Guest Essay: The United Auto Workers needs reform. Here’s how we do it.

Three members of academic worker unions from three New York City colleges argue for their parent union to take on a sectoral organizing strategy.


Samson Tu

File photo: ACT-UAW Local 7902 at a rally in April 2022. (Samson Tu for WSN)

The academic sector’s union density has been growing recently — as has its opposition. NYU’s adjunct union is preparing for a strike amid unsuccessful negotiations with the university, and the graduate student union went through the same process last year. Both unions, as well as those at The New School and Columbia University, are organized with the United Auto Workers, and union president Ray Curry has applauded the union’s effort

But in reality, many organizing members say that they’re fighting against a lack of support and even obstruction from their parent union, and are trying to build a movement in spite of it.

“UAW staff have always opposed grassroots labor organizing among student workers,” said Sheila Kulkarni from Local 2865, at University of California, Santa Barbara. “It’s been demoralizing to watch the same people who are supposed to be helping workers build a strong union try to clamp down on truly member-led campaigns.” 

The UAW represents about 100,000 workers in higher education across the country, including student workers, postdoctoral and academic staff researchers, and contingent and part-time faculty. It has won organizing drives in the nation’s leading public universities including the University of California system, the University of Connecticut, the University of Massachusetts and the University of Washington, and private universities like NYU, Harvard University, the New School and Columbia University.

As impressive as these numbers are, they don’t tell the whole story. Our 100,000 workers today are 100,000 members in silos. As proud UAW members, we believe we can be 100,000 — if not more — strong. But the current UAW will not let that happen. That’s why we call on you to join us in voting for the Members United slate and organize for power together.

UAW Region 9A and the newly created Region 6 — which together cover much of the western U.S., New York, New England, Alaska, Hawaii and Puerto Rico — have the greatest density of higher education workers in the UAW. But officials have not announced plans to bring together workers across our industry sector in a similar fashion. The union has failed to forge sectoral solidarity. Rank-and-file organizers at every higher education local within the UAW feel disconnected from one another. 

Academic organizers, like ourselves, say they have dealt with transparency issues. In 2018, the UAW regional director signed an agreement with Columbia’s administration that included a no-strike clause, without consulting the bargaining committees of student and postdoctoral workers.

Workers also say they have faced problems with organizing because of the lack of resources their parent union provides. We believe this is especially true in between contract campaigns, when sectoral connections could instead be forged and strengthened.

“When we put our grievance committee together, we asked the region for a training,” said Arundhati Velamur, a Ph.D. candidate at the NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, and a member of the Graduate Student Organizing Committee at the university. “But we quickly realized that we wouldn’t even be able to get information about the most common grievances on other campuses. We had to start from scratch.”

Academic workers have also been crushed by the rapid decline in salaries, the rise in adjunctification and growing authoritarianism surrounding university administrations. We desperately need stronger contracts to keep our jobs and work with dignity. Stronger contracts require militant labor actions and strikes, which in turn require deep and sustained union organizing, and coordination across campuses. During Columbia’s 2021 graduate strike, the administration threatened to replace strikers with faculty and graduate workers from other city campuses. Without a sectoral organizing vision, we simply cannot win. 

Higher education needs a sectoral organizing strategy. That means that instead of organizing college by college, as they do now, workers from different universities would be able to communicate and negotiate as a group. Such collective bargaining would allow them to share benefits and wages they negotiate with workers at other schools across the higher education sector. 

University administrations take advantage of weak organizing by reclassifying workers and pushing for concessionary contracts. 

“Reclassification has been the biggest barrier to our organizing,” said Sal Suri from Local 5118, the graduate student union at Harvard. “Just as we’re trying to convince our co-workers to join, we’re constantly needing to bring back members into the unit whose job titles are being changed.” 

 The UAW has pursued a sectoral organizing strategy in the auto sector since the union’s inception and engages in pattern bargaining to this day with the Big Three automakers — Ford, General Motors and Stellantis. Every four years, the UAW brings together delegates across locals and regions for the Constitutional bargaining convention, where strategic decisions that directly impact auto and manufacturing are made. This vision is exactly what Brandon Mancilla — previously the first president of the Harvard Graduate Students Union, and currently an organizer at the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys — outlines in his platform for our Region 9A.

Since the New School’s unionization, long-unionized faculty have been divided into categories in the union contract that afford them different rights, benefits, and job security, even though the essence of their work is the same. By allowing this distinction to make its way into the contract, the UAW has betrayed its own commitment to the egalitarian principle of equal pay for equal work, dividing our workforce against itself. 

Unite All Workers for Democracy — the group pushing for internal democracy and reform in the UAW — has argued for years that the status quo is designed to consolidate power in the hands of the UAW’s highest governing body, the International Executive Board. For nearly 70 years, the IEB has been governed by the same group, called the Administration Caucus. The union’s regional directors, who make decisions about resources and lobbying and represent the academic locals to the IEB, are members of this caucus. 

In 2019, a corruption scandal revealed that in the organizing budget of a regional UAW administration, funding was used for luxury vacations by UAW officials. It was then that the federal government mandated a referendum that ultimately gave UAW members the right to elect their union leaders. Until then, none of the union’s leaders had faced a single election by members. 

But this fall, the IEB will be elected directly by the membership, and all of the incumbents are running on the Curry Solidarity Team — the same team that objected to members’ right to vote, and voted to decrease strike pay at the last Convention.

We can lead the change. 63.7% of UAW members participating in the referendum chose to directly elect their union leaders. Let us elect pro-reform candidates this election and finally get together across campuses at a sectoral organizing convention in 2023. The time to reshape higher education is now.

Urmila Mohan is an adjunct faculty at NYU and a member of Local 7902. Tamar Samir is a part-time Assistant Professor at the New School and a member of Local 7902. Paul Brown is a graduate student worker at Columbia University and a member of Local 2710. 

WSN’s Opinion section strives to publish ideas worth discussing. The views presented in the Opinion section are solely the views of the writers. 

Contact Urmila Mohan, Tamar Samir and Paul Brown at [email protected].