Power Struggles: Material and Cultural

Organize the Lab: Theory and Practice

Chapter 2

Power Struggles: Material and Cultural

By Iraj Eshghi

Science academia is under tremendous pressure to change. In the past few years, marginalized groups have called for the opening up of academic institutions, especially to make STEM more accessible to a broader palette of students, including Black folks, women, older students, and those from working-class backgrounds.1 Historically, this kind of diversification has been incentivized through limited efforts such as affirmative action or awarding fellowships to students from a particular group. In response to recent criticisms about a lack of diversity, many universities have assembled a cornucopia of committees on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Beyond these efforts and other shallow tactics, such as hosting seminars from corporate facilitators and hiring the token Black professor, the majority of academia has stopped short of any meaningful action.

It is not just diversity though. Activists have identified the need to improve material conditions for academic workers, for instance with calls for better pay and benefits and more affordable housing.2 These demands may seem unrelated to the task of breaking down the gates of academia, but that would ignore the difference a simple material benefit can make for someone who is already struggling. Better material working conditions are a necessary prerequisite for making any workplace more accessible to people facing an unequal playing field, while also improving the lives of all other workers.

Beyond material barriers, the very culture of academia remains a problem. University departments are known for steep hierarchical structures, with clearly delineated titles that define the power dynamics in various relationships, such as the dynamics between a PhD advisor and an advisee or between a graduate teaching assistant and undergraduate students. The academy relies on other arcane practices to create a false dichotomy of insiders and outsiders, such as being intellectually aggressive at seminars, the use of academic jargon, and the assumption of various forms of class-based knowledge. This only makes the situation worse for already marginalized students.3

These dynamics come from the cultural roots of the university system, as well as its dependence on profit and growth. Due to ballooning endowments and immense real estate holdings, universities have become a major target of investment for the financial sector. This accumulation of wealth is built on the prestige of the university, which is based on both education and research initiatives and the products and patents that result from these endeavors. The value that the university generates is rooted in the labor of a growing population of students, junior researchers, and teachers with unreliable contracts and low pay. Such an extractive environment disproportionately affects students from marginalized communities. This imbalance extends to faculty positions as well, where the lack of permanent teaching positions forces graduating students who have fewer resources to take underpaid, unstable adjunct positions that are becoming increasingly common at universities.

For the past decade, academic workers from various universities have been organizing themselves into labor unions. Just within the New York City area in the past five years, graduate workers at Columbia University, The New School, and Fordham University have formed graduate student unions, associated with larger umbrella organizations such as the International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW) and the United Federation of Teachers (UFT).4 These unionization efforts involved graduate students negotiating contracts and participating in strikes to win recognition and protection in their role as employees. However, since the roles of graduate students are often a nebulous mix of employee and student responsibilities, the collective shield that unionization has raised has left some spots unprotected. For example, for science graduate workers at New York University, the university does not recognize research activity as work. A research advisor is also not considered an employer, even if the graduate researcher’s income is entirely dependent on their advisor’s grant. Thus, a union representative cannot mediate the advisor–advisee relationship, which has just as much power imbalance as an employer–employee relationship, and the advisor’s behavior cannot be constrained by a collectively bargained contract.

Since I joined New York University (NYU) in 2017 as a PhD student in physics, I have been involved in two organizing efforts. I served as a steward for GSOC-UAW Local 2110 (hereafter referred to as GSOC), the union for graduate employees at NYU, until our strike and contract negotiation in the spring of 2021. I was also one of the founders of the Graduate Physics Organization for Research, Culture, and Education (G-PHORCE) at NYU. Founded in 2019, the group’s purpose was to improve departmental culture and equity, advocate for graduate workers, and push for more transparency and accountability.5

The members of G-PHORCE felt that GSOC was unable to address certain issues, particularly given that physics graduate workers at NYU are unable to receive union benefits unless they teach classes. We organized G-PHORCE to communicate with department leadership in the hopes of addressing the gaps in benefits available to different types of graduate workers. We also felt that an organization formed within the department would be able to directly engage with the faculty we knew personally, and thus be able to change department culture more effectively than a large union representing all graduate workers at NYU.

In the years that followed, both due to the pressures of COVID-19 on the livelihoods of students, as well as the contract negotiations with the university, I saw the collective power of graduate students put to the test in both GSOC and G-PHORCE. The union fight ultimately leveraged our collective power much more successfully. For graduate student workers and academic science organizers everywhere, I hope a post-mortem of these organizing experiences at NYU can teach us about the best strategies to adopt as a nationwide movement.

