemic misogynistic discrimination and violence in academic workplaces to light. Yet feminist campus concerns are not, and should not be, limited to these issues. Today, more than ever, students understand their individual identity as well as their collective power through an intersectional lens. Intersectionality, which recognizes the interconnectedness of social categorizations like race, class, sexuality, and gender, has been a guiding principle of feminist organizing for more than two decades. Recently, progressive student movements have taken up intersectionality in the struggle against systemic injustices.

Coalitional social justice movements on campus today both address the traditional subjects of feminist organizing and consider how social differences like race, class, gender, disability, and sexuality are manifested within broader social justice struggles. In addition to headlining campaigns for better policies against sexual violence and sexual harassment, multiracial coalitions are fighting to secure better wages for student workers, to demilitarize campus police, and to divest from corporations supporting human rights violations against Palestinians. Graduate students, including those who are part of the growing graduate student union movement in the United States, are at the forefront of these diverse yet intersecting struggles on campus.

Economic Precarity

The rapidly worsening financial situation for students undergirds and exacerbates gendered, racial, and other inequality on campus. Student debt, both undergraduate and graduate, has ballooned in the United States, recently passing $1.5 trillion nationally—more than the total credit-card debt and second only to mortgage debt. According to the American Association of University Women, women are more in debt than their male peers, “at almost every degree level and type, from associate degrees to doctoral degrees and across institution types.” Black women graduate with more student debt than any other demographic group.

According to an analysis of Department of Education data by the New America Foundation, an increasing amount of that debt comes from graduate education. While many assume it is typical for doctoral students to receive tuition remission, an increase in self-funded master’s and PhD programs belies this assumption. In an age of austerity, public and private universities alike have increased graduate student tuition and decreased opportunities for financial aid. Graduate programs offering little aid are colloquially and derogatorily referred to as “cash-cow degrees.” Even graduate students in fully funded programs face skyrocketing costs of living in expensive urban centers, necessitating high-interest loans to cover rent, transportation expenses, and child care.

Coalitional graduate student organizing, informed by intersectional feminism, has pushed back against these trends. The 2017 GOP tax bill threatened to make graduate students’ already precarious financial situation even worse. The plan proposed to tax graduate students on the waived tuition they may receive when teaching or doing research, in many cases doubling their tax burden on the exact same salary. Graduate student groups and unions responded swiftly, organizing online and on the ground to combat the bill. Just as the January 2017 Women’s March started as a Facebook event and grew into a national movement, what began as a call by six graduate students at the University of Southern California for a walkout against the tax bill rapidly became a much larger movement. The November 29 #GradTaxWalkout involved in-person walkouts, rallies, and marches across the country: national organizers claimed actions at fifty-one universities in thirty-two states. Feminist organizers, such as the Radical Women of Color PhDs at the University of California, San Diego, highlighted the disproportionate impact of the tax bill on the most marginalized student communities. In mid-December, lawmakers removed the proposed tax on tuition waivers.

Growth of Graduate Unions

Financial precarity is not limited to external debt. As tenure-track positions shrink in number, graduate students are taking on an increasing amount of teaching and research labor at significantly lower wages. Graduate employee unions have grown in power and number over the past five years, and their campaigns target wages and workload as well as issues related to gender and racial justice.

As the 2016 academic year began, graduate student organizers at private universities had new cause to celebrate. Reversing the 2004 Brown decision, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that graduate employees at private universities had the right to collective bargaining. While graduate employees at New York University had previously won their unionization fight, the 2016 decision emboldened ongoing organizing efforts at Yale University, Harvard University, Columbia University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Chicago.

The unionization of graduate student workers at private universities matters because union contracts and organizing efforts target a range of social justice issues. At public universities, graduate employee unions have fought for, and won, increased wages and other financial benefits in recent contracts. At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, members of the Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO) voted to authorize a strike in February 2018 after working without a contract for over a year. Bargaining representatives from the GEO and university officials were at an impasse over tuition waivers, in particular. The union pushed for full retention of existing tuition waiver benefits, while the university wanted the right to determine waivers program by program—an approach that would allow “cash-cow” master’s programs to proliferate, increase graduate student debt, and limit the ability of low- and middle-income graduate students without outside financial support to attend UIUC. According to GEO organizers, more than four hundred teaching and graduate assistants walked picket lines over the course of the weeklong strike, and faculty members and undergraduate students joined in solidarity. The strike forced the university to concede and guarantee tuition waivers, as well as increases in wages and better health-care stipends for workers and dependents. This spring, the GEO also lobbied to pass a law in Illinois reclassifying research assistants and allowing them to bargain collectively. A similar law passed in California in October 2017 may lead to the unionization of tens of thousands of research assistants at the University of California in the near future.

While wage and health-care gains improve the lot of all student workers, unions have negotiated provisions geared toward gender equity as well. California has also long been a hub of graduate employee union activism. UAW 2865, the University of California Student Workers’ Union (UCSWU), represents more than sixteen thousand student workers, including teaching assistants, associate instructors, readers, and tutors at the ten-campus system. After a successful strike in 2014, the union won a 17 percent wage increase over four years. Unions also won an increase in subsidies for child care, longer paid birth leave (regardless of gender), and guaranteed lactation stations. Notably, the contract was the first of its kind to guarantee access to gender-neutral restrooms in classroom and office buildings, thanks to the coalitional organizing of trans student workers and allies.

