May Day Special: America boils with Labor unrest in higher education

By WU Team

Massive public divestment, corporatization and debt financing in higher education in the US since decades has resulted in reduction in tenured professorships, an increase in adjunct faculty and grad students to teach classes.

Roughly 40% of faculty are part-time temporary workers. Universities have also adopted a corporatized model of governance with hierarchical decision making to minimize labor costs and an increase in administrators.

They also prevent and practice union busting whenever part-time/adjunct faculty come together to form a union. Unfair contracts, inability to survive on their pay led academic workers all over the US to unionize and strike the most in the past 20 years in 2022.

The biggest strike of 2022 involved around 48000 academic workers of the University of California across all its campuses and lasted for many weeks. This was the biggest work stoppage ever in a US institution of higher education. The strike won fair contracts for postdoctoral scholars, graduate students and research scientists.

Rutgers university faculty, one of the largest in the US with around 8000 members, called for a strike with 94% union vote.

This includes full-time and adjunct faculty, professors, instructors, postdoctoral researchers and teachers. They are demanding a living wage and equal pay for equal work. Their fight for a fair contract started in May 2022 and is ongoing

Graduate students in private institutions across the US are also unionizing and preparing to strike. Graduate student workers including Teaching Assistants and Research Assistants at Boston University, Columbia, Duke, Dartmouth and Yale Universities started organizing in the past two years and are actively fighting to form a union and strike against unfair contracts, lack of healthcare and cost of living crisis.

However, in many cases, private universities have been sabotaging organizing efforts. For example, Duke University voluntarily declined to recognize its graduate student union by denying employee status to its graduate students.

In the past, unionizing in universities has drawn support from the humanities and social sciences. However, more recently, most TAs and RAs that participate in organizing come from the STEM fields.

Similar strikes were organized by the Teachers union in LA that constitutes 30,000 teachers aides, special education assistants, bus drivers, custodians and other staff.

Teacher shortages in schools across LA are affecting low income districts with 51% staffing positions remaining vacant. Staffing shortages are mainly due to “poverty wages” being provided to teachers with a large proportion of teachers having raises overdue. In the three day strike, workers demanded living wages, healthcare and increased staffing in LA county schools. 

Meanwhile, Florida schools and the DeSantis administration have rolled out initiatives to eliminate existing curriculum on Critical Race Theory or Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiatives by regulating the spending of public colleges and universities. In response, University of Central Florida students joined a statewide walkout to protest the education policies. 

Overall, the increased contractualization, public divestment concurrent with inflation, increased cost of living, rent etc has led to massive labor unrest in the US education sector in the past year, quite similar to increased privatization, rise in contractual workforce and its outcomes observed in higher education in India. This unrest is expected to continue until the state addresses concerns posed by the awakened masses.  

The long ongoing Railroad workers fight in the US

For the past three years, freight rail carriers and the 12 unions representing more than 100,000 workers in the US have been negotiating fair contracts with the state, which eventually led to a contract being forced on them.

The negotiated contract involved a 24% increase in wages and one additional paid day off but NO PAID SICK LEAVE, which is why many unions have rejected it. 

Freight trains in the US vastly support its economy by providing supply chains for commodities like lumber, coal and chemicals across the country.

With relaxed regulatory measures and decreased staffing, freight trains are increasingly carrying more load and are longer in length with fewer personnel that can monitor the routes.

This has led to increased incidents of train derailments with effects on public safety and environment. All this is primarily due to massive corporatization of the US railroad industry. The post pandemic railroad industry made immense profits despite a massive decrease in the overall workforce (40,000 jobs lost).

These profits were made off of “cost cutting” decisions coming from the top of the corporate hierarchy. One such major decision was a practice called “precision scheduling” of railroad (PSR) that was implemented just to increase carrier profits in the name of streamlining operations.

PSR involves moving cars instead of whole trains to optimize the best outcome for railroad and customers.

However, using PSR as an excuse to cut costs on staff and on maintenance of trains and tracks the railroad industry has made massive profits with the risk of increased derailments that affect the staff and public safety. 

Railroad workers are fighting to improve rail safety and retain staffing. Rail workers for many years now are facing shortage of staffing, unsafe and unpredictable working conditions and massive job losses.

They have fought for a mandatory two person crew on freight trains to reduce the number of accidents and derailments.

More importantly, they are seeking basic workplace guarantees such as sick leave and regulatory measures to ultimately ensure public safety.

Without these measures, derailments of freight trains that affect the public, the surrounding wildlife and environment are increasingly becoming a reality (e.g East Palestine disaster in Ohio and in Houston Texas.

Although not all rail workers are happy with the current provisions, they are still hoping to negotiate before going on a national strike. More power to them!

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