Power at the Bargaining Table

In preparation to bargain for our new contract in 2020, GSOC’s organizers spent about a year laying the groundwork among rank-and-file graduate workers. We visited dozens of departments, some in multiple buildings, and spoke to thousands of workers. Our message was simple: We have a contract. This contract is about to expire. The more active members we have going into negotiations, the better. The more of these members who are ready to strike, the stronger our strike threat. The stronger our strike threat, the easier it will be for us to win a good contract for the next five years.

We assembled our bargaining committee, conducted several surveys to determine graduate workers’ priorities, and formed multiple working groups to draft demands in every sector of interest, from cops-off-campus to compensation to protections against harassment.6 Next, we performed several structure tests in demanding emergency action concerning COVID-19 precautions on campus, and by the summer of 2020 our monthly zoom assemblies were regularly drawing more than a hundred workers.

Participation was harder to obtain from graduate workers in the sciences. Labs usually have grant money available, and hire graduate workers as research assistants, who at NYU are considered trainees, not workers. As such, their pay and benefits were not being bargained for during the contract negotiations, and many felt disconnected from the struggle. Only a minority of students depend on teaching positions for income (usually students performing theoretical research), and their concerns were principally for increased pay. The majority of science students did not want to get involved, whether out of fear of falling behind on their research or of backlash from advisors. Those who did, usually did so because of a sense of solidarity with fellow graduate students, which was displayed later on the picket line.

Despite our preparations, we were overwhelmed when faced with the NYU administrative machine at the bargaining table. The university hired labor lawyers who specialized in union busting and ran a public smear campaign, which included sending humiliating emails to graduate workers’ parents telling them about the negotiations. The university spread misinformation to faculty and the public about the contract negotiation, calling our demands unreasonable. None of this was particularly new or surprising. After all, calling workers’ demands unreasonable is a union busting move as old as time.

As negotiations were taking place, our rank-and-file members were growing increasingly radical. The pandemic exacerbated all sorts of economic and social pressures on the disenfranchised members of the university, and the summer 2020 protests had exposed the entire city to the powerful feeling of taking part in collective action. Conversations on campus centered around the racist nature of the police, white supremacy in academia and science, and the need for concerted support of those harder hit by COVID-19 and the ensuing economic downturn. Graduate workers at NYU were furious, and they had time to dedicate to organizing efforts.

Members of GSOC continued building support among the graduate workers by getting people to attend bargaining sessions and keeping the whole graduate worker population informed about developments. We were preparing for an upcoming strike by agitating as many workers as possible, workers whose lives had already been upended by a pandemic and with whom we had not spoken in person before. All of our organizing had to happen over an interminable series of remote calls and phone banking sessions. For months and months, NYU’s lawyers did not budge from their position, debating with us over minor points and refusing to acknowledge the validity of our demands, as we agitated for a strike.

After fiercely campaigning, we held a strike vote which passed resoundingly, with 70 percent member participation and 96.4 percent of those voting in favor of a strike.7 Once we returned to the bargaining table with a near unanimous strike vote, NYU began accepting our demands one by one within weeks. On the day of the tentative agreement, negotiations concluded with NYU’s lawyers demanding that we dismantle the picket line immediately. They had lost the fight, and lost face in the press.8 We basked in our victory.

The success of GSOC in contract negotiations received mixed reactions among the science researcher population. The improvements in wages, benefits, and worker protections didn’t benefit most of our physicist community. However, it did sharpen the consciousness of many science graduate workers who saw the university’s efforts to tamp down union organizing for the nefarious acts that they were, and it also raised graduate worker expectations for how they should be treated by superiors. All they needed was a jolt to catalyze their frustration into action.

A Failed Attempt at Sharing Power

In the wake of the Black Lives Matter uprisings in 2020, turmoil shook up the NYU Department of Physics, like many other academic spaces across the United States.9 Physics in general is notoriously exclusionary towards marginalized social groups. For example, as of 2022, the NYU Department of Physics has a single Black person and five women out of around 40 faculty members. The representation among students is not much better. Before the 2021–22 academic year, there was a single Black graduate student in the department. The gender ratio in physics is notoriously bad (fewer than one-in-five physics grad students in the United States is a woman) and has not improved much in the past two decades.10 The fact that representation in physics is so poor compared to other science professions points to a glaring cultural problem within the field, which graduate workers in our department set out to change a few months before the pandemic began. By the time the BLM protests were in full swing in the summer of 2020, the pressure was on.

