How Covid-19 United the Higher-Ed Work Force

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Jermany Alston (right), a housekeeper at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Zofia Knorek, a third-year Ph.D. student, are organizers with UE Local 150. (Travis Dove For The Chronicle)

By Elin Johnson and Vimal Patel

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, Jermany Alston, a housekeeper at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, took paid leave to care for her children. But when she returned to work in June, she feared for her safety all over again.

Alston and other housekeepers were allotted one mask per week, she said, and they were supposed to get a new ones only if theirs were dropped on the floor. They asked for more protective equipment, like face shields and full-body suits, but their requests were largely ignored, she said.

“At first I was scared to go forward because I didn’t know if I could lose my job,” Alston said. “That’s how I take care of my kids.”

Housekeepers weren’t the only ones feeling powerless. Last week, employees across UNC’s unions — from tenured faculty to graduate students to front-line staff — filed a class-action lawsuit against the system for unsafe working conditions.

“There are a lot of groups working intersectionally,” said Wendy Brenner, an associate professor in UNC at Wilmington’s department of creative writing, who is also a plaintiff in the case. “The idea was to have at least one lead plaintiff who is a faculty member and at least one lead plaintiff who was a staff member at each campus.”

The UNC lawsuit is among the latest examples of collaborative organizing across vocational boundaries — a strategy making a comeback among labor unions in higher education, especially during the pandemic.

The Great Equalizer

Several factors make this a ripe time for the embrace of campus coalitions. The share of tenure-track faculty members has been shrinking for the past half century, with those off the tenure track representing the majority of instructors. They share a growing sense of job insecurity with nonacademic staff, even before the pandemic fueled an economic crisis.

“There has always been a streak in higher education of people viewing themselves as different than others on campus because they have professional status, particularly faculty,” said William A. Herbert, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions, at the City University of New York’s Hunter College. “A wall-to-wall approach is viewing working conditions in a different way. It’s viewing it as all connected, whether it’s teaching or research, people providing tech support, security, or cleaning for the classroom.”

In the nascent days of faculty unionization, the late 1940s, “wall to wall” units represented the first two higher-education collective-bargaining agreements that involved the faculty, at Howard University and the Hampton Institute (now Hampton University).

These bargaining units included faculty along with nonteaching staff like maintenance workers, janitors, and librarians. Contracts produced by these broad-coalition unions included salary increases; grievance procedures with binding arbitration; a 40-hour work week; and vacation leave for noneducational employees, based on length of service. They reflected a sense that the fates of all workers at a university were interconnected.

Perhaps there’s no better illustration of this shared connection than Covid-19. Every employee must navigate the same campus space amid a deadly global pandemic. “The virus,” Herbert said, “does not discriminate.”

Zofia Knorek, a Ph.D. student at Chapel Hill, union organizer, and lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, sees that connection. “Faculty are absolutely workers, and sometimes they might not see themselves as such,” she said.

On some campuses, faculty members have a union, grad students have a union, and campus workers have a union, but the three are separate, Knorek pointed out. UE Local150, the North Carolina Public Service Workers
union representing UNC employees, has recruited tenured faculty in their organizing because, Knorek said, even some tenured faculty don’t feel safe and protected by UNC’s administration.

“People think tenure protects you from everything in the world, but it really doesn’t,” said Brenner, who is tenured at UNC-Wilmington. She was encouraged to get involved by the testimonials of the workers who spoke at one of the town halls organized by the workers’ union.

“There are times when I just feel you have to stand up and take a stand,” Brenner said. “To see universities openly rejecting guidance from public health experts … that just alarmed me so much.”

Gary K. Shipman, managing partner and a lawyer at Shipman & Wright LLP, who is representing the UNC workers in the lawsuit, said that collaboration among faculty and staff was intentional. All employees, he said, have a right to protection from the virus.

“Each of those UNC-system employees shares a common right, whether they’re tenured faculty or whether they’re a housekeeper,” Shipman said. “Bringing those people together that share those common rights and common fears, we intended it to look that way.”

Knorek said the union wants people on the ground to be invited to the table, and are upset that front-line custodial workers were largely kept out of the reopening discussion. UNC leadership is “so far removed from the housekeepers, it’s bananas,” she said.

