DETROIT – The United Auto Workers, historically linked to factory workers throughout the industrial heartland, is seeing significant growth in membership at academic institutions nationwide, with no signs of slowing in 2018.
How does a union that originated on Michigan factory floors fit in the ivory towers of academia?
Many college researchers barely make rent while generating millions of dollars for a university, may wait months for paychecks or be required to work in laboratories with dirty water. The UAW offers expertise on job security, pay schedules, parental leave, sexual harassment protections, health benefits, fair wages and retirement, members said.
“Sometimes there’s a bit of an eyebrow raise when you say UAW. People ask, ‘United Auto Workers?’ But we chose the UAW because it represents the most academic workers of any union in the country. And it bargains great contracts,” said David Parsons, president of UAW Local 4121, representing more than 4,500 graduate and undergraduate students and researchers at the University of Washington.
Wages have increased about 50 percent in eight years to nearly $2,500 a month, he said.
Recent victories include defeat of a proposed federal tax increase on academic workers, and legal challenges to the federal travel ban and a crackdown on visa access.
“The UAW provides us access to labor lawyers, professional negotiators and training,” said Anke Schennink, president of UAW Local 5810, which represents nearly 7,000 postdoctoral researchers on 11 University of California campuses.
Labor observers question whether the UAW has lost its way, and loss of auto jobs has led to a narrative that it has lost its power. But the diversified membership keeps the union strong in size and money, providing financial resources – such as a healthy strike fund – that benefits the UAW overall.
Nearly 70,000 workers on college campuses are affiliated with Solidarity House on Jefferson Avenue east of downtown Detroit. In California alone, 33,000 postdoctoral researchers and academic student workers are affiliated with the UAW.
“When we have a say in our working conditions, we can do better research,” said Schennink, who studies at UC-Davis how hormones interact during puberty, pregnancy and menopause.
Since 2010, about 20,000 academic workers have joined the UAW: Full- and part-time graduate workers, adjunct professors, postdoctoral researchers, and a handful of support staff and maintenance workers are based on about two dozen public and private school campuses in California, Washington, Massachusetts, New York and Connecticut.
The UAW represents about 415,000 members.
“When you struggle day to day, it takes away from your ability to do research and teach,” said Neal Sweeney, vice president of UAW Local 5810 and a Birmingham native whose father worked on a GM assembly line in college.
Elections on college campuses, like the blue-collar battles, also involve legal fights.
At Columbia University, student workers voted to organize in an election certified by the National Labor Relations Board in 2017, but the school has resisted bargaining. The Columbia Graduate Student Union protested this month.
At Harvard, school officials were ordered this year to hold a new election after the labor board ruled voter lists provided by the school were incomplete.
At the other end of the scale, the University of Connecticut is already negotiating with the UAW in anticipation of the current contract expiring in June 2018.
“We’ve had several productive discussions,” said UConn spokeswoman Stephanie Reitz, a native of Lake Orion and a graduate of Michigan State University.
“It’s been beneficial that UConn and the union share the common goal of ensuring that our graduate assistants are treated fairly relative to their counterparts at other U.S. research universities with regard to pay, health care, workload and opportunity.”
A majority of academic workers in the UAW are based at the University of California, California State University and Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, which specializes in clean energy, supercomputing and atomic structure.
“Growing up in the Detroit area, I was acutely aware that the working conditions won by UAW members affected millions of other workers in other industries far beyond the auto sector,” said Sweeney, a former neuroscience researcher at the University of California-Santa Cruz who studied how stem cells can be used to treat degenerative eye diseases such as glaucoma and macular degeneration.
Other academic workers represented by the union include computer scientists, microbiologists and engineers who make discoveries for public benefit rather than going into private industry.
“We have student research assistants doing all kinds of innovative work: developing alternative fuels out of algae; technology for energy efficient houses, and models for better understanding and treating disease,” said Parsons, the University of Washington UAW president.
“The University of Washington brings well over $1 billion per year in research grants and contracts,” he said. “It would not be able to complete that work without student employees: research assistants who do day-to-day work in the labs and teaching assistants who help keep class sizes low.”
About 40 percent of UAW members work outside the auto industry.
The UAW represents casino workers in Las Vegas, Detroit, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Toledo, Columbus and Mashantucket, Conn.; workers at Miller, Coors Beer, Bacardi Rum, John Deere and Caterpillar. Members build coffeemakers, pizza ovens, battleships, tractors and whiskey barrels.
The name actually stands for “The International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America.”
Analysts question whether the diversified membership dilutes UAW bargaining strength for its 54,000 Ford workers, 50,000 General Motors workers and 40,000 Fiat Chrysler workers and 102,000 members at auto suppliers. Retired members, most from the auto industry, exceed 700,000.
Yet auto manufacturing jobs continue to shrink as companies automate and build plants outside the U.S. Asian and European automakers and suppliers, which employ more than half the autoworkers in this country, have kept unions out of U.S. plants.
Dennis Williams, president of the UAW, said the auto industry’s heavy shift toward technology and science suggests that college campuses are precisely where UAW recruiting should happen.
“The state of the UAW is solid,” he has said. “Our members are getting pay increases.”
In years past, Williams saw membership revenue drop, which sapped the operating budget and forced the UAW to divert money from its strike funds to cover losses.
The UAW saw its finances fully recover in 2015 for the first time since the Great Recession. The strike fund has grown to $679 million, according to the UAW International Union. Total assets, which include buildings and other property, have surpassed $934 million. The union saw net income from operating funds increase from $5 million to $6 million in 2016.
Academic worker dues provide support while the UAW organizes an especially contentious manufacturing sector:
In 2017, the union lost elections at the Nissan plant in Mississippi and the Fuyao Glass America plant in Ohio. Anti-union materials showed images of what appeared to be a post-apocalyptic Detroit and warned of a UAW presence. Just prior to the elections, federal investigators made key announcements related to a corruption probe involving the UAW the the Detroit Three.
Despite the perception that the Southeast has been hostile territory for the union, about 13 percent of UAW membership is in the South.
While the UAW lost a high-profile vote at a Volkswagen plant in Tennessee in 2014, VW didn’t oppose unionization until Republican state legislators threatened to withhold tax incentives for future plant expansions if workers voted to unionize. The UAW has since organized more than 3,500 members in Southern plants, including skilled trade workers at VW.
If member growth is a reflection of perceived value, the UAW is on track. Its dues range up to 2.5 percent of member pay – 50 cents of every dollar goes to the local chapter, 45 cents goes to international and 5 cents goes to the strike and defense fund.
The UAW has had success at New York University, The New School, Boston College, Boston University and Cornell University. Active campaigns are under way to create or expand a UAW presence at Harvard, Columbia, Boston University and Northeastern University in Boston.
“Student workers don’t give up,” said Julie Kushner, director of UAW region 9A, based in Connecticut and covering all of New England and Puerto Rico.
Alex Ahmed, a computer scientist who specializes in health informatics, has spent a year working to organize about 1,400 academic workers at Northeastern.
Unlike some of the more bare-knuckled fights in manufacturing, college officials tend to engage in more highbrow intellectual debate.
The UAW organizes college campuses after being approached by activists, most often in urban settings such as New York City, where the cost of living is high and an annual wage can be as low as $28,000.
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