By Eric Dirnbach
United Campus Workers (UCW) is a multi-state union that focuses on organizing public-sector higher-education workers, largely in states where they have no legal collective bargaining rights. They are affiliated with the Communications Workers of America (CWA).
Started in Tennessee in the 2000s, UCW spread in recent years to other states in the southeast U.S. and then elsewhere. It now has a presence in Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. It is a “wall-to-wall” union, open to all workers at public higher-education institutions. It includes all job categories, from instruction, to research, academic support, service, maintenance, clerical, and technical workers.
UCW organizers described the unique unity among all campus workers in their union in an article in The Forge:
There are tens of thousands of potential higher-education workers in each state, and hundreds of thousands overall. UCW has organized thousands of these workers at about 60 campus locations. Because this is a small percentage of all the workers, UCW is a “pre-majority” union. On some campuses or in some states, it might reach a majority in the future.
Because these workers have no formal union recognition or legal collective bargaining rights, the campaign strategy is to organize workers to fight for improvements in wages, benefits, and working conditions outside of formal contracts. Union action often leads to wins, even without the administration acknowledging the union’s role.
In conservative states with no public-sector collective-bargaining rights, the union advises that general Constitutional protections provide the right to organize. Per the union’s website:
In 2022, faculty across all of the UCW locals have formed a national Faculty Defense Network to unite and fight back against nation-wide attacks on public higher education.
UCW receives staffing and funding assistance from the parent union CWA, and most locals have their own staff as well. Workers at each campus and in each state have autonomy in their organizing, but UCW does have an overall Fair Pay Platform as outlined on its website:
UCW has organized chapters across job categories at each campus, while also creating job-specific committees as needed. In their article in The Forge, UCW organizers emphasized the benefits of the chapter structure:
Members pay dues directly to the union, as there is no payroll deduction collected by the employer. The union provides trainings and has an organizing toolkit that helps locals get started by forming a steering committee and holding organizing conversations. In addition to traditional shop-floor organizing on issues that come up with direct supervisors, UCW union actions include holding rallies and marches, signing petitions, and political lobbying.
UCW has racked up a number of victories over the years. The issues range from specific grievances of particular members to broader issues that impact everyone, according to UCW organizers in The Forge article.
The union organized to stop a large-scale job privatization scheme in Tennessee, which could have potentially outsourced 10,000 jobs at the state’s university system. The union also won a salary increase for lecturers at UT-Knoxville and successfully fought to establish a $15 per hour minimum wage at the University of Memphis.
In Kentucky, UCW campaigning won a $15 per hour minimum wage at all campuses, impacting about 2,000 workers. The union also helped get a raise for grounds workers. It’s interesting that the administration in that case denied that the union had anything to do with the raise. But a UCW-Kentucky member explained the dynamic that wins often follow union action:
In Virginia, they won clearer terms of employment for graduate workers in the Architecture school, as part of their Respect and a Fair Deal for Graduate Workers campaign. The union has also won a raise for adjunct professors, won reinstatement of a doctoral advisor for graduate student workers, defeated unilateral attempts by management to change term faculty contracts to terminal and ensured they stayed renewable, and forced an adjunct professor to be offered a full time job.
The UCW-Georgia local won the elimination of a special institutional fee that was imposed during the Great Recession and cost students about $450 per semester. The union has also exposed the relationship of the state’s higher education system with a private student housing company, which has a multi-billion dollar student housing contract and had lobbied the schools to reopen during the pandemic.
Debates within UCW are ongoing on the kind of organizing the union should be doing, including how and where to fight for more formal bargaining rights, which would require state labor law reform. All UCW chapters believe that building worker-power at the campus level is central. But in a handful of states where there may be an opportunity to align with other parts of the labor movement and win legalization of public-sector collective-bargaining rights, there are conversations about the level of priority the union should place on it.
One recent example of this struggle is in Colorado. While Colorado has passed collective bargaining rights for a narrow subset of state public employees—most recently extended to county workers in 2022—UCW-Colorado representatives were part of the process in 2022 of drafting a new collective bargaining bill that would cover higher education employees as well. When it became clear that the bill would prohibit workers’ right to strike, UCW-Colorado (along with the other public-sector, pre-majority unions in its local) voted to oppose the bill based on the assessment that workers would have more power in a pre-majority union than with highly restrictive collective bargaining rights.
The United Campus Workers of Virginia and Georgia are working on political programs to fight for strong public sector collective bargaining legislation. UCWGA worked with legislators in 2021 to introduce a public sector bargaining bill at the General Assembly. Municipal and county employees in Virginia won a limited bargaining framework in 2020, but it excluded state employees and higher education. Through their Political Coalition & Policy Committee, UCWVA members continue to fight for a strong bargaining framework for all public sector employees. They are very conscious that attempts may be made to exclude graduate student workers and intend to build enough power to ensure that grad student workers are included.
UCW is the largest pre-majority union campaign in the country and shows what’s possible for this kind of organizing. Moreover, it’s rare to see this level of commitment to comprehensive organizing throughout the South. CWA deserves a lot of credit for committing to long-term funding for a campaign that will likely take some time to become fully self-sustaining, but that in the meantime can lay an incredibly important foundation for more organizing in the South by the whole labor movement.