We wanted to promote social cohesion among graduate students, but in an explicitly political way that overcame the social isolation of the lab and grad school, which would also facilitate our organizing goals. It is a lot easier to get people to act together when they are all friends along with being coworkers, as GSOC organizers had learned early on: getting grad workers together at a happy hour, for example, quickly forged personal bonds between individuals. Then it becomes a lot harder to ignore pleas for support from fellow union comrades, because people cease to be abstract individuals, and we feel personal responsibility towards each other’s well-being.

G-PHORCE’s political goals were similar to the union’s in some respect, in that we wanted to improve material conditions for everybody, but we also took on the cultural project of changing department dynamics from within. We wanted to provide support systems for marginalized workers and educate each other and the faculty on how to make our department truly diverse and accessible. Simply abolishing the use of the GRE in admissions would go a long way, for example, as this exam’s results correlate much more strongly with gender and ethnic background than with graduate school outcomes.11 As faculty members have pointed out to us, the main reason for its use is that it makes the admissions process easier for administrators. G-PHORCE wanted access to faculty meetings, a say in the curricula, a framework for workers to report issues with faculty members, and funding transparency. We wanted to fundamentally change the culture of our department to make it more open and less hierarchical. We did not expect how strongly the faculty would oppose such an effort.

Soon after forming G-PHORCE, we attended one faculty meeting to make our case for why we should be invited to future meetings as observing members (if not voting members). We were unexpectedly met with fear and outrage that we were seeking the power to affect junior faculty’s tenure applications, even though that was not one of our goals. We later learned that the chair had told the faculty that sitting in on tenure committees was part of our agenda. To prevent us from getting any purchase within the department, the chair had used the faculty’s fear of losing the one institutional carrot they held most dear.

This would prove to be a pattern. In the following months, we saw that faculty were terribly afraid of giving us access to spaces where decisions were made, the same dreaded committee and faculty meetings they loved to complain to us about. Early in the pandemic, we asked faculty to sign a letter demanding the university provide funding and program extensions for one year. They refused, saying they did not think it would make any impression on the administration; they later opted for a watered-down version instead, which, among other things, only extended funding for those graduates that were already supported, leaving a significant portion of the graduate worker population exposed to the financial effects of the pandemic.12 During a crisis, when we needed faculty support facing university administration, they failed to step up to the plate. Unsurprisingly, they also discouraged us from developing a reporting system for faculty conduct violations. I do not want to paint faculty as evil actors; in fact, most of them understand the difficulties faced by graduate workers. The antagonism between graduate workers and faculty is an outcome of the university hierarchy pitting us against each other. It is worth considering, as an organizer, how to turn that dynamic around.

Our professors did not understand how standing up to faculty would help us, since they saw themselves as our benefactors. However, we saw student power and representation within the department as the primary vehicle for better inclusivity. In our minds, we could work together with the faculty to make our department more just, transparent, and safer for marginalized students with the ultimate goal of changing the composition of the department to something more representative of the city it exists within. Unfortunately, in a university where the goal is profit and the trade is prestige, such a shared power model is unthinkable.

From Cultural to Material Struggle

There has always been a tension among progressives, between those advocating for reforms and those calling for the direct dismantling of structures of power. This has been a source of heated debate in Marxist thought for centuries, but the upshot is that the correct approach depends on how repressive the state is, the social environment, and the degree of consciousness and radicalization of the workers in question.

In the two examples discussed above, we find a parallel situation: given the pressing need for improving academic culture and working conditions for scientists, is it better to “collaborate” with faculty and administration, or force the issue using antagonistic labor action? Short of causing a Bolshevik-Menshevik type split among academic organizers, I think the experiences at NYU are telling. Considering the administration’s control over decision making within the university, and the current political moment where white-collar laborers across the country are unionizing in increasing numbers, it is imperative that scientists seeking better conditions turn to radical action.

