UVa Grad Students Want to Unionize

by James A. Bacon

A group of University of Virginia employees comprised mainly of graduate students want to form a union, reports the Daily Progress. If successful, the workers would be affiliated with the Campus Workers of America.

UVa last year committed to raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, so economic issues don’t appear to be at the top of the list. The unionists’ main concern at the moment is safety and health during the COVID-19 virus as students return to the grounds.

“With students coming in, everybody is worried about getting coronavirus,” said Evan Brown, a biology department doctoral student and member of the union steering committee. The group “demands” that the University abandon its hybrid in-person/remote learning model for the fall and cancel undergraduate move-in, according to a statement released two days ago.

But the demands of United Campus Workers-Virginia members extend beyond working conditions. The union also admonishes the administration “to end its relationship with Charlottesville police and cut funding for its own police department as part of its stated mission to address pervasive racial inequality at the University.”

The national union, which has chapters in eight states besides Virginia, touts an agenda that includes gaining benefits such as paid parental leave, policies that address pay inequities and job segregation by race and gender, and free higher education financed through fully funding public higher ed.

Virginia law at present prohibits collective bargaining for state employees. Workers are free to join unions, but state agencies (including public universities) are prohibiting recognizing them and bargaining with them. There has been discussion in the General Assembly about changing that law, and the United Campus Workers told the Daily Progress they hope to pressure UVA officials to support changing the law.

Bacon’s bottom line: As a general rule, people should have the right to join a union and bargain for better wages and working conditions. But that proposition doesn’t work for public employees.

When employees work for Industrial Monolith, Inc., they have to negotiate with corporate management, which represents the interests of shareholders. When employees push, management pushes back, and eventually an equilibrium is reached. By contrast, when employees working for Public University of Virginia negotiate with management, management is not representing the interests of shareholders because there aren’t any shareholders. Management doesn’t even represent the interests of the taxpayers. For the most part, higher-ed management doesn’t give a flying fig for the taxpayers. University management represents only its own interests, and one of those is placating internal constituencies. A very different equilibrium is reached.

Making matters worse, it appears that the United Campus Workers aren’t just looking after themselves. They have a leftist political agenda, as evidenced by the local chapter’s demand to defund the Charlottesville police and the national organization’s push for “free” education — as in, free for them, not for taxpayers. Needless to say, it would be disastrous for the public interest if UVa’s graduate students were given the right to bargain collectively and strike, and if they proceeded to use their power to shut down hundreds of classes in order to advance a political agenda.

Bacon’s Rebellion will follow this story with great interest.

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24 responses to “UVa Grad Students Want to Unionize

  1. Jim. Can you post “the Internationale” for me? Thanks. All for this!

  2. I think I knew that UVA employees had State pensions but did not realize that they were actually state employees.

    Do they get health insurance from the State?

    If they are State employees – doesn’t the state have some say so on things like staffing levels ?

    • The universities are state agencies and their operations are subject to the GA’s Appropriations Act. Yes, the state can set staffing levels. I think their employees could all be on the state health plan, but some schools may take other options (I think VCU has a plan using its own facilities). The VRS retirement plan is available, but again, most also offer the more portable plans with higher education connections like TIAA-CREF.

  3. Baconator with extra cheese

    I agree… shut down the state universities and protect the historically underrepresented and underserved populations. And furlough all those workers to save the state budget. While you’re at it repurpose the dorms to house the homeless permanently and use your foundation money to feed and clothe them. It appears those communities fully support the social justice actions theoritically so support it in reality. Show us how we can reimagine Charlottesville, the Fan, and Harrisonburg!

    • As expected, UVA is being swallowed up whole by the very monster its faculty, Administrators, and Board of Visitors created at the expense of Virginia’s taxpayers, students’ tuition and fees, and the American taxpayers (should the left get its way). This is Virginia Higher Education’s version of Wall Street’s Bonfire of the Vanities, all of it started at UVA under Teresa Sullivan’s revolution begun in earnest in 2012. Rector Dragas was right.

  4. UVa President Jim Ryan is having yet another in a series of nice days. But there is good news.

    As Jim Bacon points out, Virginia’s legislation that authorized collective bargaining starting next year purposely left out state employees.

    Also under Virginia law, any “job action” by this organization will result in termination for a year of any government employee who participates. Same restriction applies to both state and local government employees whether the local government folks are authorized to collectively bargain or not.

  5. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – The Commonwealth of Virginia should sell the University of Virginia to a corporation and board of overseers who will run the school as a private concern. Same structure as Harvard. Somewhere around $10B. The original grounds, including the Rotunda, will not be sold. Rather, they will become the University of Virginia Museum.

