Unionization and union action has been in the spotlight recently across the globe. In the United Kingdom, over December 2022, there was a record number of strikes by several different unions all fighting for a fair raise. Within the United States, where unions are not as numerous, more and more industries are seeking to unionize, as strikes by major unions like the WGA, SAG-AFTRA, and more recently the United Auto Workers have captured headlines. Although I have benefited from being at a university where the union was already established, other students across the US have fought over the last year in order to be recognized as both a student paying to learn and an employee that needs the protection that a union can offer.
The right to unionize is enshrined in the Florida state constitution. The current constitution was ratified in 1968, with statute 447.03 promising that “—Employees shall have the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor unions or labor organizations or to refrain from such activity, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in concerted activities, for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.” Only New York, Illinois, and Missouri join Florida in this constitutional right, but Florida’s recent actions have attempted to erode the power of unions in the workforce. In July, a new law in Florida, SB 256, took effect, wherein unions, with the exception of police, firefighters, and correctional officer unions, can no longer deduct dues from paychecks and sixty percent of the bargaining unit must be union members or risk decertification. Without certification, unions would lose bargaining power and employers would not have to meet or listen to demands.
Upon joining the PhD program at FSU, I also joined the graduate student union, Graduate Assistants United, and became the history department’s representative. The union was founded in 2008 to specifically serve graduate assistants, graduate students who are employed by the university for tasks such as grading, teaching, and research. At founding, there was no minimum stipend, with some departments paying students as little as $8,000 a year, but now, after the latest bargaining session, the minimum stipend has been raised to $18,700 with numerous departments paying over the minimum. Healthcare for graduate students used to operate on a lottery method, with a random few being eligible, whereas now the school subsidizes health insurance for any student who wants it.
Department representatives’ primary duty is recruitment—to talk to others in the department and convince them to join the union. In the history department, this conversation often begins within the history of unions, from the calls for an eight hour work day that began national unionization efforts in the US to the creation of Labor Day to commemorate the Pullman strike of 1894. In the nineteenth century, unions fought for their very existence, cumulating in deadly strikes and hard-won victories over the course of several years. While it may be easy to cast the issues facing graduate students as less pressing than other labor movements from the past, fighting for a higher standard of living for all workers is a worthy goal. As both students and workers, we face a unique set of problems, wherein we have to study and attend class while working on professional goals, such as researching and publishing, and also work as assistants, graders, and teachers ourselves. Overwork plagues us all and our unique positions can be easily abused or taken for granted without oversight and opportunities for recourse, something unions can help to ensure.
The union leadership is comprised of graduate assistants, who understand the heavy workload that often comes with graduate school. Although union dues take one percent of student salaries, the leadership gives back to their members in more than just representation. In striving to ensure that these funds go directly to the students, the GAU often hosts social events on campus and at restaurants, coffee shops, and bars with free meals or drinks included for members. Dues are also often recouped through the raises and bonuses that the union is able to secure for the students. Alongside on-campus rallies, these events function as effective recruiting opportunities and outreach to prospective members. Legal counsel is also available for issues outside of the job and union members automatically receive life insurance and professional liability insurance. The graduate union makes sure that business does not overshadow the importance of comradery and fellowship that serves as the basis for unions and graduate school as well.
At FSU the history department has been supportive of the union, and they are invited to present at history orientation events in order to continue a strong working relationship between the two. In working as the representative, I serve as the first point of contact for students in the department about their worries and any issues that may arise about their employment. Although action would be ostensibly against the department itself, faculty in the department have showed support for the union, most likely because faculty have their own union that protects their rights as well. In beginning this role, fears of retaliation or harming my relationship with professors and leadership in the department were present in my mind, but the department has worked to assuage those fears. Although the FSU history department has not often had issues that specifically needed to be addressed by the union, the protections against overwork and suggestions to departments for best practices has benefited us all. Since I joined the department, the start date for employment and salary for the Fall semester has been pushed back to the week before the semester starts in order to take into account class prep that needs to be done, instead of expecting graduate workers to perform this labor unpaid prior to the start of their contracted term.
While some schools fight for the right to have a union at all, students in Florida have to strive for their unions to continue, as legislation within the state seeks to limit workers’ rights. Just as professors and teachers across the state need their unions to fight for them, graduate students need their union for those around us to take us seriously as both students and workers, a complicated position that can be ripe for abuse. I have seen firsthand the power that unionization wields and have benefited from serving as a representative and, I hope, my participation has benefited others as well. Unions are powerful tools for all workers, which is why it is imperative for students to continue to fight for the right to have their voices heard in the workplace.
Cover Image: Detail of “Chicago women’s labor history,” a poster by the Chicago Women’s Graphics Collective. Image courtesy the Library of Congress Yankee Poster Collection.
Chelsi Arellano is a doctoral candidate at Florida State University, specializing in early modern British imperial history. Her work focuses on the late seventeenth century empire, seeking to intermingle politics with intersectional approaches that consider race, gender, and class. Her dissertation, tentatively titled, “Glorious Change, Imperial Revolution: The Role of Gender, Politics, and Economy during the Reign of William III and Mary II,” examines the Glorious Revolution as a moment of imperial change wherein the colonies, and its diverse populations, were beginning to exert a strong influence on the politics of the metropole.
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