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Jazz 91.9 WCLK | Membership Matters

UAW members aren't all assembling cars. More and more are unionized grad students

Union academic workers and supporters march and picket at the UCLA campus amid a statewide strike by nearly 48,000 University of California unionized workers on Nov. 15, 2022, in Los Angeles.
Mario Tama
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Getty Images
Union academic workers and supporters march and picket at the UCLA campus amid a statewide strike by nearly 48,000 University of California unionized workers on Nov. 15, 2022, in Los Angeles.

On a recent Saturday, a crowd marched in the rain outside a Stellantis parts distribution center in Tappan, N.Y.

Joining the striking autoworkers were others members of the United Auto Workers union, including some hailing from completely different lines of work.

"It was really awesome to see how much we had in common," says Andrea Joseph, a postdoctoral fellow from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai who studies pregnancy.

These days, the "A" in UAW might as well include academia, as roughly 100,000 of the union's 383,000 members work in higher education. They include graduate students who work as teaching and research assistants, clerical and technical workers, adjunct professors and postdocs.

"We are counting on our siblings in the auto industry to come join us on the picket line," says Joseph, who sits on the bargaining committee as Mount Sinai postdocs are inking their first contract.

Joseph already has experience as a union member under her belt, having been part of the UAW while in graduate school at the University of Washington.

United Academic Workers of America?

At its peak from the late 1960s through the 1970s, the United Auto Workers union was 1.5 million members strong. Today it's barely a quarter that, and only about half of its members work in auto.

Founded in Detroit in 1935, the union has looked beyond auto since its early days. By 1941, it had changed its official name to the United Automobile, Aircraft, and Agricultural Implement Workers of America. In 1962, it swapped out aircraft for aerospace.

The University of California system has 48,000 UAW members, more than Stellantis. In the fall of 2022, UC graduate student workers went on strike and won 46% raises over two years.
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The University of California system has 48,000 UAW members, more than Stellantis. In the fall of 2022, UC graduate student workers went on strike and won 46% raises over two years.

More recently, it's academic workers who have been joining the UAW by the thousands, helping the union maintain its numbers as its share of autoworkers has dwindled. The University of California system alone now has 48,000 UAW members, outnumbering workers from Stellantis (formerly Chrysler).

And even as the UAW's latest strike actions against the Big 3 automakers are grabbing headlines, the union has been busy organizing from coast to coast. Graduate students at the University of Maine voted to unionize with the UAW earlier this month. Their counterparts at the University of Alaska are in the midst of their union vote.

"I believe we would be the first UAW local in the state of Alaska," says Skye Kushner, a Ph.D. student in geoscience at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. "We think it's an exciting moment."

Infusing an old union with new energy

The campus push is helping to infuse new energy into an old union.

"Which is also very cool, to get to follow in that legacy," says Eliana Buenrostro, a Ph.D. student and teaching assistant in ethnic studies at UC Riverside who also serves as a unit chair for UAW Local 2865.

Buenrostro has seen the power in numbers.

She went on strike with UC grad student workers last fall, winning 46% raises over two years. Now, she's proud that a portion of her union dues go into the UAW's strike fund, estimated to be $825 million at the start of the autoworkers' strike.

"It's very impactful to know ... that my labor and me being a member is contributing to workers being able to exercise their rights," she says.

Other UAW members simultaneously on strike

The autoworkers aren't the only UAW members on strike at the moment.

The latest action came on Tuesday, when 3,700 Detroit casino workers, some of whom are represented by the UAW, walked off the job after they failed to reach an agreement on a new contract with their employers.

Striking Blue Cross Blue Shield workers show their support for UAW members at a march through downtown Detroit on Sept. 15.
Bill Pugliano / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Striking Blue Cross Blue Shield workers show their support for UAW members at a march through downtown Detroit on Sept. 15.

Last week, about 4,000 workers at Mack Truck went on strike after rejecting a tentative contract agreement, sending their union negotiators back to the table in search of a better deal.

Customer service and claims representatives at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan in downtown Detroit have been on strike for more than a month, with many of the same demands as the autoworkers: higher wages, an end to tiered wages and benefits, and greater job protections.

"Their fight is our fight," says Andrea Kirby, a Blue Cross Blue Shield employee and UAW member for 21 years. "All the workers over there are trying to make a living, provide for their families. That shouldn't be a dream."

The union still has eyes on autoworkers

For all of its expansion in other directions, the UAW is still intent on growing back the auto part of its membership.

"Workers at Tesla, Toyota, Honda, and others are not the enemy — they're the UAW members of the future," said UAW President Shawn Fain in a statement on Monday.

Jim Cooper, who builds Jeeps for Stellantis in Toledo, Ohio, hopes big contract wins now will help the UAW attract autoworkers at nonunion plants.
Andrea Hsu / NPR
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NPR
Jim Cooper, who builds Jeeps for Stellantis in Toledo, Ohio, hopes big contract wins now will help the UAW attract autoworkers at nonunion plants.

In Toledo, Ohio, Jim Cooper, who builds Jeeps for Stellantis, is hopeful that a big win for the union now — a contract that includes cost of living allowances, enhanced 401(k)s or pensions, more time off — could make the UAW more attractive and change the minds of workers it has thus far failed to organize in nonunion auto plants.

"I think that would be a symbol that there's a reason for the South to unionize, or even Tesla," he says.

"Personally, that's what I want — I would like to see Elon watching his workforce take a vote to join a union and see how that goes for him."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.