    UVA can pay for its freedom from the state through its endowment and a loan against future tuition which will be paid off over time. Once freed from even paying lip service to providing quality, affordable educations to Virginians the school can raise tuition and fees to the sky, build a far left academic program and virtue signal until the cows come home.

    The state should use the funds generated through the sale to finance universities in NoVa, Richmond and Hampton Roads that actually do provide high quality, affordable educations to Virginians. The funded universities should be STEM-focused and dedicated to creating a workforce in Virginia for the 21st century. They should also be tightly linked to Virginia industry with a work-study emphasis that not only allows students to get real world experience but also lets those students earn some of the money required to pay their tuition.

    UVA has been failing for decades to fulfill its mission of providing an affordable education for Virginia students. The problems started under Casteen but really ramped up under Sullivan. Dragas WAS right.

    • The main thing I remember about Dragas was that she condemned UVA for not doing MOOC which now is considered to be 100% wrong.

      I would think since the State has a significant funding responsibility for UVA and others that they could mandate 10K tuition or at least a certain number of slots… but don’t think they’re gonna “undo” the leftist tilt.

      • “The main thing I remember about Dragas …”

        That is the problem. Your memory fails you totally. Go back and read what we’ve been writing here on BR about Teresa Sullivan’s tenure, and what has been happening at UVa. since her reappointment, and also has been happening to higher education in America generally, for the past 9 years, all of which you have apparently missed, it’s gone over your head, entirely.

        • The considerable PR machine Sullivan was afforded by UVA and Dubby Wynne deserves credit for the narrative that is lodged as fact about this period. We’re left with the WaPo, NYT, and Rolling Stone accounts of this episode, inaccurate and persistent. The biggest misstep by the 2012 BOV was underestimating their need for a powerhouse consultant. The comment about MOOCs was tossed off too obliquely–the Board never wanted a steamrolled path to MOOCs, they had simply been asking for a report on where the administration was in exploring possibilities and had heard crickets (in fact, there had been some motion to toward MOOCs but the BOV hadn’t been informed). More broadly, that was Sullivan’s failure; meeting after meeting, she came with little to tell her supervisors, answered only what asked, regurgitated reports poor patient care quality in the med center and very mediocre writing test results by undergrads. That’s what yielded the impression that she lacked vision. Remember, the Visitors are visitors, they are apprised as the administration chooses. Until an engaged appointee like Dragas decides to do her own homework.

          I heard the conversation between Sabato and Dragas in which they discussed the drift which had begun during Casteen’s tenure, UVA’s fall relative not to Harvard & Stanford but to Vanderbilt and Chapel Hill. Sabato concurred with the assessment that Sullivan wasn’t righting the ship. Later, he disavowed that sentiment, perhaps when swept into the cocoon of the Lawn.

          None of that has much to do with topic of grad students unionizing, but I am reminded that when Dragas began, she was aghast that UVA employees received benefit that cost 47% of their compensation. A private sector employer, she couldn’t fathom this largesse with tax revenue and tuition-payers’ funds. By the time she left, that cost had been brought down much closer to align with private sector.

          How many jobs has UVA trimmed as it faces the COVID squeeze? I’m betting none.

  6. ” That afternoon, in the 90-degree heat, Sabato looked on as Dragas gave an outdoor news conference. She promised to replace Sullivan with “a bold, strategic, visionary leader” but refused to answer when asked for the reasons behind Sullivan’s departure.

    Hours later, Sabato reached Dragas by phone. She justified the board’s drastic action by arguing that Virginia was falling behind competitors, like Harvard and Stanford, especially in the development of online courses, a potentially transformative innovation. The conversation was agreeable, but privately, Sabato still wasn’t convinced that the move was warranted. That evening, he crossed Jefferson’s magnificent central lawn to join a dispirited group on the balcony of a university official’s home. Sullivan was there, along with her husband, a law professor. Everyone was dumbfounded. Sullivan said she had no warning her job was in jeopardy.”


    of course the wacadoodles had their own versions of reality.

  7. James Wyatt Whitehead V

    I miss the UVA Pep Band. Far more entertaining than the UVA Union. I bet those graduate students get their way.

  8. “Hours later, Sabato reached Dragas by phone. She justified the board’s drastic action by arguing that Virginia was falling behind competitors, like Harvard and Stanford, especially in the development of online courses, a potentially transformative innovation.”

    Larry, thank you for offering proof to my claim. Sabato’s version is precisely what has happened. Reality escapes you yet again.

  9. ” The main thing I remember about Dragas was that she condemned UVA for not doing MOOC which now is considered to be 100% wrong.

    ““Hours later, Sabato reached Dragas by phone. She justified the board’s drastic action by arguing that Virginia was falling behind competitors, like Harvard and Stanford, especially in the development of online courses, a potentially transformative innovation.”

    only in the minds of some wacadoodles was this not true!

