Two unions are going public Tuesday at Virginia Tech, with a shared goal of creating a better working environment for graduate students, faculty and staff at the state university.
It’s an effort that has been in the works for three years, as the groups have quietly recruited members while, across the country, campus labor unions have gained attention.
On Tuesday, members of the United Campus Workers of Virginia Tech (UCW-VT) and the Virginia Tech Graduate Labor Union (VT GLU) will team up in a rally on the Blacksburg campus. They hope going public will attract new members and draw attention to their efforts to press university administrators for improvements for campus workers at all levels. Together, the unions have a potential membership of about 20,000 people affiliated with Tech.
“Our two unions have united in this announcement out of a shared commitment that every person working on our campus deserves an advocate on the job, a living wage, a safe working environment, academic freedom, and respect for their individual contributions to the university,” the Virginia Tech Graduate Labor Union said in a statement.
The groups have had some successes while working in their initial phases.
The graduate student union lobbied for a $15 minimum wage for full- and part-time campus staff that was implemented in 2022, and it is celebrating notable pay raises for more than 700 graduate workers this fall.
The campus workers union presented a petition with 500 signatures to university administration earlier this year, prodding it to take a closer look before adopting artificial intelligence tools to increase digital surveillance on campus.
Now, the groups plan to build their membership to aid in their advocacy goals.
Unions will focus on living wage, equity
The organizing units launching at Tech have a common mission of improving workplace conditions and pay for those who work on campus.
Faculty and staff will be represented by the United Campus Workers of Virginia, which has chapters at the University of Virginia, Virginia Commonwealth University and the College of William & Mary. Any university employee can join, from tenured professors to administrative staff to part-time workers.
Tech has about 2,500 full- and part-time faculty members, but a total of 13,000 people are employed by the university.
Greater job security is a major goal for the UCW unit, which falls under the Communications Workers of America and its umbrella union, the AFL-CIO.
Derek Mueller, a tenured professor of writing and rhetoric who’s a member of the new union, explained that many instructors on campus previously worked on one-year contracts. That minimum contract length has been changed to two years, Mueller said, but it’s still stressful for instructors who are navigating the tight rental housing market in the Blacksburg area because they’re not sure how long they’ll be able to work at Tech.
Brandy Faulkner, the Gloria D. Smith Professor of Black Studies at Virginia Tech and a member of UCW-VT, said she has spoken with coworkers who have struggled to gain equitable pay or positions in their departments because of their gender or race.
The staff union, which reached 50 members in the spring, sees workplace issues like equitable pay and contract length akin to learning conditions for students at the state university: If workers are struggling to meet their own basic needs, they can’t adequately serve Tech’s more than 35,000 students.
“I have some of the most wonderful colleagues imaginable,” said Faulkner, whose position is not tenured. “I want to see them succeed.”
Meanwhile, the Virginia Education Association will represent graduate students who work on campus as research or teaching assistants. It’s the VEA’s first higher education unit in the state, though the umbrella union National Education Association has chapters at institutions in other states.
About 150 of the more than 7,000 graduate students at Tech’s campuses have committed to helping organize VT GLU.
Graduate students at Tech have been in the spotlight in recent months, after a university task force released a report in February about cost of living and compensation for students who work on campus as part of their graduate programs. The report found that 92% of students who received teaching or research assistantships for the 2022-2023 were paid less than the Blacksburg-area cost of living of $2,734 per month.
Though some graduate students get part-time jobs on top of their studies and their assistantships or find summer gigs, many international students aren’t allowed to earn off-campus income.
The university responded to the task force report in June by raising the minimum monthly stipend for graduate assistants by about $600. The board of visitors has also increased graduate student compensation by 5% annually for each of the last several years, in line with statewide salary increases for Virginia employees.
But the university hasn’t offered a concrete plan for catching graduate student compensation up to the cost of living, which is expected to continue rising due in part to the limited housing options available in Blacksburg.
In an Aug. 26 email to graduate students, graduate school dean Aimee Suprenant reiterated her commitment to advocating for higher compensation for graduate students. She lauded the university’s and the state’s recent investments in graduate education at Tech, but said, “That is not to say that there is not work to be done. Averages do not tell the story of every student and there are still many who are struggling.”
