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Stately and historic Power Street in Providence, Rhode Island, feels sedate at the busiest of times, but on a Friday in the midst of the pandemic it was as silent as a stopped clock.

Then, over College Hill, came a scruffy caravan of vehicles hung with protest signs, blaring their horns and blasting the Woody Guthrie lyrics of the labor movement ballad “Union Maid.” (“I’m sticking to the union ’til the day I die.”)

Behind the wheels were graduate students from Brown University, trying to get the attention of its president, Christina Paxson, with this noisy drive-by of her official red-brick, white-trimmed 1922 mansion set behind walls of stone and wrought iron.

Their disruption of this genteel neighborhood exemplified the growing anger of students like these, who at Brown and elsewhere have been demanding higher stipends and better benefits in exchange for the work they do as teaching and research assistants.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, there seemed little chance they’d get anywhere. Contract and collective bargaining negotiations had been dragging on for years at the few universities that would entertain them; other schools refused to recognize graduate worker unions at all. The Trump administration’s National Labor Relations Board, or NLRB, had approved a policy change effectively denying graduate workers at private universities the automatic right to unionize. Graduate teaching assistants in California who staged a wildcat strike were summarily fired at the beginning of March.

Four private universities have reached contract deals with their graduate student workers since the end of January. That doubles the number of private institutions at which graduate unions now have contracts.

But quietly, and overshadowed by everything else that’s been happening, graduate students in the last few months have won surprising victories that are the culmination of decades of effort. They and others chalk this up, at least in part, to universities’ need for their labor in what promises to be a tumultuous fall.

Four private universities — American, Brown, Georgetown and Harvard —have reached contract deals with their graduate workers since the end of January. That doubles the number of private institutions at which graduate unions now have contracts. (The others are Brandeis, Tufts, the New School and New York University.)

Graduate teaching assistants at Columbia went on strike in 2018 to protest the university’s refusal to negotiate with their newly formed union. The two sides are now in contract talks. Credit: Bebeto Matthews, AP

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Columbia wrapped up its first-ever contract with postdoctoral students and is in talks with its other graduate workers. Hard-fought collective bargaining agreements have been approved during the pandemic at public universities, too, including Oregon State.

Meanwhile, graduate students at more than 75 universities in the United States and Canada have for the first time organized themselves into a loose alliance demanding better pay and protections, driven by anger over incidents such as the firings in California and new momentum from the recent unexpected successes.

Related: Another pandemic-related threat to universities: falling numbers of graduate students

“There’s this huge synergy because people are realizing what we can actually accomplish,” said Kaitlyn Hajdarovic, the graduate students’ bargaining committee co-chair at Brown, where she is a research assistant and doctoral student in neuroscience.

Though none of the universities would answer the question of why they have agreed now, of all times, to long-resisted contracts with their graduate students, independent experts say the motivations include politics and public relations.

Universities “don’t want to look bad, and they especially don’t want to look bad with regard to their graduate students in the midst of a pandemic and a recession.”

Gary Rhoades, director, Center for the Study of Higher Education, University of Arizona

The schools “don’t want to look bad, and they especially don’t want to look bad with regard to their graduate students in the midst of a pandemic and a recession,” said Gary Rhoades, director of the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona.

Graduate students have exploited that fear with such spectacles as the noisy drive-by at Brown. There was also a car and bicycle protest outside the lead negotiator’s house at Oregon State, complete with a trumpeter playing improv jazz and military marches, and a campaign called Chop from the Top demanding pay cuts for top administrators to avert layoffs for the lowest-paid workers.

 “If I’m in those administrations, my sense would be, ‘Let’s take care of this issue. We’ve got so much other stuff going on right now, this is an easy one,’ ” Rhoades said.

Public support for graduate workers was evident when, in March, the University of California, Santa Cruz dismissed more than 40 graduate teaching assistants for striking and withholding grades to demand a cost-of-living raise. Even though the students were in violation of a no-strike clause in their contract, the firings triggered protests across the University of California system. (UC Santa Cruz in July announced that it will let the fired students reapply for jobs.)

Teaching assistants and tutors preparing to protest unfair labor practices during negotiations with the University of California, Irvine, which has since agreed to a contract with them. Credit: Paul Bersebach/Digital First Media/Orange County Register via Getty Images

And when Trump appointees on the NLRB ruled that graduate research and teaching assistants should be considered primarily students, and not workers — reversing their Obama-era right to unionize — “that mobilized even more people, because the battle lines were clear,” Rhoades said.

“The larger political environment is catalyzing the movement and makes management more willing to come to the table and acknowledge that they don’t want to be seen as being in bed with the Trump administration.”

Related: Already stretched grad students rebel against rising and often surreptitious fees

Graduate students who reached contract deals in the last few months speculated that their universities also wanted to avoid disruptions like the 29-day strike on the eve of final exams staged in December by graduate teaching assistants and tutors at Harvard.

“The sense that I had was that they just wanted to get this done because they have other things to deal with.”

Jewel Tomasula, a doctoral student and research assistant at Georgetown and incoming president of the Georgetown Alliance of Graduate Employees

They said negotiators seemed anxious to make sure they had enough graduate workers for a fall semester already expected to be challenging.

“On the Georgetown side, there was this pressure to wrap up these negotiations and just have it settled,” said Jewel Tomasula, a doctoral student and research fellow there and incoming president of the Georgetown Alliance of Graduate Employees. “The sense I had was that they just wanted to get this done because they have other things to deal with.”

At Brown, said Hajdarovic, the university had stopped meeting with the union in January and February, and canceled further sessions at the start of the pandemic shutdowns. Then the talks were suddenly put back on a weekly schedule, and began to make progress on stipends and other financial issues that had previously been stalled.

