Panel: History and Future of Graduate Assistant Unionization
With Joe Biden’s election to the US presidency, graduate assistants are reigniting once-stalled unionization campaigns at private universities in anticipation of forthcoming compositional changes to the National Labor Relations Board. Simultaneously, renewed efforts toward graduate assistant unionism are emerging amidst a resurgence of union activity in other sectors of the economy and an American public that increasingly views labor unions favorably. This panel capitalizes on this moment of transition by bringing together organizers from four national union affiliates to reflect on the challenges and successes of the last wave of graduate assistant union growth following the Board’s 2016 Columbia University decision. Panelists will also discuss the future of graduate assistant organizing in the years to come and what the shift in the Board will mean for organizing strategy.
Ken Lang is Director of Organizing for the UAW, where he works to help manufacturing and other workers build strong unions that can advance the larger struggle for a more just, equitable and inclusive economy and society. He has spent more than 20 years as an organizer and representative as part of the UAW. Lang had his first direct experience with union representation while attending college, where he worked at a major hotel in Oakland, CA, and benefited as a member of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union. But his passion for organizing solidified while working as a teaching assistant in graduate school, where he helped organize a union of more than 4,000 fellow academic student employees at the University of Washington in Seattle. Lang became the first president of UAW Local 4121 there in 2004 and soon after, in 2005, was appointed as a UAW International Representative. During his years with the UAW, he has helped numerous groups of worker organize and win UAW representation, led contract negotiations and strikes, handled grievances and arbitrations, and helped lead several legislative and labor board campaigns expanding the right to collective bargaining. In graduate school, Ken studied recent United States History with a focus on the origins of the civil rights movement in the 1930s and 1940s. He also sits on the advisory board for the City University of New York School of Labor and Urban Studies.
Peter MacKinnon is a social worker and child protective supervisor with the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF) and the President of SEIU Local 509, a union of more than 20,000 human service workers and educators throughout Massachusetts. Peter brings nearly twenty years of experience to the social work field. Prior to his role as union president, Peter served as DCF Chapter President achieving several key reforms in the Massachusetts child welfare system, including improving caseload ratios, access to mobile technology in the field, and working alongside elected officials to write better policies around child welfare. Peter holds a BA from UMass Lowell and a Master of Social Work from Salem State University.
Kavitha Iyengar, JD (she/her) is a PhD Candidate in Jurisprudence and Social Policy at UC Berkeley and the Vice President of UAW 2865, the Union representing 19,000 academic student employees across the University of California system. She earned her BA in American Culture and Spanish at the University of Michigan. Her current PhD work focuses on the legal history of welfare and worker organizations in the late 19th century United States. UAW 2865 is the largest union of academic student employees at UC, representing readers, tutors, and teaching assistants at UC’s 9 teaching campuses. Teaching Assistants, readers and tutors at UC won recognition at the University of California after a series of recognition strikes in the 1990s. While involved in local union leadership, Kavitha has focused on improvements to pay and equity, fighting for a UC where everyone can thrive, and engaging in California state politics to reinstate affirmative action, tax the rich, and uphold social justice for all.
Shukura (shoe-cor-ra) Ayoluwa Umi (oomee) is a University of Memphis doctoral graduate student in Health Communication. She started her program in fall 2018. Her research interest includes Maternal and Child Health disparities regarding African Women. For example, maternal mortality, or doula access for African women. In 2020, Shukura will work on completing two credentials: 1) prenatal doula and 2) a certified lactation counselor. Her background includes a Master of Public Health concentrating in social and behavioral sciences and a psychology degree. Shukura is currently teaching Human Communication, research methods and Health Communication. Shukura was raised in activist work aimed to deconstruct oppression for oppressed peoples. Shukura is the vice president for UCW of Tennessee. She ran for the position, because she is interested in learning the functions/operations of the union and wants to devote and increase her contribution to the advancement of the union. Her experience includes: organizing events, event/meeting facilitation, building/managing relationships, communicating effectively, data entry and curriculum development.
Joseph van der Naald is a Ph.D. candidate in the program in sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center. Joseph’s research is broadly concerned with labor unions, social movements, and sub-national politics and social policy in the United States. His dissertation examines the mechanisms behind the mid-century growth of public-sector unions across states with dissimilar labor laws in the American Midwest. At the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions, where Joseph is a doctoral researcher, his research with William Herbert focuses on recent trends in student worker unionization. With Herbert and Jacob Apkarian, Joseph coauthored the National Center’s 2020 Supplementary Directory of New Bargaining Agents and Contracts in Institutions of Higher Education, 2013-2019.