In a statement provided to The Chronicle, a UNC spokesperson wrote, “Anyone working on campus receives appropriate CPE [collective protective equipment] from the university. Housekeepers and other front-line workers are provided with one mask per shift but can request more if the mask gets torn or dirty. They are also provided with gloves. There is no limit to the amount of CPE they can receive.”

On Monday, UNC Chapel Hill announced that classes would go remote following a spike in Covid-19 cases on campus.

‘A Big-Tent Approach’

Now, in several states, including Mississippi, Tennessee, Colorado, and Arizona, unions are consciously taking a big-tent approach in organizing drives, piecing together coalitions that put forward a united front in negotiations with administrators, said Herbert, of CUNY’s Hunter College.

Even in places where the bargaining units remain separate, organizers are thinking like a coalition. Rutgers University has a complex patchwork of more than a dozen collective-bargaining units that represent more than 20,000 campus workers. Though the units have historically had good relationships, they didn’t always work closely on demands, says Rebecca Kolins Givan, an associate professor of labor studies at Rutgers. Covid-19 changed that. (Kolins Givan has written about labor rights for The Chronicle Review.)

“Since the pandemic, the two most pressing issues have been health and safety, and austerity and cuts,” says Givan, who also serves as vice president of the Rutgers full-time faculty and graduate workers union. “Those hit everybody, so everybody has been acutely aware of the need to build power by standing side-by-side rather than fighting over crumbs.”

The different unions are in constant communication. They even bargain together with management. Instead of a separate health and safety negotiation with the university, they might do it together. This means the faculty union might exert pressure so that Rutgers nurses have proper personal-protective equipment. Or graduate assistants might fight layoffs of dining-hall workers. Or the union representing medical residents would stick up for the rights of international graduate assistants with an uncertain visa status.

“This is not something that naturally occurred,” Givan says. “It’s a big investment and big strategic change to decide to build power together. The default is generally to work separately. This makes it harder to divide the employees and make them blame each other for bigger problems on campus. You have to address them in a way that works for everybody.”

The move toward coalitions was triggered by a trio of crises, the global pandemic, the financial catastrophe that ensued, and the national reckoning over racism, Givan says. But she’s hopeful the connections will last beyond this moment. “When faculty and staff start talking to each other about their shared concerns about the safety of their building or the ventilation system,” she says, “those relationships are durable.”

At the University of Illinois at Chicago, which has both a university campus and a medical center, a coalition of campus unions including the faculty union, graduate workers’ union, and nurses’ union is taking a strike vote this week. Cathleen Jensen, an occupational therapist at the university’s medical center and a vice president of SEIU Local 73, which represents public-service employees in Illinois, called this level of a coalition “unprecedented.”

Workers’ cries for better protections from Covid-19 and the university’s lack of response were the spark for this organizing.

“We’ve gotten nowhere in our bargaining,” Jensen said. “We have been fighting for PPE all along.”

SEIU professionals went out on strike in 2012, Jensen said, but at the time their bargaining unit was 500 people. Now there’s the potential for more than 5,000 workers to strike in the next couple of weeks. The lowest-paid worker they represent is a food-service worker for the university.

Monica Jones, a building-service worker and union steward, said she’s never seen unified organization like this before. She said, “It means that obviously all employees are feeling this way. All employees are realizing UIC does not care about their employees.”

Sherri McGinnis Gonzalez, Senior Executive Director of Public Affairs at UIC, wrote in a statement that the university and its local unions “share a common concern about the availability and acquisition of effective personal protective equipment (PPE) and safe working conditions during COVID-19. To that end, the University has expressed and reaffirmed its commitment to the UIC community to secure proper PPE for faculty, staff and students whose jobs require it.”

“The University continues to negotiate with the union in good faith and we are hopeful that an agreement can be reached...” she wrote.

Jensen said the potential for workers to withhold their labor on such a large scale “makes a giant impact.”

“I feel very strong in our position,” Jensen said.

Elin Johnson is an editorial intern at The Chronicle. She covers faculty and student affairs and Vimal Patel covers student life, social mobility, and other topics. Follow him on Twitter @vimalpatel232, or write to him at

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