  10. Reed. The move to liberalize universities has been going on since the 1960s. It has nothing to do with President Sullivan. Btw the very same people who were pushing MOOCs a few years. Are the ones decrying them now. Hypocrite conservatives

  11. Indeed Peter – it’s not hard at all to find the real history:

    ” E-mail messages were flying among leaders of the Board of Visitors of the University of Virginia in the weeks leading up to the ouster of Teresa A. Sullivan as president of the university. The e-mail messages show that one reason board leaders wanted to move quickly was the belief that UVa needed to get involved in a serious way with online education.

    The board leaders traded articles in which various pundits suggested that online education is the only real future for higher education — and the e-mail messages suggest that board members believe this view. On May 31, for example, Helen Dragas, the rector (UVa-speak for board chair) sent the vice rector, Mark Kington, the URL for a Wall Street Journal column about online education. Dragas’s subject line was “good piece in WSJ today — why we can’t afford to wait.” The column, a look at the MOOC (massively online open course) movement in higher education, has the subhead: “The substitution of technology (which is cheap) for labor (which is expensive) can vastly increase access to an elite-caliber education.”

    The column argues that the MOOCs have the potential to change the cost structure in higher education, as long as institutions are willing to replace some in-person education with online education. “[I]n this way, college X might have its students take calculus, computer science and many other lecture courses online from MIT-Harvard (or other suppliers), and have them take other classes with their own local professors for subjects that are better taught in small seminars. College X can thus offer stellar lectures from the best professors in the world — and do locally what it does best, person to person,” the column says.”


    now the same so-called “Conservatives” are blathering about the “necessity” of “in-person”…

    Not a whimper here in BR about Dragas “vision” these days. crickets!

  12. Here is the legacy Teresa Sullivan left UVA, now a faltering institution:

    “UVA President Jim Ryan then took to the podium. “On behalf of the entire community here, I would like to welcome you, the Class of 2024, to one of the finest universities in the world,” he said. Ryan said this will not be an ordinary year, coming after most of the incoming first-year class missed formal graduations or proms and completed their high school degrees online. “For all that you’ve missed and given up, I am truly sorry.” Ryan told students, “You all belong here. I don’t mean by this that you need to be here physically. I mean you all belong as members of this community,” he said. “You deserve to be a part of this community. I say this as someone who is a first-generation college student, as more than one in 10 of you are now. But this is a message for all of you.”

    Ryan told new students they are entering “an incredibly caring community.”

    “The faculty, staff and your fellow students will care not only about how you do in the classroom, but how you do outside of the classroom, as well. They’ll care about this whether you’re here in person or online,” he said. “So please understand this. You belong here. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, the color of your hair or the color of your skin, your gender, your sexual orientation, your religion, whoever you are and wherever you’re from. You belong.”

    Ryan offered a piece of advice. “When in doubt, build a bridge. I don’t mean this literally, except maybe for students in the Architecture and Engineering schools,” he joked. “I mean: Make a connection and engage.

    “I encourage you to make an effort to reach out and get to know someone who comes from a different background or looks different than you do or who took a different road to get here,” he said. And don’t forget to forge relationships “with our amazing faculty.”

    “UVA has a well-earned reputation as a place where faculty genuinely care about their students and about teaching,” he said. “So, engage while you’re in class and go to office hours if and when you can, whether virtual or live.”

    Ryan also urged the class to engage with the larger Charlottesville community, perhaps by volunteering through Madison House, the volunteer center for students at UVA. “UVA is your immediate home. But UVA sits within a larger community. And if you get involved in that community, I predict you’ll gain as much as you give,” he said. “When in doubt, build a bridge.”

    Of course, he said, living during a pandemic will make that challenging. That means some bridges will have to wait to be built until the entire UVA community is on Grounds in person, he said. “But you can absolutely begin now, no matter where you are,” he said. “And in fact, with the pandemic making everyone feel a little bit more isolated, it’s going to be even more important than ever to reach out and create new connections.”

    Ryan said the next time the Class of 2024 gathers as a group, “hopefully in person,” will be in four years’ time, at graduation. “All of you, all of us will be different people then, shaped by the choices we make over the next few months and the next few years. I hope you choose to build bridges,” he said in conclusion.

    Student Council President Ellen Yates spoke next, urging students to embrace uncertainty and to “know that we are here to support you, to listen to you and to stand alongside you.

    “This year may indeed be an uncertain one, but I want to impress upon you that you will never be alone in this unpredictability,” she said. “You are joining a community of people with a wide variety of passions and a fierce love for their school and the students who comprise it.”

