When Students Support Campus Workers

Lessons from NYU YDSA’s support for the GSOC Strike. 

During the Spring 2021 semester, the Graduate Student Organizing Committee (GSOC), NYU’s graduate student union, downed tools for three weeks. Through their actions, GSOC won major benefits for their bargaining unit, including a $6/hour raise for hourly workers (retroactive through the last year), increased stipends for PHD students, and coverage of 95% of healthcare premiums, alongside a number of other funds, targeting everything from out-of-pocket healthcare bills to immigration/visa legal fees and childcare costs. But the Union also bargained for the common good, and won campus-wide benefits, such as banning ICE and CBP from campus without a warrant, and getting NYPD presence on campus to be considered a health and safety concern that the union can bargain over. GSOC won big because they are led by a rank-and-file caucus which is committed to militant, democratic, and social justice unionism. But YDSA had an important role to play in this struggle, too (one which GSOC recognizes as a crucial component of their success). As campus unions across the country authorize and prepare to strike, it’s important that YDSA chapters are ready to support them. Here are the key lessons and takeaways from our strike solidarity organizing at NYU YDSA, and what your chapter can learn from them.

Start Early, Start Now

NYU YDSA’s longstanding relationship with GSOC allowed us to dive into strike support incredibly quickly. In Fall 2019, our chapter stood with GSOC to demand stronger sexual harassment protections for graduate students through the NYUToo campaign. We organized alongside them again in Spring 2020, and, through our communal efforts as members of the NYU COVID Coalition, won millions of dollars for student relief, guaranteed PPE for campus workers, and more. This shared history meant that, when GSOC was gearing up to strike, they saw NYU YDSA as staunch, longstanding allies, rather than as a random group of students and potential supporters.

While we were able to build this relationship thanks to GSOC’s commitment to organizing outside of contract campaigns, YDSA chapters can connect with campus unions even when they’re not campaigning. The first step is, as always, reaching out! Get in touch with unions on your campus to express your solidarity and see if there’s anything your chapter can do to support them. If they’re not gearing up to negotiate a new contract, they may not need any help from your chapter— and that’s okay! Every union has different members and priorities, and their organizing models may not always involve constant collaboration with outside groups. But through consistent outreach and support, chapters can find ways to connect with every union on their campus. 

However, it’s important to make sure that these relationships aren’t transactional, and that your chapter doesn’t try to steer union activity. As socialist students, we don’t support unions because we want them to support our campaigns. We support unions because our theory of change requires a militant labor movement that is both willing and able to take power from the capitalist class. Attempting to direct unions from the sidelines is both ineffective and irritating, and reflects poorly on chapters that attempt it. So while union members within your chapter can and should organize within their union, telling unions how to decide on and achieve their demands without paying dues and taking on the same risks as a striking worker is distasteful, and insults workers putting their livelihoods on the line.

Identify Your Role and Get Organizing!

As soon as GSOC began bargaining in August 2020, NYU YDSA reached out to ask how we could support them. At that time, the union was deep into bargaining, and was beginning to organize internally for a strike. So it was not until December 2020 that we met with leaders from GSOC to talk about strike support for the first time. We knew that NYU would try to pit undergraduates against the strike, so we decided that our primary role leading up to the potential strike would be to build support amongst our peers. That month, we launched our GSOC Solidarity Pledge, which allowed students to pledge their support for GSOC’s contract demands. We continued to circulate this pledge alongside pro-union educational materials (such as infographics) throughout the next semester, and through our efforts, slowly and surely began building support for NYU’s on-campus unions within the undergraduate class. 

As GSOC began to escalate towards a strike, we met with them more frequently to brainstorm ideas and figure out how we could help. NYU YDSA members made up half the volunteers who flyered our campus with a petition that demanded NYU stop stonewalling negotiations, and when GSOC held a rally to build excitement around their strike authorization vote, NYU YDSA members were invited to speak, and enthusiastically expressed support for the union’s imminent strike. By the time the strike was put into motion, our YDSA chapter had primed its members, and the rest of the student body, to go all in for GSOC.

