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Student Workers Move Closer to Unionizing at USC

In February, graduate student workers will vote on forming the first academic worker union at LA's wealthiest university.

group of grad students on building steps holding signs that spell out GSWOC-UAW
Grad student workers after reaching majority support for forming a union in October (Photo courtesy of Piril Nergis)

Two and a half years before the historic graduate worker strike at neighboring University of California, Kritika Pandey canceled her flight back home to New Delhi from Los Angeles. As COVID-19 cases grew rapidly in LA, she was forced to extend her stay as an international student worker at the University of Southern California on a $30,500 stipend that barely covered her initial nine months of rent and living expenses in LA.  

“During the pandemic, I really had to struggle to make ends meet while also trying to make sure that I [could] support my family in case of a crisis back home in India,” Pandey said. “And unlike domestic students in the US who received support like stimulus checks, we were not eligible for those kinds of [assistance]. It made me realize my own precarity as an international student.” 

Pandey is a fourth-year doctoral candidate in sociology and teaching assistant at USC. Her research into the pandemic’s financial toll on essential workers only strengthened her imperative to start organizing in 2020 with the Graduate Student Worker Organizing Committee, or GSWOC-UAW, a small volunteer-based campaign at USC that has grown to a prospective union of over 3,400 graduate workers in the past two and a half years. 

“Visa requirements, immigration policies, simple things like tax preparation for international students, and resources for legal representation are also the kinds of issues that propelled me to talk to my peers about student organizing at USC,” Pandey said. “I wanted to find a space where I can register these complaints and questions I might have, because our graduate studies can anyway be so isolating.” 

Represented by the United Auto Workers, GSWOC is a grassroots campaign born out of the financial insecurity, social isolation, and health jeopardies student workers faced at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Ellen Herschel, a third-year doctoral student in USC’s psychology department, joined the effort after she was unable to add her spouse, who had lost employment for 13 months as a result of pandemic layoffs, to her USC graduate employee healthcare plan. 

“We were forced to choose between him having no health insurance or him paying COBRA health insurance, which got close to about $600 a month,” Herschel said, referring to the health coverage option offered by former employers to laid-off workers. “If someone has kids and is a graduate student worker, they can’t put their kids on health insurance, which means separate doctors, separate insurance policies, and separate visits.”

“Other universities offer the option of adding dependents to healthcare plans for a small monthly fee, and USC needs to meet that standard,” Herschel added. 

grad students circle around a woman in a blazer who appears to work for the provost's office
Grad student workers delivering a letter to the Provost’s office notifying them of their intention to form a union on December 14 (Photo courtesy of Piril Nergis)

Since Pandey and Herschel joined the union effort, GSWOC has collected over 2,000 signed union authorization cards and on December 14 delivered a petition to hold a union vote to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Following informal discussions between the NLRB and USC on January 18, GSWOC announced the union election will be held on February 15 and 16. If voting members decide to formalize their union status with a majority vote, they can then start collective bargaining with the university. 

But USC is challenging who exactly qualifies as a voting member, potentially excluding 600 workers awarded with fellowships from joining the union, according to Piril Nergis, a second-year doctoral student in the electrical engineering department and research assistant at USC.

“Oftentimes, you have people who have a fellowship for one year and become a [research assistant] the next,” Nergis said. “Their work hasn’t changed between those two years. They’re still doing the exact same work.”

Following agreements with the NLRB and USC, GSWOC announced that graduate students working as teaching assistants, research assistants, or assistant lecturers, and those on training grants or internal fellowships in a STEM department, are eligible to vote in the union election. 

“While it’s great news that USC moved from their initial position of opposing anyone on fellowship being able to vote, they remain opposed to fellows in non-STEM departments being considered employees under the National Labor Relations Act,” stated the announcement. 

Despite nominal distinctions in title, paid fellows and graduate workers share not only the same work but also the issues integral to GSWOC’s platform — fair compensation, affordable and safe housing, broader healthcare and childcare benefits, improved conditions for international students, and protections from bullying and harassment in the workplace. 

“We are pretty much all rent burdened with the housing crisis in LA,” said Ariel Vonk, a fifth-year doctoral student in the stem cell program at USC’s Health Sciences Campus. “I spend more than a third of my money on rent. The idea that somebody could live on $24,000 a year is ludicrous in Los Angeles.” 

According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Living Wage Calculator, LA County’s living wage for a single adult clocks in at approximately $45,536 — well above the pay for an average teaching assistant at USC who is paid near minimum wage for a maximum of 20 hours per week. According to Vonk, most graduate students work full time, but the university categorizes their unpaid work under the student portion of their roles. 

“When COVID hit, there were some student workers whose bosses were still requiring them to go to school [in person], even though it wasn’t allowed,” Vonk said. “Students need someone to stand up for them and get workplace protections, because we’re in a very unique position where we’re both students and workers.”

six grad students raise their fists outside the national labor relations board office
Grad student workers delivering signed union authorization cards to the National Labor Relations Board (Photo courtesy of Piril Nergis)

Andrew Stott, vice provost of academic programs and dean of the graduate school, made USC’s first acknowledgement of the union effort in a January 11 letter to graduate students, shortly following the NLRB’s notification of GSWOC petition filing. 

“Unions can be valuable for many workers and have helped bring about important changes in various sectors of our economy,” Stott wrote, “but USC does not believe that representation by the United Auto Workers is in the best interest of our graduate students.” 

Though initially founded in the 1930s to represent workers in the automotive industry, the UAW now represents many academics: over a quarter of its 400,000 members work in higher education. Following a 50-year decline in automotive jobs, the UAW expanded into academia after 6,500 postdoctoral scholars at University of California (UC) voted to affiliate with the UAW in 2008. The affiliation created the largest union of postdoctoral scholars in the country, helping secure unprecedented advances in pay, protections, and workers’ rights. 

