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Princeton graduate workers are fighting like tigers for a union

Tempest member Promise Li reports on the recently announced union card campaign launched last month by PGSU at Princeton University. Promise is a member and rank-and-file organizer with PGSU. You can read PGSU’s platform here.

Last month Princeton Graduate Students United (PGSU), affiliated with the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), publicly declared a union card campaign. Princeton is one of the last remaining Ivy League universities to announce a unionization drive. Student workers gathered on February 15 to call for the union to be formally recognized as the bargaining representative of graduate workers on campus. On just the first day, over a thousand graduate workers at Princeton—around a third of the total graduate worker population and the legal minimum needed to call for a union election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)—have signed cards. And we have reached a majority of cards signed just a little more than a week after the campaign launched.

PGSU’s card drop campaign emerged from many years of campus organizing, going back to the spring of 2016. Spurred by a collective solidarity effort across universities to file an amicus brief to urge the NLRB to recognize Columbia’s graduate student workers’ right to collectively bargain, Princeton graduate student workers first began meeting in the spring of 2016 to discuss unionization. In the fall, PGSU affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) to begin an organizing committee (later disaffiliated in 2018).

When Trump’s presidency began, AFT’s graduate worker campaigns scaled back from actively organizing for a card campaign. During this time, PGSU focused on other activities, participating in numerous campaigns with other student and worker organizations demanding change on and off campus. PGSU organizers called for better accountability for cases of sexual misconduct through campaigns to reform the university’s Title XI policies, and collaborated with Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA) and Service Employers Industrial Union (SEIU) on their labor solidarity work with other campus workers. Off-campus, PGSU organizers supported Yale graduate student workers’ unionization campaign and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients at Rutgers who were facing the threat of deportation in 2017.

In May of 2021, PGSU voted to affiliate with UE, which spurred a renewed effort in actively organizing toward a card drop campaign. This energy coincides with the upsurge of graduate student unionization all throughout the country. Princeton’s organizing drive comes on the heels of tremendous victories in other UE-affiliated graduate student unionization efforts. Earlier this year, graduate student workers at Northwestern and Johns Hopkins won their unions by an overwhelming margin—more than 93 and 97 percent respectively.

Princeton prides itself on promoting high standards for its employees, but the reality is labor issues that are prevalent across the industry still persist in our institution, from a broken workers’ grievance process to negligence for workers’ basic needs and accommodations. In particular, the pandemic has exposed the university’s negligence in protecting students’ and workers’ health on campus. In 2020, PGSU organized a petition with a series of recommendations for COVID-19 precautions, signed by hundreds of graduate student workers—only for the university to respond to a few of the demands. With the advent of the Omicron variant last winter, other peer institutions delayed their spring semester start dates. But Princeton refused to follow suit—without even providing remote learning options for those in need—against the joint advocacy of PGSU and Princeton Disability Collective.

Last week, Princeton responded with an arsenal of classic union-busting tactics: a lengthy anti-union fact sheet, town halls with the deans and other administrators, and a five percent stipend increase for graduate workers in the subsequent academic year. One of the points in this fact sheet, argued that housing “is provided to students in their roles as students, and is not tied in any way to their roles as teaching assistants (AIs) or research assistants (ARs).” But student workers need housing in order to do work, and many Princeton graduate workers in university housing are speaking up about the university’s woefully inadequate housing services. Hannah Hata Williams, a second-year Ph.D. student in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, described witnessing insect infestations all year during her time at the Graduate College housing complex. She and her housemates were not offered housing after her first year in a highly opaque lottery process, and were given just a few weeks’ notice before final exams. Because of this, she shared that they “had to spend many hours in the weeks before our exams frantically looking for a place to live that was affordable yet close enough for those of us without a car to reasonably be able to commute to campus.” Princeton is an expensive area in which to live and rent. A PGSU organizer from the Department of Politics, Anthony Taboni, recalled during his launch rally speech that the university’s housing services told him to find housing in Pennsylvania instead when questioned about the lack of affordable housing in the area.

