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Obama chief of staff Jacob Lew, who multiple media reports say will shortly be named Secretary of the Treasury, led New York University’s campaign to break its graduate student employees’ union eight years ago.

Lew was hired as NYU’s chief operating officer and executive vice president in 2004. Shortly thereafter the National Labor Relations Board, newly stocked with Bush appointees, reversed a Clinton-era ruling that graduate student employees were entitled to collective bargaining rights under the National Labor Relations Act.

NYU’s graduate student union, GSOC, was recognized by the university in 2001, and nothing in the 2004 ruling prevented the university from continuing to do so. When the union’s contract expired the following year, however, NYU withdrew recognition and unilaterally imposed a new, dramatically more restrictive, “paradigm” of the GSOC’s role in graduate employee affairs.

The memo announcing that decision was co-signed by Jacob Lew, who the head of the GSOC’s local now describes as “the point person” in enacting the university’s new policy.

GSOC declared a strike that fall, which NYU met with threats, intimidation, and firings. The strike ended in failure in May of 2006, and Lew left NYU a month later — to become the chief operating officer of Citigroup Global Wealth Management.

A GSOC petition to overturn the National Labor Review Board decision denying them collective bargaining rights is currently pending before the NLRB, which now has a majority Obama-appointed membership.

I was recently asked a really interesting request from a Canadian student activist, and I’ve received permission to share it, and my answer, with you all.

His question:

I’ve been looking into starting graduate school in 2013. I found myself naturally drawn to [a private college in New England] but after some basic research I get the feeling that despite their claims of championing social justice & democracy, there does not seem to be a legitimate accredited representative student body on campus. I find myself doubting that I will ever be able to truly enjoy my educational experience at a school that doesn’t have progressive/radical student representation.

So my question to you is: do you have a basic list of some schools in the states that have such representation? I know the Student Union model varies quite intensively between Canada and the USA, but I’m still hoping there may be a few schools out there that have the sort of Union I’m looking for.

My response:

It’s a good question, and not one that has a really straightforward answer. Instead, some general thoughts.

The basic unit of campus representation of students in the US is generally the student government, sometimes called the student association or something similar. (Graduate students and undergrads are typically organized separately.) Student governments range from very weak to fairly strong, with a few general trends visible.

First, and probably most importantly, student governments at public colleges are usually more robust than those at private institutions. Public universities are responsive to political pressure in ways that privates aren’t, and they tend to be more likely to have policies in place ensuring a measure of student autonomy and representation in campus governance. When student activists fought for university reform in the late sixties and after, it was in the public universities that they had the most success, and those successes are still visible on some campuses today.

A second indicator of the strength of student government is the existence of a statewide student association, or SSA. SSAs are most often constituted as federations of student governments within a public university system, and they tend to be established outside the control of the university itself. (In contrast, campus student governments generally exist within the university governance system, and are subject to administrative interference.)

The presence of an SSA in a university system is an indication that the student governments within that system have a history of students’ rights organizing. Many SSAs also foster a culture of student engagement with university governance issues while representing a check on administrative meddling in student affairs. Similarly, campuses that are members of the United States Student Association are generally at least a bit more likely to have activist student governments.

Looking beyond the student government world, some sites of institutionally significant student organizing to keep an eye out for are graduate student employees’ unions, Occupy-affiliated mobilizations, and chapters of groups like Students for a Democratic Society. These groups aren’t directly embedded in university governance like the ones discussed above, but they often represent a pro-student force in campus struggles.

So. That’s what I came up with. I’m eager to hear from y’all on this — I suspect that some of you may have different and better advice than I do.

After more than a week of delays and disputes the votes from the just-ended UAW 2865 election have been completed, and AWDU, the insurgent slate allied with the recent University of California student uprising, have won a significant victory.

UAW 2865 represents the UC system’s student academic employees, this was both a student election and a union election. Both sides won some positions, and both sides are claiming a measure of vindication in the results, but incumbents USEJ were shut out in the most prominent officer races and took barely 40% of the seats on the local’s statewide council.

I’m still getting up to speed on this election’s long-term implications, but quite a few people in California who I’ve grown to like and trust over the last few years are very pleased by this news.

Here’s how AWDU is describing the road ahead:

Now it is time for us to bring this strength to our fight against the attacks on higher education.  As a next step, we are calling on all graduate students and undergraduate tutors – no matter who they supported in the election – to come together for a statewide membership meeting of the union on May 21st to chart the way forward.  We’ll get you more details soon.  But high on the agenda is stepping up the fight against increasing class sizes, fee hikes, rising housing costs, new budget cuts, and UC management’s capping of funding for fee remissions and health benefits for graduate student employees.

We will stand together against the attacks on higher education, in real unity borne of fruitful discussion that includes disagreement.  A grassroots, bottom-up union is strong when it provides space for open debate, and we hope that every member continues to express criticism when necessary.  We also know that many members of the USEJ slate and many USEJ supporters never wanted to stop the vote count in the first place.  We hope that the Elections Committee’s dismissal of the fabricated allegations by some of the outgoing union officers will help up us begin a more honest dialogue with each other.

The incredible diversity of our newly elected Joint Council and entire union is a vital strength that we must actively build upon.  By working together, including with the new Joint Council members from USEJ, we will win historic advances for the rights of student-workers and the expansion of public education.  We look forward to building a new kind of union together.

Student sit-ins and occupations have become a common sight in California over the last couple of years, but this week has seen something new — a sit-in at a union office.

