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Home » Clarion » 2023 » October 2023 » Unionization surges in higher ed

Unionization surges in higher ed

New CUNY SLU report on US unionsBy SHOMIAL AHMAD

Organizing in higher education is nothing new, but a new study by the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies (SLU) shows recent upsurges in unionization, following both the Great Recession and the pandemic. The uptick is mostly attributed to an increase in organizing by graduate student workers and contingent faculty.

“Labor activism has increased in the past few years among highly educated young workers, frustrated by poor pay and precarious employment,” said report coauthor Ruth Milkman, a distinguished professor at SLU and the Graduate Center. “Museum workers, journalists, nonprofit staff, medical interns and residents, as well as graduate student workers in colleges and universities, have turned to unions to improve their situations.”


Every year, SLU examines national and local unionization trends. This year’s report, “State of the Unions 2023: A Profile of Organized Labor in New York City, New York State, and the United States,” shows that New York leads in union density with 604,000 unionized workers living in New York City’s five boroughs, making up roughly 37% of unionized workers in the state.

New York’s unionization rate is double the national rate. In 2022–23, it was 20.2%, while nationally, the rate was 10.1%.

From 2022 to 2023, there was also a dramatic uptick in student-worker collective bargaining units – 30 more units, representing 35,655 workers. Academic workers comprised a significant percentage of traditional unions. For instance, academic workers now total about a quarter of the United Auto Workers (UAW) membership. Labor successes are due in part to growing support for unions among young adults, increased attention to working conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic and increased organizing efforts by major national unions, including the UAW, United Electrical Workers, and Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

The uptick in student-worker organizing took place specifically at private colleges. Nearly 75% of the new graduate assistant units and all undergraduate units were formed at private colleges during 2022–2023. There were new units at Yale University, the University of Chicago and Johns Hopkins University.

“The reason you see such a large uptick is because prior to 2016, student-workers [at private universities] were not considered employees,” said William A. Herbert, distinguished lecturer at Hunter College and the executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions.


Herbert noted that in 2016, in one of the last great labor moves of the Obama administration, the National Labor Relations Board ruled in a case involving Columbia University that graduate student workers were, indeed, employees, and thus could unionize. The increase in organizing at private colleges is the result of this ruling coupled with greater awareness of working conditions during the pandemic.

Also of significance was the increase in the number of strikes in higher education. Since January 2022, there have been 20 academic worker strikes, accounting for nearly a third of higher education strikes since 2013. Notable strike actions include those at the University of California, Rutgers University, The New School and Fordham University. Another new development is the growth in union-represented undergraduate units.

In 2022–2023, new student-worker unions were established at Columbia University, Barnard College and Wesleyan University. SEIU has a current campaign to organize 10,000 undergraduate workers in the California State University system.

Full report at

Published: September 27, 2023

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