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 hike on academic workers, and legal challenges to the federal travel ban.
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.
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, Ala., 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.
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.
About 40 percent of UAW members work outside the auto industry.