The PRO Act Could Be a Game Changer for Academic Labor Organizing

For decades, academic workers have been subjected to both rising austerity and legal blockages to their organizing efforts. The PRO Act would allow them to fight back.

The PRO Act can tilt the balance of power away from university administrations and toward academic workers. (Jeswin Thomas / Unsplash)

Over the past few decades, both public and private universities have increasingly relied on austerity to shore up budgets, threatening job security and working conditions for academic workers across ranks. Job expectations for graduate students and postdocs have increased, while future prospects dwindle. Adjunct faculty and faculty not seeking tenure have been forced to accept higher teaching loads for lower wages and minuscule benefits. Even tenured faculty — those who have “made it” — find themselves squeezed for productivity, with teaching and service expectations rising while program and salary cuts threaten job security.

Throughout this big squeeze, academics have increasingly realized that their teaching and research labor produces value far beyond the wages and benefits they take home. This surplus is gobbled up by their officially not-for-profit institutions, then regurgitated largely in the forms of real estate speculation and six- or even seven-figure salaries for an ever-expanding class of administrators. In particular, graduate student workers across the country — forced into dual status as both students and workers, but whose teaching and research labor makes universities run — have recognized their vulnerability to exploitation based on real and perceived threats to career advancement for refusing to enthusiastically participate in an industry that piles on arbitrary labor while giving little in return.

In 2016, for the third time in less than two decades, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) decided to recognize graduate student workers at Columbia University as employees, flipping the status of workers at private universities from “just students” to “student-employees with collective bargaining rights,” an encouraging development for organizers across the country. Ongoing organizing efforts faced serious challenges during the Trump administration, with organizers fighting to keep drives alive while the anti-union Trump NLRB made explicit threats to the rights of private university graduate workers to join unions, at the same time giving universities cover to deny free and fair union recognition elections by effectively cutting workers off from the NLRB election process.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these issues by increasing workloads, further blurring work/life boundaries, and bringing salary cuts and hiring freezes. University administrations have also pushed back on organizing and worker solidarity during the pandemic, as the University of Michigan did when it threatened graduate workers striking for safer working conditions with court actions.

While a Democrat-controlled NLRB under Joe Biden is likely to be more amenable to academic labor organizing, the fight cannot be dictated by presidential politics. If there is any hope that the academic professions can be spared from further austerity, academic workers must join unions and take collective action in opposition to budget-slashing administrators.

The Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act is a significant opportunity to shift the terrain for private-sector worker organizing, including academic workers. Though it does not currently address the major hurdle to graduate worker organizing, the NLRB’s ability to decide employee status for collective bargaining, the PRO Act can still tilt the balance of power away from university administrations and toward academic workers.

How Does the PRO Act Help Academic Workers?

The PRO Act is the most substantial attempt in decades to reform labor law in the United States. The act’s passage would make organizing easier for academic workers.

For example, five years on from the 2016 NLRB decision, the graduate workers’ union at Columbia, GWC-UAW, is still without a contract, now in mediation after a weeks-long strike that is currently on pause. Employers like Columbia dragging their feet in bargaining a first contract is incredibly common. The PRO Act would force employers to negotiate quickly and in good faith, establishing a mediation and arbitration process with a timeline for reaching a first contract.

The act will also penalize universities for their union-busting tactics and allow unions for graduate students and other workers (including postdocs and faculty) to be recognized through “card check,” a process by which a majority of workers signing a card in favor of a union would mean they win that union, if administrations violate the NLRB election process (as happened at Harvard in 2016). This provision could scare universities away from union-busting tactics during elections for fear of a successful unfair labor practice leading to card check recognition. Universities would also be required to disclose their hiring of union-busting consultants, information that might make administrators think twice before hiring notorious firms like Jackson Lewis and Proskauer Rose, a common practice.

The PRO Act would repeal all state-level right-to-work laws, a huge win for the entire labor movement. These laws force unions to accept what are called “open shops,” workplaces in which workers can choose not to pay union dues despite a majority of their coworkers voting to join the union, but continue to receive the benefits of unionization. Such open shops sap union resources and sow confusion about who benefits from collective bargaining — which is why bosses love them.

The law would also legalize a range of currently restricted strike activity, for example, by including intermittent, slowdown, and partial striking as concerted activity protected under the National Labor Relations Act. It would lift the Taft-Hartley Act’s ban on secondary pickets and boycotts (in which workers can call for action against employers that are related to but aren’t the direct target of a given campaign) as well as picketing for union recognition, empowering workers to put pressure on companies that do business with universities during a labor dispute. Combined with strong contracts including clauses that allow workers to refuse to cross a picket line, these provisions could be crucial for building solidarity between academic and nonacademic workers employed and exploited by universities.

