As Auto Membership Fades, UAW Turns to an Unlikely Ally: Academics

The United Auto Workers just won major pay gains after mounting strikes against Ford, General Motors and Stellantis. The union is also having success with an entirely different set of employers: colleges and universities.

Academic workers now account for more than 25% of the organization’s membership. One of the group’s nine regions is now led by a former graduate student and another is led by an ex-teaching assistant.

Over the past decade, the UAW has organized employees at the University of California school system, Harvard University, Columbia University and other higher education institutions across the country — even as union membership is at its lowest rate since the federal government started tracking the data in 1983.

Zoe Carey, president of ACT-UAW 7902, the local representing more than 4,000 adjunct faculty members, student workers and student healthcare employees at New York University, said the union is increasingly integrating academia into operations.

The joining of forces “is an opportunity for members within local unions to meet and coordinate across the local but also across the region,” she said. Carey pointed to training efforts as a means of collaboration. “A focus on education and helping to teach members about the union and about how to get involved was really helpful,” she said.

Changes in the UAW’s election process that give a greater voice to rank-and-file members is boosting the influence of academic workers. The union’s 2022 convention was the first time it used a direct voting system after the group signed a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice. That followed a corruption scandal in which 12 senior officials were convicted.

Academic workers make up almost 100,000 of the organization’s 383,003 members, according to Brandon Mancilla, who directs operations in New England and New York City.

“Part of what we are trying to do now is to ensure the organization responds a little to our needs,” said Cora Bergantinos-Crespo, president of the UAW postdoctoral employee union at Columbia in Manhattan’s Morningside Heights. Immigration law is one example. “A lot of us have visas,” she said. Another concern is “intellectual property, which is an issue specific to academia,” she said.

The move to recruit academics follows a long tradition of the union organizing labor outside the auto industry.

In 1953, the UAW established the Technical Office Professional Department for clerical workers, engineers, designers and technicians — or auto company employees who didn’t work in plants. The department was extended to white-collar staff outside of vehicle manufacturers, including health-care professionals like nurses.

In 1969, a unit of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union left the organization because of dissatisfaction over the group’s opposition to the Vietnam War, according to records in NYU’s Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives. A decade later, the employees joined the UAW, where they remain today. The group was made up of retail and clerical workers, writers, lawyers and others.

Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at University of California, Santa Barbara, said most of the union’s organizing of non-auto employees in the 20th century was “opportunistic.”

In the 1970s, manufacturers started moving plants to the South, shedding union shops in the process, he said.

In the 1980s, automakers from Japan, South Korea and Germany started building facilities in the U.S. after Congress passed laws imposing quotas and tariffs on foreign manufacturers. The UAW tried but failed to unionize facilities in states such as Tennessee and Ohio.

As the Cold War ended and the demand for rockets slowed, aerospace plants that were represented by the UAW started closing on the West Coast. Unionized auto plants were also driven out of the region around the same time, as Japanese manufacturers opened competing facilities.

In 1995, after years of struggling with factory closures in the West, the UAW shut down its Region 6, which covered the West Coast. The move reflected the union’s waning power amid shifts in sectors that had been strongholds for the organization.

The 1990s also marked the beginning of concerted efforts by the UAW to make inroads with academic workers. The organization of the University of California system was a turning point, Lichtenstein said. Organizing efforts in the UC system, which began as early as 1992, picked up pace by the end of that decade.

In December 1998, a group of teaching assistants at UC Santa Barbara went on strike for recognition of their union, which they organized with the UAW. By 2000, the student workers won a contract that waived fees for classes, provided health insurance, increased wages and capped workload at 40 hours per week.

More UC workers followed: 6,500 postdocs in 2010, 17,000 graduate student researchers in 2021, and 3,000 teaching assistants in 2023. The UAW now represents more than 36,000 academic workers in the UC system, according to the union.

The UAW voted to reopen Region 6 in February 2022, with academic workers making up most of the membership. Ray Curry, the union’s president at the time, cited the 2021 graduate students’ win in a press release announcing the reopening.

“Around 2000, the UAW became a little more systematic in organizing,” Lichtenstein said. “It’s strategic,” he said, noting that organizing auto workers had become “incredibly difficult.”

The gains in California caught the attention of academics nationwide. Bergantinos-Crespo, who worked in genetics research at Columbia, said she gravitated toward the UAW while organizing postdocs because of the union’s 88 years of experience with the auto industry.

“We are starting to realize that we are more workers than anything else,” Bergantinos-Crespo said. “Sharing fights on very basic things like COLA [cost of living adjustments] or higher salaries with a more traditional sector is also helping us to hopefully shape academia into a more decent workplace.”

The linkup between autoworkers and academics hasn’t created a culture clash, according to Lichtenstein.

“These grad students, of course, they were completely culturally hip,” he said. “I mean, you know, LGBTQ and, and you name it — they were everything. They were avant garde, in race, gender and ideas.” said Lichtenstein. What united them all was desire for cost of living pay raises. “The demand for COLA was like the most traditional UAW demand that Walter Reuther won in 1950,” he said.

Reuther, who served as president of the union from 1946 to 1970, succeeded in pinning wages to inflation in a 1950 contract dubbed “Reuther’s Treaty of Detroit.”

Bergantinos-Crespo, who was elected the first president of her local in 2020, recently led a group of about 15 postdoc workers to picket alongside striking employees at the Chrysler Parts Depot in Tappan, N.Y.

“It was raining a lot. We were really, really wet. But it was good,” Bergantinos-Crespo said. “Some of the key things they are asking are very similar to us.” The common issues included an end to tiered employment in which some staff are hired on second-rate contracts, as well as COLA and higher wages. “It’s the feeling that we are working for institutions that make a lot of money and we are struggling,” she said.

Bergantinos-Crespo also received advice from the president of the local in charge of the Tappan parts depot on how to run a strike, which postdoc workers at Columbia had been planning to initiate if a contract was not reached, according to the union. The two discussed strategy “as simple as how they organize the different shifts for the picket” and “how he was making sure members’ morale was high,” she said.

The postdocs won a contract a day before the strike would have started. They received a 17% wage increase scaling up to 24% by 2026, compensation for loss of benefits for those hired as contractors, childcare stipends and more.

With the success in the academic sector, the UAW is looking toward other industries. Region 9A, which has limited auto-worker presence, has become a stronghold for employees at cultural institutions such as museums and movie theaters.

Bridge Squitire, a server at the Alamo Drafthouse movie theater in Brooklyn, N.Y., who recently helped organize a successful drive, said the union’s resources and experience swayed organizers when choosing the UAW over Industrial Workers of the World.

The IWW “was more like ‘make a petition, present it to everybody,’” Squitire said. “It was a lot more focused on mutual aid as well, which is virtuous.” By contrast, the UAW “presented a lot more real-world, concrete, legally binding improvements to your job,” he said.

The UAW’s demographic changes are starting to be reflected in its leadership. Shawn Fain, a reform candidate with more radical politics than the UAW old guard, was elected president by a narrow margin in 2022. The deciding factor in his victory, according to Lichtenstein, was support from academic workers, who brought “a certain youthful radicalism” to the vote.

Fain won the admiration of many UAW members for his confrontational style during the auto strike.

“Shawn Fain,” Squitire said, is a “mad man and I love him… He reminds me of my angrier uncles.”

About the author(s)

Curtis Brodner is a Stabile investigative fellow at Columbia Journalism School. He's covered metro, housing and labor news for 1010 WINS.