Although YDSA chapters are often eager to support a strike, it is imperative that the union determines when it is ready to put a strike into motion, as they have the best pulse on their preparedness and member sentiments. Similarly, chapters should be sure to check in with the union when developing pre-strike support plans, as doing so is crucial to escalating on a similar timeline as the union and representing their demands and intent correctly. In virtually every campus strike, the administration will criticize the union for harming students through its actions (in GSOC’s case, by hurting our education). However, YDSA chapters, which are largely composed of undergraduate students, are positioned to organize our peers in a way that most campus unions are not. Since it’s easier for us to organize our friends and classmates, unions will typically appreciate YDSA chapters’ efforts at educating and building support within the student body.

Your chapter should also get creative! How can you reach other students on your campus? Which union demands are most popular among students? In what other ways might undergraduates be able to support a potential strike? At NYU YDSA, this creativity came in the form of a plan that encouraged undergraduates to donate extra meal swipes to the picket line in order to keep striking workers fed. Brainstorming is also a great way to bring new members into solidarity organizing, and chapter leaders should be sure to use pre-strike organizing to develop new organizers. By giving escalating asks to members, and using rallies and other actions put on by the union as structure tests for student mobilization, YDSA chapters can grow and assess their strength in the buildup to a strike.

Picket! Picket! Picket!

Thanks to several months of NYU YDSA organizing, more than 1,000 NYU undergraduates had pledged their support for GSOC by the morning of their first day on strike. This number only grew as we continued to organize, and by the end of the strike more than 10% of NYU’s 27,000 undergraduate students had signed our solidarity pledge. Over the course of the strike, we turned hundreds of these pledge signers out to the picket line. NYU YDSA members continued to provide whatever support GSOC needed, including serving as marshals, leading chants, setting up, cleaning up, speaking at rallies, and organizing teach-ins for the picket line. Our members were on the line every day for three weeks, and frequently met with GSOC members, who spoke to our presence and solidarity, attesting that it helped to maintain their morale and resolve. In the end, the Union won big, and NYU YDSA was there to celebrate the Union’s hard fought victory. 

It may seem obvious, but the most important thing for YDSA chapters to do during a strike is turn members out to the picket line. Striking workers put themselves in dangerous positions, sacrificing their pay and resisting intimidation from the boss whenever they withhold their labor. By standing with them consistently and in large numbers, students can give strength and encouragement to union members until they win their contract. Students on the picket line and solidarity pledges also have a noticeable impact on the university’s response. With many students on the picket line and many more pledging support for GSOC, the administration could not — and did not, even after the strike began — claim that students were opposed to the union.

As the strike continues, the resources and support your chapter provides may need to change. As such, effective YDSA chapters must be responsive, and willing to adapt to the unions’ ever-changing needs. Remember: no task is too small. After days or weeks on strike, even something as trivial as holding a sign-in sheet can come as a welcome relief for an exhausted union organizer.

Concluding Thoughts

Through our strike solidarity organizing, NYU YDSA reached thousands of students on our campus, growing our email list to more than 5,000 contacts, and playing an important part in winning significant reforms for workers and students. In the weeks following the strike, YDSAers who stepped up to support GSOC went on to run for positions on our Organizing Committee, and many of the leaders in our chapter today cut their campus organizing teeth on the picket line. Our relationship with GSOC has since remained strong, and we are currently working with them to incorporate contract demands that they did not win into the demands of our tuition strike.

Strike solidarity work is among the most impactful and accessible organizing work that YDSA chapters can undertake. While it can be fun to march in circles and decry your administration on the picket line, providing support where the union needs it most — the months of organizing ahead of the strike, and picketing through freezing temperatures and downpours — is far less glamorous. But by intentionally developing new leaders, chapters can increase their capacity for carrying out this work, and grow even stronger for their next fight. 

As strikes loom on campuses across the country, we have no time to waste in gearing up to support them! After all, the cause of labor is the hope of the world.