These are just a few of the many improvements to labor law that the PRO Act’s passage would bring. Still, there are some limitations to what the law will do for graduate workers. One of the central and most controversial provisions of the PRO Act — that requiring employers to use the “ABC test” to determine whether a worker can be classified as an independent contractor or an employee with collective bargaining rights — is unlikely to help graduate workers with their recognition problem. As Alex Press explains,

Under the test, an individual is assumed to be an employee, and thus covered under the NLRA, unless their work meets three conditions: It is done without the direction or control of an employer; it is performed outside of the usual course of an employer’s business; and it is done by someone who has their own, independent business or trade doing that kind of work. If all three conditions apply, the worker is considered an NLRA-exempt independent contractor. The test’s inclusion in the PRO Act will grant millions more people, from rideshare drivers to construction and warehouse workers to freelance writers, government backing for their collective activities.

But universities do not claim graduate workers are independent contractors specifically to avoid collective bargaining. Instead, they argue graduate workers are “more students than workers” and thus outside the purview of the NLRA. This issue would be addressed by the Respect Graduate Student Workers Act, introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI), but this language does not appear in the PRO Act.

However, the broadening and clarifying of the definition of employee — combined with the narrowing of who is considered a “supervisor” that will empower faculty, especially contingent and untenured faculty, to get organized — can only be positive for making the case that graduate workers are workers with collective bargaining rights. Many academic workers also have second jobs where they are currently classified as independent contractors (like freelance writers and Uber drivers) to make ends meet. The ABC test could help win collective bargaining and improved conditions in such off-campus work.

The University as a Site of Struggle

Universities, long imagined to be a site of enlightenment, have always functioned as engines of reproducing an unjust social order. Urban universities refuse to address rent and housing crises in their cities, contributing to gentrification and displacement of working people without recourse or reparations. Despite conservative outcry about universities as propagating “cultural Marxism,” the reality is that universities routinely silence those who speak up for oppressed people, exemplified in the cases of Garrett Felber at the University of Mississippi, Cornel West’s tenure at Harvard University, and the constant attacks on pro-Palestinian voices. Harvard police evict anti-ICE protesters, and Harvard invests in prisons, University of Minneapolis police threaten peaceful protesters in the wake of Daunte Wright’s state-abetted killing — the list is endless.

The academic worker is occasionally maligned as belonging to the “professional-managerial class” (PMC), whose class position situates them somewhere between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Tracing the history of the PMC, Gabriel Winant concludes, “the point is not to abandon the PMC, but to turn it against its masters.” To that end, he points to the increasing contradiction between the material reality and professionalism that academics find themselves in and the resulting “chasm” that offers a glimpse toward “broader solidarity with the working class.”

The seeds of such solidarity are already planted by the isolated incidents of students showing up for nonacademic on-campus workers like dining and custodial staff. But for this solidarity to truly flourish, there must be a radical re-imagination of the relationship between academic workers and the university, as Stefano Harley and Fred Moten allude to in their essay “The University and the Undercommons: Seven Theses.” In fighting the continued exploitation of academic labor, academic workers should strive “to be in but not of” the university, taking advantage of the terrain that the university provides to build solidarity with nonacademic workers instead of isolated antagonism against the university administration.

The PRO Act would break down existing barriers to building this solidarity. First, it would begin to level the legal playing field with the boss for all workers. Just as importantly, it would empower workers on university campuses, both academic and not, to see organizing together for their common interests and against the greed and incompetence of university administrations as not only a possibility, but a necessity, in the struggle for justice for themselves as well as their colleagues, neighbors, and wider communities.

As evidenced by the ongoing PRO Act campaign spearheaded by the Democratic Socialists of America, when workers across professions organize together, they win. The campaign, in partnership with the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades and the Communications Workers of America, has already been able to flip two key Democrat senators, Angus King of Maine and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, to support the act. To flip the remaining three, the campaign needs all hands on deck.

Academic workers in and outside of existing unions should throw their energy behind this campaign, joining in coalition with the organizers and unions leading the fight. It is only through collective struggle that academic workers will be able to realize solidarity with the working class at large, and organizing for the PRO Act provides an opportunity for academic workers to make the university a site of struggle for our collective freedom.