That email linked to a webpage from the provost’s office regarding recent stipend increases that noted, “An assistantship, as the title implies, is first and foremost a developmental opportunity for graduate students to expand their education and skills in teaching and, often, research, while providing financial support (a stipend) to be used in combination with other sources of support, including educational loans and fellowships.”
But taking out loans and finding other sources of support isn’t always an option for graduate students, said Gabby Patarinski, a second-year doctoral student who’s involved with the union.
Patarinski, who is studying psychology, said she had to take out a loan during her first year at Tech because her assistantship didn’t cover emergency expenses she incurred. But she considers herself lucky because she doesn’t have loans from her bachelor’s degree.
“I know people in thousands of dollars in debt,” she said, noting that many graduate students are discouraged or barred from seeking additional work. “How else are we supposed to be living?”
What’s driving unionization efforts?
UCW-VT and the VT GLU aren’t the only unions at Virginia Tech. The American Association of University Professors, or VT-AAUP, launched a chapter in 2014 and is one of 21 chapters in Virginia. In spring 2016, the AAUP called for greater transparency from Tech regarding promotion and tenure reviews. That effort eventually led to the provost at the time stepping down from the role in 2017.
The university’s shared governance model includes senates to represent undergraduates, graduate and professional students, staff, faculty, and administrative and professional faculty such as researchers and cooperative extension directors.
The senates make recommendations to the university, but some are more “activist” than others, said Jenni Gallagher, coordinator of general education in the Pathways to General Education office. Gallagher, who serves on the administrative and professional faculty senate, is also the interim chair of the UCW-VT.
Mueller — who is a member of the AAUP chapter as well as the UCW chapter at Tech — said the new union efforts complement the work being done in the senates. He said unionizing isn’t about fighting with university administration or accusing it of wrongdoing, but rather about creating dialogue around common concerns.
Mueller compared the university senates and union groups to legs of a stool. By being a part of more than one group, members can use various methods of advocating for themselves as well as others who may have a different job classification.
Other Virginia chapters of the UCW have found success in their early years. The William & Mary chapter launched in 2019 when anthropology graduate student payments were delayed by more than a month. While organizing, members discovered pay and health insurance disparities among other graduate programs. Now, the union represents all graduate students, non-tenured faculty and staff.
At the University of Virginia, the UCW launched in August 2020 to represent most campus workers. In January 2023, it won its campaign to get missing graduate stipends paid, along with reimbursement of late fees incurred by students during the gap. The university also created a task force to investigate graduate stipend issues.
Unionizing on a public college campus isn’t without its challenges. State workers in Virginia can unionize, but they cannot collectively bargain. Since the unions won’t be able to negotiate their wages, the university won’t need to formally recognize the union as it would if it were a private college or company.
Even if workers at Tech can’t formally negotiate pay, unions still can have power to persuade administrators and elected officials to improve their working and learning conditions, said William Herbert, director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College, part of the City University of New York system.
April 2023 data from the National Education Association shows that even when unions can’t collectively bargain with their institution, states with higher education faculty unions have higher average salaries than states without faculty unions. That’s true regardless of whether the faculty teach at two-year colleges or four-year institutions.
Herbert said key factors in the growth of campus unionization in recent years include increased income inequality, and the pandemic’s exposure of uneven labor rights.
Between January 2022 and June 2023, 30 new student union units were established, a new report from the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies and the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions shows. For the entire nine years prior, only 21 new student worker units were created.
Next steps for Tech’s new unions
Gallagher, who recalls making less than $12 per hour when she first started working for the university part time almost a decade ago, said UCW-VT has been preparing to go public since the beginning of the summer. “We have a really cohesive, tight, dedicated group, and we felt ready,” she said. The chapter has representation from every classification of worker except undergraduate student workers so far.
In the coming months, the unions will map out their priorities and hold elections for leadership positions.
Mueller said that being in a union can sometimes feel like progress happens more slowly because of the various stakeholders involved. “And yet, by slowing things down it actually brings more open, ethical dialogue” around member concerns, he said.
Though it’s illegal for an employer to retaliate against union members, the university could still push back against the units’ priorities.
But Faulkner said it’s worth the risk. “Whenever you have a situation with a group of people challenging pre-existing structures, there’s always a risk.” But being silent despite knowing some Tech employees face inequity, she said, is a far bigger risk.