Organize the Lab: Theory and Practice


I’m a STEM worker: a graduate student, trainee, fellow, investigator—whatever the job title may be.1 As someone who works in a lab, I am expected to work through the weekend and past my contracted hours in the week. I like the idea of science—it is exalted, useful, and interesting. Yet to be a scientist under a capitalist system I have to respect a hierarchy, publish or perish, and embrace long hours, low pay, and precarity that continues for years.

Appeals to institutional channels result in resorts to romance: “it’s a rite of passage.” Others tell me they can’t help me, because they are powerless: “the government hasn’t increased our budget, so I can only offer you a real-terms pay cut this year.” Some believe solutions are already forthcoming in the form of diversity initiatives, mentorship programs, and new rules; meanwhile, diversity initiatives initiate Black and Brown workers into hostile labs, and precarious mentors tell me that I’m lucky to be in the lab at all. Throughout, I train and work under the Panglossian myth that this way of science is the best possible science.

The word “lab” comes from the Latin laboratorio, meaning the place of labor. The connotation is clear: it’s a place where we toil. In a deeper, almost poetic sense, labor is the medium through which humans interact with nature, i.e., science. Yet, there is a third significance: labor gives us the power and leverage to challenge structures and change academic science from the ground up. It is this third significance that this edited volume roots its discussion.

How can labor be the key to it all? The answer lies in elucidating why academic science is the way it currently is: hierarchical, exploitative, and quite inhumane. Chapter 1: “Abstracting the Lab or: How I Learned to Become a Cog and Reproduce the System” situates us within the process of scientific production to understand the role of science in society, how society dictates scientific research, and class relations of workers within the lab. What the chapter concludes may not be surprising—that academia is integrated with and mirrored after capitalistic logic—but knowledge of labor being both the lock and the key to capitalism allows us to arm ourselves with the consciousness and strategic grounding to exert power.

All true knowledge must be put to action. Chapter 2: “Power Struggles: Material and Cultural” provides first-hand experience of two models of graduate student worker organizing. While appealing to institutional channels for modest demands of diversity and transparency is met with sneers and swift dismissal, collective bargaining through unions is responded to with fear and eventual concession. We thus see how power is exercised when “thousands of workers withdraw their labor.”

This leverage, moreover, is not only limited to gaining immediate benefits such as pay raise, health care, or improvements to working conditions. Chapter 3: “Building Power in STEM Requires Championing Broad and Local Goals” explains that economic goals are intricately linked to broader fights for social justice. Because the strength of a union is in its number and cohesion, the more a union takes care of the interests of its diverse members, the stronger the community, and the more likely the union will succeed in collective bargaining.

However, the path to power is treacherous. As Chapter 4: “Science Work and Service Work: Exclusion and Exploitation at the University of Iowa” forewarns, the owners of academic STEM (e.g., administrators, institution’s stakeholders) will fight us to the bitter end. They have historically deployed various tactics to undermine labor organizing, from restricting workers’ access to grievance procedures and dividing workers into separate categories to even redefining the meaning of “work.” Organizers need to be vigilant, and obtaining a historical understanding can go a long way to inform our present struggles.

Delving deeper into the history of labor organizing, Chapter 5: “STEM Organizing in Waves: A Macro and Micro View” presents a comprehensive survey of labor organizing in the United States—with a focus on STEM workers—dating back to the 1930s, through rises and falls of radicalism and changes in union structures. This history is then juxtaposed with an account of union organizing among biology workers at Georgetown University, where graduate workers negotiated an impressive first contract in May 2020. Every success is a model we can copy, and every failure one to avoid.

Perhaps a lesson of failure is more valuable, as alluded to in Chapter 6: “Out from Under the Umbrella,” which asks why with so much enthusiasm for unionizing, successes are so few. While the rightward political shift and the changing global economic structure have certainly played their parts to decimate unions, we must also take a critical look at the organizing models themselves as a reason for the folly. The majority of STEM worker unions are reliant on support from large “umbrella” organizations such as the American Federation of Teachers or United Auto Workers. They are structured rigidly and organized from the top down. In what ways do they aid or hinder labor militancy among STEM workers? Is there an alternative model more suitable in our time?

In addition to discussing organizing strategies, political economy, and history, the goal of this edited volume is also to inspire. In April 2022, one of the most powerful academic institutions, arguably the most “apolitical,” and certainly one most entrenched with corporate and state interest, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, could not prevent its student workers from forming a union. Chapter 7: “Organizing from the Belly of the Academic-Industrial Complex” chronicled the struggle toward their hard-fought victory, having turned every structural obstacle into radicalizing opportunities. When workers rise up, even the empire trembles.2

Similarly, Chapter 8 “More is Stronger: Only Radical Bottom-up Unionism can Change STEM” details the buildup and aftermath of Student Workers of Columbia (SWC)’s ten-week strike in October 2021. In the end, Columbia University conceded to all of SWC’s contract demands, revealing once again the immanent power of a democratic, bottom-up union that represents the people. Riding high on the resounding victory, SWC declares grand visions for the future: changing departmental structures, addressing precarity of adjunct hires, eliminating funding disparity between STEM and humanities, and dictating how and which grants are funded. This is not wishful thinking. If history has shown us anything, it’s that positive change happens when the exploited resist exploitation. We do have the power to change academia—its structure, operation, culture, and even its social function—if we take collective action.

As Frederick Engels said, “history moves often in leaps and bounds and in a zigzag line.”3 Changing science is a historical project. We can’t see the next twist and turn; the people make history one campaign, one demand, one strike at a time. The future is in our hands; it begins with labor.

The Editorial Collective
July 2022

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  1. The acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics was a relatively recent invention by the US National Science Foundation. The original usage in the 1990s referred to “science” broadly. As such, disciplinary boundaries between STEM and non-STEM remain fluid.
  2. MIT and Imperialism (Boston: November Action Coalition, 1969).
  3. Frederick Engels, “Karl Marx, ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Political economy’ (Review),” Das Volk 16 (August 20, 1859),