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College-Educated and Young Workers Lead Union Surge While Public Sector Plummets

Higher ed and hospital strikes highlighted in CUNY’s annual Labor Day report, which also finds a 16-point drop in NYC government worker union membership.

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New School adjunct professors during a multi-week strike last year, Dec. 1, 2022.

Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

Young people and college-educated workers are leading the national surge in union organizing and strikes, with academic workers and medical trainees leading the way in New York.

This year’s annual State of the Unions report from the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies spotlights the organizing efforts and strikes by highly educated workers, from Mount Sinai Hospital to The New York Times and The New School.

This year, medical interns and residents at H+H/Elmhurst Hospital walked off the job for three days, the first strike in a generation by physicians in New York City. High-profile strikes by graduate students at Columbia University and part-time faculty at the New School last winter yielded hefty raises and other long-sought-after benefits.

Young people, buoyed by the pandemic and long-standing economic inequality, say they are turning to unionizing to advocate for better pay and working conditions. In an AFL-CIO poll, 88% of voters under age 30 said they approve of labor unions,

It’s having a ripple effect. For example: Undergraduate students at the New School and Parsons School of Design recently announced their intent to unionize, partly inspired by their professors’ strike last winter. Students work as resident advisors, orientation leaders, social media assistants and in clerical roles — often for minimum wage or no compensation at all beyond meal and housing assistance.

“We run the school, essentially – all of the workers in the labs are students, all of the TAs and research assistants are students, workers in the Welcome Center and in the admin offices are students,” said Aarya Kini, a fourth-year journalism major at The New School who works at the Parsons dean’s office.

Why now? “I think it’s just a rising consciousness – that we are worthwhile, our work should be valued, we work hard and we should be treated as such,” she said.

But even as polls show public support for unions at a generational high, the surge in labor activity has not been enough to reverse the two-decade downward trend in union membership in New York and across the nation, said Ruth Milkman, a lead author of the report and chair of CUNY’s graduate labor studies department.

The share of employees living in the five boroughs who are union members declined slightly to 17.7%, leaving the city with 604,000 unionized residents. 

Public sector union membership has taken a notable hit among New York City residents, declining from 70% of government workers in 2020 to just 56% in 2022-’23, even as it stayed stable in the rest of New York State. The Supreme Court’s 2018 Janus decision gives public sector employees the option not to pay union dues or fees at all.

The NYC Central Labor Council, the city federation of unions, disagrees with the report’s methodology and conclusions, claiming that it does not account for workers employed in the city who live in its suburbs.

Nevertheless, the rise in union activity and favorability of recent years “is part of something bigger,” said Milkman. “It’s not enough to move the needle – but it’s not trivial.”

Seizing the Moment

Several factors have contributed to a newfound militancy among young workers, including the Great Recession, the lingering effects of the pandemic, the student loan debt crisis and social movements like Occupy Wall Street and Sen. Bernie Sanders presidential campaigns.

Those forces have prompted action in the form of high-profile union campaigns at iconic brands like Starbucks, Amazon and Trader Joe’s, spearheaded by young millennials and Gen Z-ers, many of them college-educated

But workers at those national companies don’t have collective bargaining agreements in place, with management holding the line against unions and sometimes engaging in what federal regulators have deemed illegal anti-union behavior. 

Trader Joe’s employees rally ahead of a union vote at the company’s Lower East Side location, April 18, 2023.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

For most of the 21st century, people with advanced degrees have entered the labor market with high expectations of having a good job but instead find themselves in dead-end retail positions or toiling away in part-time and adjunct teaching jobs, said Milkman.

In higher education, the long-simmering frustrations have led to what the report describes as an “explosive” and “unprecedented” level of strike activity across the country. In 2022 and so far in 2023, unions won 30 new student-worker collective bargaining units, representing a total of 35,655 workers, according to the report.

And as strikes in this sector have increased, so have gains for many of these workers – and New York City is no exception.

Last year, graduate students at Columbia University won hourly raises to $21 up from $15, among other gains, after a 10-week strike. A 25-day strike by New School part-time faculty yielded raises of as much as 36% over the five-year life of the contract.

Few workers were as radicalized by the pandemic as much as medical interns and residents. Doctors have also not been immune to the growing influence in their field of private equity firms, which prioritize profit and efficiency.

“The same issues that are impacting graduate students are happening to interns and residents,” said William Herbert, a labor researcher and distinguished lecturer at Hunter College. “There is a similarity with regard to the level of work that they are required to do as opposed to the level of compensation and benefits that they receive.” 

Around the same time doctors at Elmhurst Hospital went on strike this spring, about 800 physicians across four other hospitals threatened to walk off the job before securing eleventh-hour deals with their employers.

Months earlier, 1,200 physicians at Montefiore Medical Center in The Bronx joined the Committee of Interns and Residents–SEIU, essentially reinstating a union that had been removed more than 40 years ago, according to the union.

For Dr. Rex Tai, a third-year internal medicine resident at Montefiore who sits on the union’s bargaining committee, his social and political activism began with pro-universal health care organizing in medical school. But he cited the pandemic and an overall “fundamental shift in the nature of physician employment” and patient care as galvanizing him and his fellow doctors to seek collective action.

“With every new hospital, every new bargaining unit that comes on, it just strengthens what we can do and creates a much stronger community and culture of care around medical training,” Dr. Tai, 30, said. “The former very hierarchical system is untenable for us, and unionization is the first real opportunity to try and transform this culture of medical training and, frankly, I think is the only possible way for us to do it.”  

Student Union

While undergraduate student workers were long frustrated by late payments and unpredictable schedules, the weeks-long faculty strike last winter ignited their desire to unionize, said Kini, the student organizer.

On Aug. 7, they launched their campaign as the New Student Workers Union, affiliated with United Auto Workers Local 7902. The university has submitted objections to the union with the federal National Labor Relations Board arguing that the undergraduate workers are not university employees. In the case of work study students, the university argues that their compensation is a form of financial aid.

New School undergrad Emily Li is part of an effort to organize her fellow students, Aug. 31, 2023.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The student workers, many of whom are still teenagers, want to bargain kitchen-table issues such as establishing clear guidelines for compensation, with wages currently ranging from $15 to $19 an hour, and to codify scheduling rules. 

But younger generations are driven by idealism and desire to “create institutions that people want to work in,” said Kini, and her fellow workers are no exception: “We’re trying to change the way that people think about work, and about employment – that it doesn’t have to be this thing that just constantly drives you down and is a source of worry, because your colleagues and your peers have your back.”

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