UConn graduate student union fights for student workers amidst UAW strike 

Striking auto workers picket during the ongoing United Auto Workers strike at the Stellantis Toledo Assembly Complex on Sunday, Oct. 1, 2023, in Toledo, Ohio. Photo by Kurt Steiss/The Blade via AP.

At 11:59 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 14, contracts expired between unionized automotive workers affiliated with national labor union United Auto Workers (UAW) and three American automaking juggernauts — Ford, General Motors and Stellantis. The failure of these large automakers to negotiate new contracts that adequately met the demands of the UAW led to a mass walkout of workers from assembly plants across the country and the beginning of a nationwide strike.  

In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, the UAW strike is a result of the shared sense of systematic injustice resulting from coporations’ failure to compensate workers fairly, according to the Guardian. Workers, who accepted significant cuts and government bailouts for large auto manufacturers during that time of financial turmoil, have yet to see their share of the record “$250 billion profits the big three automakers have raked in over the last decade.”  

“It doesn’t make up for inflation, it doesn’t make up for decades of falling wages and it doesn’t reflect the massive profits we generated for this company,” UAW President Shawn Fain said of the existing contract offer from the “Big Three.” Fain and the UAW have put wage increases, reform towards the “two-tier wage system,” an increase to retiree benefits, cost-of-living adjustment raises, and expanded job security protections at the forefront of their program. 

In accordance with a novel “stand-up strategy”, the UAW has not called on all auto workers to go on strike at once, but rather has called on specific plants to go on strike on a strategic basis. These stand-up strikes are targeted and without warning, allowing the UAW to tactically increase the pressure on companies as a negotiation tool to secure further benefits. As the number of automaking plants involved in the strike increases, the supply of vehicles produced by automakers continues to tank, causing a decrease in production that could result in economic losses in the tens of billions at the strike’s conclusion. 

The Daily Campus reached out to UConn’s Graduate Employee Union, an affiliate of United Auto Workers as UAW Local 6950, to shed further light on these events and what they mean in relation to our student workforce on campus. The Graduate Employee Union, coming close to its 10 year anniversary as an organization for graduate student labor on campus, was formed out of a 2013 task force to address “stagnant wages, increasing workloads, and increasing student fees.” By 2014, the GEU organizational committee began its first negotiating sessions within the university and in July 2015, their official collective bargaining agreement took effect. 

United Auto Workers members hold picket signs near a General Motors Assembly Plant in Delta Township, Mich., Friday, Sept. 29, 2023. The UAW union expanded its two-week strikes against Detroit automakers Friday, adding 7,000 workers at a Ford plant in Chicago and a General Motors assembly factory near Lansing, Michigan. Photo by Paul Sancya/AP Photo.

“It’s a really exciting time to be part of UAW,” remarked GEU president and history graduate student Grace Easterly in an interview with The Daily Campus. “Obviously we’re not auto workers, so we’re not being called upon to strike… but as a Local, we are showing solidarity for our union siblings.”  

UAW, Easterly notes, has been transformed in recent years by a significant movement to reform the structure and aims of the union. In 2023, the reformists succeeded in electing Fain, who promised an end to UAW’s “top-down” philosophy and an aggressive stance in negotiations against Ford, GM and Stellantis. This staunch pro-worker stance has energized the GEU, who have taken trips to practice picket lines at Big Three plants, participated in rallies in support of striking workers and plan to visit a striking auto plant in Mansfield, Massachusetts in solidarity. 

“The strike is about more than just auto workers,” Easterly says, “It’s about the whole working class of the United States and a just transition… we need to make sure that if this transition is going to happen as dramatically as it needs to happen, workers need to be front and center.” While the UAW is excited about climate change action and a transition towards climate-conscious policies, their first priority is ensuring that workers are not left behind in the process. 

Easterly is right about the strike being about more than just auto workers. Many of the principal demands, including wage increases, job security protections and reforms to the work week can be applied to workers across the country.  

The GEU itself has fought for a wide range of reforms in their negotiations with UConn, including, as Easterly lists, “a 29% increase in compensation since 2015, better parking, protection against bullying, harassment and racial discrimination and childcare benefits.” 

Unionization and the struggle for increased worker power, she stresses, does not just exist at the expansive scale of something like the UAW strike. “It is absolutely possible,” she says, for those in any workplace to band together and empower themselves to advocate for better working conditions. Months after the GEU’s official recognition in April 2014, it had already become the largest union at UConn, ahead of groups devoted to the rights of faculty and staff.  

“A union doesn’t just have to be about bread and butter issues,” she says, “It’s not just about the specific bargaining unit, but about the common good.” 

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