Two factions have been competing for leadership of UAW Local 2865, the local that represents academic student employees in the University of California system. Balloting in the union election ended eight days ago, but the vote count was suspended abruptly last weekend, and has yet to resume.

The incumbent United for Social and Economic Justice slate shut down the count last Saturday, claiming irregularities in the voting and alleging that the insurgents were using “scorched earth tactics” to disrupt the process.

The challengers, Academic Workers for a Democratic Union, countered that USEJ pulled the plug because of fears that AWDU might win an upset victory, and staged a sit-in in the union office to press for transparency in the process. Expressing concern that the disruption “contributes to the public perception that unions are corrupt and outmoded,” a group of labor scholars released a public letter calling for the count to resume.

The AWDU, which grew out of California’s student protest movement, says Local 2865 has operated undemocratically, has passed up opportunities to forge coalitions with activists in the state, and has rolled over in contract negotiations.

On Tuesday, the two sides agreed on protocols and mediators for a resumption of the count, but that resumption, slated for yesterday morning, hasn’t yet occurred. Meanwhile, the two sides continue to exchange accusations on their respective blogs (USEJ and AWDU).

Fingers crossed for a swift and just end to this stalemate.

31872114As many as ten thousand students, faculty, and staff of the University of California participated in public protests against the defunding of the university yesterday, and untold thousands more walked out of classes, held teach-ins, and walked picket lines. Students at two campuses occupied university buildings, and observers of the Berkeley rally said it was that school’s biggest protest in a generation.

This was big.

And it was even more impressive because yesterday was the first day of classes for the year at every UC campus except for Berkeley and Merced. At UC’s other eight universities, organizers brought hundreds, even thousands, of people into the streets and quads despite the lack of time and facilities for organizing in advance.

Yesterday, then, was just the beginning. UCLA protesters won a commitment from their chancellor to hold a public forum on the budget crisis on October 6, and they’re already organizing to keep the pressure up over the next twelve days. UC Santa Barbara has scheduled a series of teach-ins for October 11. In the coming weeks and months, activists will be building on what was achieved yesterday, growing the movement that will restore the University of California’s health, strength, and accessibility.

Over the course of this afternoon, I’ll be posting detailed reports on yesterday’s events at each of UC’s ten campuses — Berkeley, Davis, Irvine, Los Angeles (UCLA), Merced, Riverside, San Diego (UCSD), San Francisco (UCSF), Santa Barbara (UCSB), and Santa Cruz (UCSB). Check back in to get the whole story!

Note: Josh from Santa Cruz (@alittlefishy on Twitter) has put together the best roundup I’ve seen of media coverage of the UC walkout. The reports below rely heavily on the sources he compiled.


Five thousand was the official police estimate of the size of the crowd, and UC sources called it the largest Berkeley rally in decades. After two hours of speeches and chants, the protest went mobile, streaming off the campus and shutting down traffic for several blocks. A mass meeting later drew hundreds of participants, who voted to meet again next Wednesday to plan strategy for a possible statewide conference October 24.


A crowd that the UC Davis student newspaper said numbered in the thousands rallied on the campus quad, then staged an impromptu march to — and into — the Mrak administration building. Hundreds of sign-toting protesters occupied the public areas of the building briefly before, as grad student @AMYCHAMP put it on Twitter, deciding “to keep it peaceful, and take it outside.”


Morning and evening teach-ins bracketed the day at Irvine, where a crowd estimated at about five hundred attended the noon rally. One source said that 150 Irvine faculty walked out of their classes.


The noon rally at Bruin Plaza drew about seven hundred participants, and like those at Berkeley and Davis, it eventually turned into a march. Police blocked protesters when they arrived at the front entrance of Murphy Hall, the site of UCLA’s administrative offices, but a group of about sixty students were able to find alternate routes inside and make their way to the doors to the chancellor’s offices, where they staged a sit-in.

UCLA’s chancellor was not in the building at the time, but a campus official met with sit-in leaders and agreed to their two demands — that he set up a meeting with representatives of the university’s undergrads, grad students, faculty and staff, and that he schedule a town-hall campus forum on the budget crisis. The sit-in ended without any arrests or university judicial action.


Merced is the newest UC campus — it’s just four years old — and one of the smallest. Their rally was the smallest as well, but the walkout had significant participation, and students and faculty conducted flyering and tabling during the day as well.


Hundreds of students participated in the noon rally, with more attending teach-ins before and after.

San Diego

Teach-ins were held on Wednesday and Thursday, and a two-hour rally drew hundreds of participants. At the end of the rally, some protesters marched into classes to urge students and faculty to join the walkout.

A campus-wide planning meeting for future organizing is scheduled for Wednesday.

San Francisco

Hundreds attended a rally at the UCSF Medical Center, where State Senator Leland Yee addressed the crowd. Students at San Francisco State and the City College of San Francisco also held demonstrations in support of the UC walkout.

Santa Barbara

There was a full day of walkout events at UCSB, where more than 125 faculty members signed the walkout pledge. Four hundred university community members attended the noon rally.

There will be a budget teach-in at Santa Barbara on October 14 from 3 pm to midnight.

Santa Cruz

Two rallies were held — one at noon and the second at 3:30 pm. The first drew hundreds of participants, and the second led to a building takeover that (as of Tuesday morning, five days after the walkout) is still ongoing. More on that in a new post soon.

About This Blog

n7772graysmall is the work of Angus Johnston, a historian and advocate of American student organizing.

To contact Angus, click here. For more about him, check out
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