With an intent “to help voters make an informed choice,” Stott noted that USC increased the year’s minimum stipend by 11.5% — from $30,500 to $34,000 — for workers with half-time employment. For the following academic year, Stott said the university plans to raise the minimum stipend amount by another 5% — to $35,700. 

“When [USC] says things like ‘we don’t want you to unionize with the UAW,’ they mean ‘we don’t want you to unionize, period,’” Nergis said. “It’s not about which union we’re going to be with. It’s about making people feel as if we’re losing something and that we are going to be in somebody else’s control.”

Even if the university offers “stipends and benefits that are highly competitive” with other institutions, as Stott wrote, those salaries are still below a livable wage for LA residents and fall short of adjusting for inflation rates, said Nergis, which rose by an estimated 7.6% in California for the 2022 fiscal year. 

Graduate workers teach classes, grade papers, perform experiments, write research papers, and bring revenue as workers in USC’s healthcare and sales services. From 2020 to 2021, USC reported a 2.2% decrease in salary and benefits expenditure after making significant pay cuts during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Some of the lowest-paid workers are doing some of the most groundbreaking work,” Vonk said. “A lot of us are paid at the level of being eligible for food stamps in Los Angeles. [USC] needs to invest in their students, because it really is a drop in the bucket for them. They increase tuition and fees every year. Their endowment is enormous. They’re the largest private employer in the city of Los Angeles, and they need to answer to those employees.” 

Yoni Hirshberg, a graduate student and teaching assistant in the cinema and media studies department at USC, said he is neither surprised by USC’s pitch against the UAW nor convinced by the administration’s alleged pro-union stance. As a USC undergraduate student from 2014 to 2018, Hirshberg walked past donor receptions and opulent buildings — like the $700 million USC Village project in 2017 — that made it clear the money to compensate workers has been there from the beginning. 

“If they were a truly benevolent employer, as they claim to be, why play these games? Recognize the union, sit at the table. We’ll tell you what our needs are,” Hirshberg said. 

Since 2018, USC has used revenue streams such as student tuition and fees, which totaled $2.25 billion in 2021, to settle a host of civil lawsuits. In March 2021, USC announced a three-part settlement totaling $1.1 billion to sexual abuse victims and former patients of George Tyndall, a gynecologist at USC from 1989 to 2016. 

“Perhaps [USC] has become so out of touch that they need to be reminded where their money comes from,” Hirshberg added. “If they think that we are going to meekly back down with a small contract, they are misreading the situation.”

Unionizing from the Ground Up

The UAW is at the center of a rapidly expanding labor movement across academia in the US, representing over 48,000 graduate student workers at UC who went on a five-week strike last November, alongside graduate worker unions at private universities like Harvard, Columbia, and NYU. 

Michael Stenovec is a UCLA alum and former union leader at two UC bargaining units — SRU-UAW and UAW 2865 — and now a full time UAW representative helping with the GSWOC effort to unionize.

“At the UC [strike], we had the upper hand because we were withholding labor on a massive scale,” Stenovec said. “And I hope it scared USC because they see how powerful workers are and how uncomfortable they can make life for university administration.”

For Pandey, the UC strike represented a moment of hope for workers in academia at large. 

“It’s where I realized that people are not only aware of their precarity, but they are trying to do something to change it,” Pandey said. “It produced momentum for efforts to unionize across the board.”

GSWOC is a relatively smaller union representing less than a tenth of the membership of the UC union, and unlike UC, USC has no precedent for academic worker unions among graduate students, adjunct instructors, or faculty. 

Attempts to unionize USC’s academic workers are not new, but most have failed in the past. In 2016, USC administration violated federal labor rules by interfering with a faculty vote to unionize. According to the NLRB, USC offered raises to non-tenure-track faculty just before a vote to unionize, resulting in a majority vote against forming a faculty union with the Service Employees International Union Local 721. 

If GSWOC wins the vote to unionize in February — which appears likely, given a supermajority of its membership has signed union authorization cards — it would become the first academic worker union at USC. 

“[GSWOC] is one step in the direction of starting to democratize the university,” Stenovec said. “The more unions you have on campus in a certain sector, the easier it is to organize. At the UC, teaching assistants won their union in 1999, and then 11 years after that, postdoctoral researchers won their union, and then eight years after that, academic researchers won their union.”

Stenovec envisions a similar trend at USC, where a graduate worker union could set the stage for adjacent academic employees, such as adjunct instructors and full-time faculty, to collectively organize. 

“Having union density gives us the experience and union culture necessary to win more,” Stenovec added. 

Unlike workers at UC, who filed and mediated union efforts through the Public Employment Relations Board, USC workers and other privately employed workers must file and negotiate through the NLRB, whose five members are appointed by the president. 

“When Trump was president, he put a bunch of union-busting lawyers into the NLRB that made it very difficult to negotiate,” Hirshberg said. “But sadly for USC, Trump is no longer president. There’s a new NLRB, which is much more favorable to unions and why you’re seeing this big boost in unionization across the country.” 

GSWOC’s growing popularity among student workers, however, is also a credit to grassroots outreach that began years before the 2020 election. 

“I’ve met people in every single department. I’ve knocked doors on every single lab. I’ve had hundreds of conversations with hundreds of people, and it’s given me a much more deep and complex understanding of how the university works,” Hirshberg said. “It also showed me that I’m not alone in the struggle, like everybody who works for the university.” 

“That’s why we’re forming a union, because fundamentally, we’re all together in this,” Hirshberg said.