In ongoing UCSWU contract negotiations, material demands around wage increases and housing have gone hand in hand with demands for a grievance process for sexual violence and harassment through labor relations rather than Title IX. The recent federal investigation into the failures of Title IX hearings for student survivors of sexual violence at UC Berkeley, UC Davis, and UC Irvine, and high-profile cases of professors repeatedly assaulting students at UCLA and UC Santa Cruz, make evident the urgency of overhauling how student workers can fight sexual harassment in the workplace. In addition, the union has reached a tentative agreement that would improve working conditions for disabled student workers, giving them greater power in determining reasonable accommodations in the classroom.

Disarming Campus Police

The UCSWU’s new proposed contract includes a provision that may be the first of its kind in the nation: it demands a fully disarmed campus police force. Under the banner DisarmUC, graduate students, undergraduates, and community members—including Black Lives Matter and feminist anti-sexual-violence activists—have organized since 2014 to push for the demilitarization of campus police, more police oversight, and the redistribution of funds from campus security into health and student services for students of color.

Graduate students of color argue that an armed police force hinders efforts to reverse the underrepresentation of black and Latino students in graduate programs. Incidents of racial profiling by campus police abound, including, for example, the 2015 arrest and assault of black Northwestern University graduate student Lawrence Crosby. Police officers received a call reporting that Crosby was breaking into a car, when in fact he was unlocking his own vehicle. Police department footage revealed that after officers struck him repeatedly in his legs, one officer said, “I didn’t shoot you . . . you should feel lucky for that.”

Calls to disarm campus police have grown in number across the country. At the University of Chicago, a highly criticized April 3 shooting of twenty-one-yearold Charles Thomas, who was in acute mental crisis at the time of the shooting, spurred coalitional efforts to address the multifaceted problem of campus police violence. UChicago United, a student group focused on issues affecting students of color, launched a petition that calls not only for disarming the University of Chicago Police Department but also for the establishment of a police oversight board and increased funding and support for student mental-health programs. Additionally, Graduate Students United (GSU), the nascent AAUP-affiliated union fighting for recognition from the University of Chicago administration, changed a previously planned rally that had been intended to build support for bargaining efforts. Responding to student outrage against the shooting, the rally was expanded to include calls for disarming University of Chicago police. Meanwhile, Portland State University students started Disarm PSU when campus security officers began carrying guns under a new policy enacted in July 2015. The campaign rallied again in earnest this year when campus security officers shot and killed Jason Washington on campus on June 29. Calls to disarm police were also part of the Howard University sit-in at an administration building in March 2018.

In addition to students of color and Black Lives Matter groups, feminist groups protesting sexual violence on campus have joined Disarm coalitions. Survivors of sexual assault may be wary of reporting the crime to the police and are sometimes revictimized through the process of reporting and investigation. Graduate employee unions, including UCSWU, have also joined the Disarm fight to protect safe working conditions for graduate students of color and the broader campus population, including undergraduates and staff. If armed police on campus inspire fear in some, then the campus is not truly inclusive.


Graduate students have not limited their organizing for the health and safety of their campus communities to militarized forces present on local campuses. The past five years have seen major growth in pro-Palestinian activism on campus. Students have endorsed full or partial boycotts of international companies involved in the violation of Palestinian rights, divestment from university holdings in such corporations, and governmental sanctions against the Israeli state. Major divestment targets include weapons companies like Lockheed Martin, companies like Motorola and Hewlett-Packard that provide communications technologies used for surveillance and at military checkpoints, and Caterpillar, which manufactures weaponized bulldozers used to demolish Palestinian homes and agricultural fields. In December 2014, thousands of student workers across the University of California system voted to have UCSWU endorse the boycott, divestment, and sanction (BDS) movement, although this vote was later overturned by UAW International. Since 2016, at least four graduate student unions and the Coalition of Graduate Employee Unions have endorsed divestment. Additionally, dozens of divestment resolutions have passed undergraduate student government councils, including those at multiple University of California campuses and at Stanford University, Northwestern University, the University of South Florida, and the University of Minnesota.

Looking Ahead

Progressive campus activism has become increasingly intersectional in its focus. Graduate employee unions no longer focus exclusively on “bread-and-butter” issues like wages as an increasingly diverse graduate student population demands greater attention to overlapping issues of social, economic, racial, and gender justice.

Major threats do loom. The June 2018 Supreme Court decision in Janus v. AFSCME puts all public-sector unions in a precarious financial position because of the loss of fair-share fees, so graduate employee unions must redouble their efforts at membership recruitment while still fighting for the needs of marginalized groups. The ongoing campus free-speech debates often have a chilling effect on left-wing activism on college campuses, and increased campus police militarization affects the well-being of black students and other students of color. Pro-Israel groups have created online blacklists and campus watch lists to name BDS supporters and pro-Palestinian activists. While these lists previously focused on faculty members, graduate and undergraduate students increasingly find themselves targeted in smear campaigns that label them as racist and anti-Semitic, jeopardizing their future careers. Despite these hurdles, intersectional graduate student organizing is in many ways stronger than ever. There is immense potential for growth as graduate students, joined by undergraduates, staff, and faculty, build a better, more inclusive, and more just academy.  

Gabi Kirk is a PhD student in geography with a designated emphasis in feminist theory and research at the University of California, Davis. She is a rank-and-file member of UAW 2865, the UC Student Workers’ Union.