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Fordham Graduate Student Workers Unionize

Graduate students at Fordham University are paid more than $15,000 below what’s needed to pay for basic living expenses in New York City. Last week, they announced they are forming a union local of the Communication Workers of America (CWA). An anonymous adjunct instructor at Fordham writes about the importance of solidarity.

Olivia Wood

March 8, 2022
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Solidarity at Columbia strike
A protester stands in solidarity with striking student workers at Columbia University in December. (Photo: Sarah Blesener / The New York Times)

When I was interviewing for my position as an adjunct faculty member at Fordham University, I was introduced to the concept of cura personalis, a cornerstone of Jesuit education. It means “care for the whole person,” and from my very first contact with the university, it was made clear to me that I would be expected to uphold this mission in my classroom. 

But the Fordham administration is not upholding the literal meaning of its own mission. Fordham’s administrators exclude graduate student workers from dental and vision insurance. These workers also make between $15,000 and $20,000 below what is needed to pay for basic living expenses in New York City. Eyes, mouths, and basic living expenses are key components of caring for a “whole person.” Fordham bosses also forced graduate workers to take on extensive unpaid additional labor during the beginning of the pandemic, and a graduate student in my department told me that many students experience harassment, abuse, and/or racism from their supervisors. For university administrators, the idea of cura personalis is strategically used to attract students while covering up the labor exploitation on which their education depends.

Low pay especially affects international students, whose visas prohibit them from working for any employer other than the university. This severely limits the options they have to supplement their income during the semester, and in the summer, they have no income at all. Many are forced to return to their home countries (sometimes paying for expensive international flights) during the summers, sacrificing their access to campus libraries and labs, simply because they cannot afford to continue living in New York. And the student worker I spoke with said that the university remained silent in July of 2020 after Trump announced that international students would be required to register for in-person classes in order to keep their visas. Even more than other students, she told me, “International students don’t have a say in our working conditions.”

For these reasons and more, last week the Fordham Graduate Student Workers (FGSW) announced their intention to form a union local of the Communication Workers of America (CWA), which would represent all student workers at Fordham’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. On Monday, February 28, the workers delivered a letter to the University President, Father McShane, along with a vision statement for their union. The letter appeals to the university’s own mission statement and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ stated support for workers’ right to unionize. It also quotes from McShane’s own statement about adjunct faculty unionization, in which he said:

“Organized labor has deep roots in Catholic social justice teachings. And though this is an issue that many universities are facing—not all of which have come to the same decision—given its Jesuit traditions and historic connection to first-generation and working-class students, Fordham has a special duty in this area.”

However, it seems like Father McShane has changed his mind. Already, the Fordham administration is discouraging faculty from signing the solidarity petition

The graduate worker in my department that I talked with said that FGSW is staying in close communication with graduate workers at other Jesuit universities like Georgetown, organizing within the Jesuit tradition of education and social justice. “The care is not being extended to the whole person,” she said. “We want to hold Fordham to their own stated mission, and have them recognize our value in accordance with their values.” 

Fordham’s graduate workers are part of a unionization wave that is sweeping across the country. Graduate students at private colleges were not allowed to unionize until the NLRB overturned its previous ruling in 2016 in favor of the Student Workers of Columbia (SWC). Since the SWC decision, graduate workers at dozens more schools have filed for union elections, including Harvard, Loyola, Georgetown, Grinnell, MIT, Carnegie Mellon, Vanderbilt, George Washington University, Boston College, and Cornell. This list does not include the graduate workers at many public universities who have also filed for union recognition during this time, or the surge in support for unions more generally, as evidenced by more than 100 Starbucks locations that have registered with the NLRB in the last few months alone.

Earlier this year, the Student Workers of Columbia set a new standard for graduate student pay, voting for a tentative agreement that raised annual income to nearly $38,000 for 9-month employees and over $43,000 for 12-month employees, amounting to around a $3,000 raise for both types of appointment. This is nearly double what many Fordham graduate workers currently make, and it was only possible because after the SWC’s strike last May, they became the first graduate union to ever vote down a proposed tentative agreement. 

The original tentative agreement was reached through a closed-door bargaining process closely overseen by the UAW’s professional organizers. Seven out of the ten bargaining committee members supported the agreement, but rank-and-file organizers led a campaign to vote it down and demand better. The workers circulated a petition calling on the bargaining committee to resign (which they did), elected new representatives with an open bargaining framework, and began a new strike in Fall 2021 with greater militancy and worker participation at every step of the process. Because the Student Workers of Columbia rejected the original agreement and embraced their own power, they were able to secure much better contract terms, such as a minimum hourly wage of $21 rather than the $17 wage in the first tentative agreement. 

The Fordham Graduate Student Workers should push for this open, worker-controlled approach as well. Building real power and winning the biggest gains means a militant rank-and-file that is willing to challenge not just the bosses, but their union leaders as well.

Right now, FGSW says the best way to support them is with public statements of support, and they ask that supporters follow them on social media and attend future events. Fordham Faculty United (FFU), the union representing non-tenure-track faculty at the university, is in a particularly strategic position to support our graduate student colleagues. We must stand in unconditional solidarity with FGSW by signing the faculty solidarity petition and be at their side at any actions they call in the coming weeks and months. As we begin our own contract negotiations this month, we have the power to advocate for their demands as well as our own.

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Olivia Wood

Olivia is a writer and editor at Left Voice and lecturer in English at the City University of New York (CUNY).

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