The university administration still holds full authority over faculty: they control appointments, promotions, and funding. Students can never gain leverage over faculty by working alongside them. We cannot make changes from within before having forced our way into the ranks of the decision-makers. And to do that, we need our union. GSOC used the raw bargaining power of thousands of workers withdrawing their labor and forced the issue. They won against the university on a broad range of issues, ranging from bread-and-butter benefits like childcare subsidies to more ambitious cultural projects like pushing cops off campus.13 This kind of use of force is the necessary approach for graduate workers and other junior members of the academy to take, until we have won key positions within the administrative hierarchy. Then, maybe, softer pressure may bear fruit.

We must keep in mind that this need for external pressure on the hierarchy of the university does not mean that interdepartmental organizing is worthless. In fact, organizations like G-PHORCE possess many potential points of leverage within the institution. The reputation of the department among graduates is an important factor in admissions, and unhappy graduate workers can easily detract potential recruits from joining the department. Researchers may also organize as their own labor union within the university, or organize work slowdowns and stoppages within the department. Creating a forum for physics graduates to air grievances and brainstorm solutions fosters an environment where collective action can grow and flourish.

In 2020–2021, I watched as thousands of graduate workers together forced the largest private university in the country to kneel to their demands. I also witnessed the rejection and fear that my fellow physicists faced when we offered faculty the option to work with us to change our department for the better. Faculty were so afraid to lose the power they had that they preferred to allow the exclusionary status quo to continue within their field. No commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion can budge the built-in incentives that influence members of academia. Universities chose to start operating as massive businesses, so academic workers seeking change must challenge the university system the same way we take on big businesses: strike at their bottom line.

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  1. Salvador Vidal-Ortiz, “Dismantling Whiteness in Academe”, Insider Higher Ed, November 10, 2017, https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2017/11/10/how-whiteness-structuring-interactions-higher-education-essay
  2. Michelle Yang, “UC academic student workers demand housing support, equitable job opportunities”, Daily Bruin, May 25, 2022, https://dailybruin.com/2022/05/25/uc-academic-student-workers-demand-housing-support-equitable-job-opportunities, & Scott Jaschick “What Academic Labor Wants”, Inside Higher Ed, July 12, 2021, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2021/07/12/summit-academic-unions-envisions-broad-changes-higher-education
  3. Sarah Shandera et al. “RASE: Modeling cumulative disadvantage due to marginalized group status in academia”, PLoS ONE, December 16, 2021
  4. SWC-UAW Local 2170, SENS-UAW Local 7902, FGSW-CWA
  5. The other founding members were Paul McNulty, Cristina Mondino, Marco Muzio, and Kate Storey-Fisher. Most of the founding was actually done by Marco (including writing most of our charter), who also somehow wrote and defended his dissertation that same year (https://physics.nyu.edu/gphorce/).
  6. A detailed accounting of changes to the contract can be found at https://makingabetternyu.org/2021/05/15/tentative-agreement-with-nyu-reached-membership-to-vote/. These were the final changes that took place after all organizing and bargaining were concluded.
  7. Lau Guzman, “NYU Grad Student Union Votes In Favor of Authorizing a Strike”, NYU Local, April 13, 2021, https://nyulocal.com/nyu-grad-student-union-votes-in-favor-of-authorizing-a-strike-18f627137ea5. The 70% participation rate is an estimate: 1386 ballots were cast in the strike vote, which is about 70% of the GSOC membership of around 2000 graduate workers.
  8. Emma Goldberg, “‘They’re Trying to Bully Us’: N.Y.U. Graduate Students Are Back on Strike”, New York Times, April 30, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/30/nyregion/nyu-strike.html
  9. In physics, the primary organizing effort that came out of this nation-wide was Particles for Justice https://www.particlesforjustice.org/
  10. National Science Foundation, “Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering”. https://www.nsf.gov/statistics/2017/nsf17310/digest/fod-women/physics.cfm
  11. Nicholas Young and Marcos Caballero, “Physics Graduate Record Exam does not help applicants ‘stand out’”, Physical Review Education Research, June 23, 2021
  12. NYU GSAS Statement on “FUNDING AND FEE WAIVER EXTENSIONS FOR CONTINUING PHD STUDENTS”: gsas.nyu.edu/coronavirus-information/funding-and-fee-waiver-extensions-for-continuing-phd-students.html
  13. NYU didn’t agree to kick police off campus wholesale, but they agreed to considering it a health and safety issue and appointing a committee to look into it. This might not be a full victory, until one remembers that the mere recognition of police presence as a health and safety issue for workers was considered unacceptable at the start of negotiations.