“Their tune on that really shifted,” she said. “My view was that they wanted to get the financials locked down.”

In this crisis, university administrators “understood just how important and essential the graduate workers are,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, which helped organize the graduate unions at Brown, Georgetown and Oregon State. (Harvard’s graduate workers are affiliated with the United Auto Workers; American’s, with the Service Employees International Union.)

Related: As students fill summer courses, many ask: Why aren’t all colleges open in the summers?

Union members march at Harvard University to protest what they said was increasing harassment and discrimination. Graduate student workers at Harvard have since reached their first-ever contract with the university, which includes protections from harassment. Credit: Michael Dwyer, AP

“Teaching assistants, who are mostly graduate workers, are basically the muscle of what makes things work in a university,” Weingarten said. “They know where the keys are.”

The pandemic created heightened urgency for the graduate students, too. Most have had to teach online, or their labs were closed, jeopardizing deadlines and financial aid. Some were called back to help with coronavirus-related research, and were concerned about their health. International graduate students fear they’ll lose their visas or be deported.

Usually buried in their lab work, graduate research assistants have traditionally been less involved in union efforts than graduate teaching assistants, or TAs, Hajdarovic said. “Most of organizing comes from TAs. They can see how they’re being pushed around by the university, and how the university benefits from their work.”

But when the pandemic descended, she said, “more people started to realize that maybe the university didn’t have their best interests in heart, that it wasn’t going to take care of them. I had people in my department who had never been interested in the union before, who reached out to me to say, ‘Hey, what are we going to do about that?’ ”

“Teaching assistants, who are mostly graduate workers, are basically the muscle of what makes things work in a university. They know where the keys are.”

Randi Weingarten, president, American Federation of Teachers, which is helping organize graduate workers’ unions

Existing or anticipated budget cuts on some campuses added yet another layer of anger and determination to this mix.

“Crisis does radicalize people,” said Alexandra Adams, a doctoral candidate in biological sciences at Rutgers University-Newark, which has declared a financial emergency and announced layoffs and a salary freeze.

Related: Universities increasingly turn to graduate programs to balance their books

Graduate students at Rutgers, which is a public institution, already have a union and a contract that took 14 months to hammer out, shielding them from losing their jobs and health care coverage, though a scheduled cost-of-living raise may be postponed. Seeing how a contract can protect them at a time like this, said Adams, is motivating graduate union organizers elsewhere to redouble their efforts.

Rutgers University’s New Brunswick campus. Graduate student workers at Rutgers have a union contract with the university that will protect their jobs and health care now that the university has declared a financial emergency, though a cost-of-living raise they negotiated may be delayed. Credit: John O'Boyle for The Hechinger Report

“People are fighting because in this pandemic and this austerity period in higher education, it’s fight or flight,” said Andrea Haverkamp, president of the Coalition of Graduate Employees at Oregon State, where she is a doctoral candidate and graduate research assistant in environmental engineering. “When push comes to shove, workers stick up for themselves.”

All of these things come on top of years-long complaints about escalating fees, stipends too low to cover the cost of living in many university communities and other problems, even as the academic job market dries up and prospects for employment narrow.

“It used to be that you worked long hours for a low stipend, and you were rewarded with a tenure-track job,” said Hajdarovic. “Now we’re realizing, hey, we’re working for peanuts and there is no light at the end of the tunnel. Our reward is going to be adjunct jobs and no health care.”

About one in five graduate assistants are in unions covered by collective bargaining agreements with their universities.

At Georgetown, after five years of organizing and 13 months of collective bargaining, graduate workers got between 12 and 15 percent increases in their stipends, plus paid parental leave and dental insurance for doctoral candidates and cost-of-living raises in the contract’s second and third years.

Harvard graduate workers, who started organizing nearly five years ago and spent 19 months negotiating, won a 2.8 percent raise, funds to help with health and child care and protection from harassment, including from supervisors.

Related: While focus is on fall, students’ choices about college will have a far longer impact

Brown’s deal includes a 3.7 percent stipend increase, an appointment extension for some graduate workers to make up for the time they lost to the pandemic shutdowns and full reimbursement for Covid-19 testing and treatment.

Graduate workers elsewhere also have been making gains. A bill was introduced in the Georgia General Assembly proposing that student fees be waived for research and teaching assistants. Graduate students at the University of Colorado Boulder helped launch a new all-worker union, the United Campus Workers Colorado, across all of the public university system’s campuses.

“We’re moving in a great direction,” said Alex Wolf-Root, who just completed a doctorate in philosophy and is now an adjunct lecturer and a founding member of the Colorado group. “We have some good momentum.”

That in itself is a significant change. The first collective bargaining agreement for teaching assistants was reached at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the spring of 1970; in the 50 years since, there have been only about 40 more, covering just one in five graduate student workers, according to the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College.

“Some of these organizing efforts have been going on for decades,” said William A. Herbert, the center’s executive director.

Several private universities still refuse to negotiate with graduate workers’ unions, including the University of Chicago. Because of the NLRB decision, those that have agreed to contracts are under no requirement to renew them. And the Harvard deal is for one year, not several years, as the graduate workers’ union there had wanted.

Still, said Aparna Gopalan, a doctoral student in anthropology at Harvard and an active member of the union on that campus, graduate workers during the pandemic have gained a big foothold.

“This year is going to be the most volatile year any of us have ever had,” Gopalan said. “At least we’ll have the contract to fall back on. And who knows where we’ll be in a year?”

This story about graduate student workers was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.

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Jon Marcus, higher-education editor, has written about higher education for the Washington Post, USA Today, Time, the Boston Globe, Washington Monthly, is North America higher-education correspondent for...

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