And while international students make up nearly half of Princeton’s graduate student population, the university has failed to prioritize one of their key demands: to guarantee that international graduate workers from all departments have access to Curricular Practical Training (CPT) courses that would empower them to legally pursue external research, teaching, and internship opportunities. This arrangement has become essential in recent years to international students’ academic and professional development and is commonplace at peer institutions. International graduate student workers Qiqi Yang, Luojun Yang, and Yuzhou Bai helped organize a grassroots campaign in 2021, “CPT for Everyone at Princeton” and gathered over 200 signatures from faculty members and fellow graduate workers. However, they said that the university leadership refused to acknowledge the importance of this issue and develop a concrete plan to address it. They shared that “the unionization of the graduate student body could strengthen the negotiating power of the international grad student population” in the face of a university administration that has been reluctant to meet their critical needs.

A photo of a large group of people gathered in a courtyard of Princeton University’s campus. Some are holding signs but the viewer cannot read what’s written on them because people are facing the opposite direction of the camera. Trees are barren, marking the winter months.
One of Princeton Graduate Students United’s rallies during their membership card drive, reaching a majority of cards signed just over a week after the launch. Photo Credit: Promise Li.

Princeton may support its case against unionization by citing its willingness to grant recent stipend raises, among other reforms. But only by recognizing the collective right of student workers to bargain and build power can we guarantee that student worker demands will continue to be heard.

Such gains show that the university has always had more than enough resources to improve working standards for student workers, but workers need to build pressure to fight for them. For one, it is no coincidence that Princeton announced our stipend increase last year just weeks after the victory of the graduate students’ strike at Columbia. Unionization is the best way to sustain and build organized student workers’ power as a counter-weight to the university’s measures. Temple University’s recent egregious attacks on graduate student workers’ organizing by cutting their healthcare show that without an independent union building workers’ power, workers would be left even more vulnerable to the whims of the university.

Princeton tells us that graduate students already have a voice through institutional outlets like the Priorities Committee. But the university has no obligation to listen to student demands on that committee, which also narrowly defines what kinds of issues would account for student perspectives. Without a union, graduate workers would have no concrete and sustainable means to build collective power. By contrast, the union would create a space for graduate student workers to discuss and bridge a diversity of campus struggles—an important development given the institution’s outsized influence on social issues and corporations beyond the university. Princeton’s massive endowment (35.8 billion) props up fossil fuel corporations and private prisons, and student groups like Divest Princeton and Students for Prison Education, Abolition, and Reform (SPEAR) have led campaigns calling for divestment.

Mauro Windholz, another international student and doctoral student in musicology, sees unionization as a benefit to such ongoing campaigns and helped push for PGSU’s support for Divest Princeton’s campaign. “Winning a graduate student union in Princeton will be a major victory for activism across campus,” Windholz said. “A union will give grad students legal representation and legal standing as workers, which means that the causes they choose to support will also benefit from that status and the structure that comes with it.”

Princeton graduate students’ struggles are not isolated from the historic wave of graduate student unionization and other recent struggles in higher education more broadly in the U.S. We need an organized movement led by student workers building solidarity and coordinating between different institutions to raise working standards across the industry. Many of us will be graduating into a broken job market. A majority of doctoral students in the humanities do not have a job lined up by graduation, let alone secure, tenure-track employment opportunities. Higher education, like other institutions under capitalism, needs to be completely reorganized so that students’ and workers’ basic rights are not left by the wayside. The organizing skills we cultivate now as graduate student workers can be pivotal in further cultivating a mass workers’ movement that extends to all areas of higher education and beyond.

Click here to view PGSU’s platform.

Featured Image credit: Ken Lund; modified by Tempest.

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Promise Li View All

Promise Li is a socialist activist from Hong Kong and Los Angeles and a member of Tempest and Solidarity (US). He is active in international solidarity with movements from Hong Kong and China, tenant and anti-gentrification organizing in Chinatown, and rank-and-file graduate worker labor organizing.