Santa Or Grinch: Will Union Promises Continue To Fail For Higher-Ed Workers In 2024?

by | Dec 18, 2023 | Bargaining/Negotiations, Education, Industry, Labor Relations Ink, Labor Relations Insight, Shawn Fain, Strikes, Union Leaders, Union Leaders, Union Organizing, Unionized Company

United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain recently sent a video shout-out to striking postdoctoral research workers at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York. He expressed customary “solidarity” and then seized the opportunity to predict that the UAW would welcome “tens of thousands more higher-ed members in the coming year.” We’ll be watching to see whether he pulls off that goal.

As we’ve mentioned before, a wild assortment of unions – including United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, United Steelworkers, Service Employees International Union, and UNITE HERE – have also gone poaching in the higher-ed realm in recent years. 

Additionally, it’s not difficult to see why student workers make attractive union targets. They reportedly make up around 8% of the U.S. workforce, and Gen Z workers frequently express openness to seeking third-party representation. Much of this, of course, has to do with frustration over wages and inheriting a mess of an economy. These workers also aren’t yet familiar with how unions frequently fail to deliver on their promises.

As such, the first half of 2023 saw a 50+% increase in higher-ed organizing activity. Poaching by non-academic unions has been particularly intense, with around 25-30% of the full UAW membership now being made up of higher-ed workers.

Yes, Fain went in hard on higher-ed recruiting in 2022, only to possibly drop that ball for the past several months. His recent attention span has been focused on the Big Three stand-up strike, organizing non-Big 3 automakers, and the simultaneous Detroit strikes of casino and Blue Cross workers. Student workers represented by the UAW didn’t fare as well, and here’s a bonus flub from another union: 

  • The UAW’s 45,000 University of California workers walked out for six weeks in the largest higher-ed strike in history. The resulting Feb. 2023 contract included raises that were $20,000 smaller than promised. Not only that, but the university actually doesn’t have the budget to afford the contract’s $38 million in raises.
  • The Temple University Graduate Students Association (part of the American Federation Of Teachers union) also ended a six-week strike with a deal roundly criticized by grad students for only bumping their pay to $24,000 annually, which is less than what they could make working at fast-food chains in Philadelphia.

Another downside of these counterproductive strikes, sadly, is that these universities are expected to start shrinking their grad programs in order to afford those raises. That’s obviously not great news for higher-ed workers who want to stay employed and enrolled.

However, the lack of meaningful results from these strikes did not immediately dampen the organizing fervor in higher ed. A recent “State of the Unions” study from CUNY reports that organizing drives for higher-ed workers led to 30 new collective bargaining units (with 35,700 new union members) in the first half of 2023.

Sooner or later, these workers must decide whether receiving “solidarity” shoutouts in Facebook Live streams is worth the money that they pay in dues. Meanwhile, Shawn Fain will prioritize organizing those 13 non-union car manufacturers in 2024. It sounds like he’s already playing Santa to auto workers and perhaps leaving nothing but the Grinch for higher ed.

Update:  This morning on X, the Sinai Postdoctoral Organizing Committee-UAW account announced that they had reached a tentative agreement with the Icahn School of Medicine.


INK Newsletter


The Left of Boom Show