Graduate students and campus workers at UNC-Chapel Hill are organizing for better working conditions—and, in the process, reviving the school’s union past.
The North Carolina Public Service Workers Union traces its roots to UNC’s campus, where in the early 1990s housekeepers—along with groundskeepers and maintenance workers—organized with goals of better pay and freedom from discrimination. Linking up with housekeepers throughout the UNC system and other public employees, they formed the Public Service Workers Organization that, in 1997, would give way to a new, statewide chapter of the national United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America—UE 150. UE 150 now includes “thousands of state and city workers” across North Carolina.
UE 150 has members at most of the UNC system’s seventeen campuses, although some campus groups have been inactive.
“Leaders of the old Chapel Hill chapter retired, and the numbers kind of dwindled under what’s necessary in the UE 150 constitution to have an official chapter,” says Steve Pedroza, a research technician at UNC’S Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center and member of the organizing committee for the workers union
, which will include graduate student workers.
With the start of the fall semester, the workers' union organizing committee will work toward building membership, designating leadership, and cementing a voting chapter in the UE 150.
The efforts come on the heels of historic unionizing at Duke University. Last month, nontenured faculty reached an agreement with the university that included better pay. Graduate students at Duke are also organizing.
The workers' union at UNC, though, is a different animal because UNC is a public institution. North Carolina prohibits collective bargaining between governments and public employees and bars public employees from striking. Public employees can and do organize, but they have fewer tools to hold their employers accountable.
Outside of the public sector, unionization falls under the purview of the National Labor Relations Board. The NLRB ruled in August 2016 that graduate students do have the right to unionize, contributing to an uptick in private university organizing.
William A. Herbert, executive director for the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College in New York, says there has been a recent surge in organizing at private universities. Nationally, public institutions are already heavily organized and have seen fewer new unions created. Duke’s faculty union was one of twenty at private institutions certified in the first nine months of 2016.
“The relative low level of recent growth in the public sector is attributable to various factors: the scope of pre-existing union density, the limited number of states with laws permitting bargaining on campus, and the erosion of collective bargaining rights in certain states,” Herbert wrote in a December article.
While public university workers still have First Amendment rights to free speech and assembly, North Carolina’s collective bargaining law means institutions like UNC are under no obligation to negotiate with a self-organized workers union.
“It’s more about advocacy,” Herbert told the INDY
. “There is no obligation of public officials to actually negotiate but there are changes that can result when reasonable people sit down on both sides. Without collective bargaining, the employer has the right to make unilateral changes, and there’s no way of challenging those without some sort of constitutional question.”
UNC campus workers and graduate student workers are united in that they have to “pay to work”—from parking to graduate student fees, said Pedroza.
Julia Longo, a PhD student and teaching assistant in UNC’s anthropology department, says she gets a stipend of $15,700 for two semesters, pays about $2,000 in fees per year, and “rarely” works no more than the twenty hours per week outlined in her agreement with the school. The minimum stipend is $11,400, she says.
“It’s frugal living to put it lightly,” Longo says. “I’m basically living paycheck to paycheck.”
According to a UNC spokesperson, there are 2,130 research assistants and trainees at UNC-Chapel Hill and 2,066 graduate teaching assistants, as well as 8,561 full-time and part-time nonfaculty employees.
Pedroza, the research technician, says campus workers are concerned about rising parking fees
on UNC campus and fear their jobs will be contracted out following the privatization of student stores
“The whole process left a really bad taste in people’s mouths and I think is one of the main reasons we really have to exist as a union,” he says.
The group will also push for a better grievance process, a priority of UNC housekeepers who organized in the 1990s.
“The UNC system workers play an important role within the state government, and they’re a large sector of workers that can influence the state legislature in all policies, whether it’s state personnel policies or broadening the fight for public sector collective bargaining,” says Dante Strobino, a field organizer with UE local 150. “By expanding into the UNC system, growing membership in the UNC system, it helps to strengthen our work in the public sector but also strengthen our social movement.”
The workers union will hold an information session
on September 20 at six p.m. at the Chapel Hill Public Library.