    Tre Tennyson, who chairs the Graduate and Professional Council, talked about the special community at UVA. “You are now entering a very special place at a very special time,” he said. “And I’m excited to see how you will uplift, transform and grant us the benefit of your wisdom and good nature.”

    Ryan Keane, the chair of the Honor Committee, and Gabby Cox, chair of the University Judiciary Committee, both said they were excited to welcome new students at UVA. Keane said while everyone at UVA is different, “Honor brings us together. This shared accord that we will hold ourselves to a higher standard even in the face of adversity” is the glue that will bind the UVA community.

    Cox told students that in addition to adjudicating UVA’S 12 standards of conduct, this year the University Judiciary Committee is charged with also adjudicating COVID-19 policy violations, “which are classified as any act that violates local, state, federal and or University guidelines,” she said. “One purpose of UVA is to promote a community bound together by foundational values of honor, integrity, trust and respect. Class of 2024, use your voice to push for equitable change in an environment you are unsatisfied with.”

    The Class of 2024 numbers about 4,000 students. There are just over 2,500 new graduate and professional students.

    Opening Convocation was capped by another performance by the University Singers, singing a rousing rendition of “The Good Old Song.” Typically, following remarks, new students sign an honor pledge to not lie, cheat or steal while enrolled at UVA. In coming days, administrators will notify students of alternate plans to make this pledge.” End Quote.

    Why is all of this so desperately necessary?


    • To better understand the deceitful nature of UVa. Pres. James Ryan’s recent Convocation Address to the UVA Class of 2024, and how such attitudes may well come back to harm members of that UVa. class, here are portions of today’s Wall Street Journal commentary by Joseph Epstein:

      “Today’s College Classroom Is a Therapy Session
      The tough guys are gone. Instructors are expected to foster ‘safe,’ ‘nurturing,’ ‘antiracist’ spaces.

      Now retired after having taught 30 years in the English department at Northwestern University, I continue to receive announcements from the school. One not long ago carried the heading “Seven Honored with Teaching Award.” I read it wondering if these models of superior teaching might in some way illuminate the question of whether the value of in-person education is worth the risk of coronavirus exposure.

      What I learned is that, of Northwestern’s seven 2020 McCormick Teaching and Alumnae Award recipients, a majority are so “welcoming” and “supportive,” so ready “to foster inclusive and anti-racist learning spaces.” One of the recipients seeks to integrate “methodological rigor, impactful engagement, and human sensitivity” into every aspect of her teaching. A student says of another awardee that the “nurturing and supportive environment” of his classes much improved his learning. The department chair(man? woman?) of yet another of the award winners says that her “classrooms are a rare phenomenon: a safe and nurturing forum for learning and debate. . . .” If this sort of thing goes on at universities, it must be redoubled in high schools and elementary schools.

      Reading about these award-winning teachers makes one wonder if teaching has become the pedagogical equivalent of psychotherapy. Ought teaching to be primarily about building self-esteem in students, “nurturing” and … making them feel “safe?” And what do you suppose an “inclusive and anti-racist learning space” looks like?

      The two biggest lies about teaching are that one learns so much from one’s students and, so gratifying is it, one would do it for nothing. I had a number of bright and winning students, but if I learned anything from them, I seem long ago to have forgotten it. … The one certain thing I learned about teaching is that you must never say or even think you are a good teacher. If you believe you are, like believing you are charming, you probably aren’t.

      Since the mid-1960s, colleges and universities have instituted student evaluations of their teachers. Apart from reporting genuine delinquencies—“he’s always late to class” or “she returns our papers late and unmarked”—these are of little value (Stuff like) “He knows his stuff.” “Good sense of humor.” “Like his bow ties.” The one exception I remember read: “I did well in this course, but then I would have been ashamed not to have done.” I wondered how I might have induced that productive shame, so that I might induce it in other students.

      Teaching … is less about making students feel welcome, supported and safe than it is about making them mildly ashamed of their ignorance and slightly fearful of exposing it. Shame and fear (also of failure) may not be central to classroom learning, but are indubitably part of it. They certainly were of my own … as a teacher I attempted to present myself as reasonably cultured, passionate about his subject, serious but not without humor, fair but strict; as someone who put out for his students—by carefully preparing for class and putting much labor into grading their papers—and expected them to do the same for him. I never felt the need to assure students that in me they had a friend. I never worried about making them feel safe. I never thought to build up their self-esteem, which in any case cannot be conferred but must be earned. I’m not sure this would be acceptable today.

      If you think your kid, whether in grade school, high school or college, needs to be made to feel safe and requires further nurturing in an antiracist setting to ensure his self-esteem, then do send him off for in-person learning. If not, feel free to wait until the coronavirus siege calms down. For what you’re getting, why take the risk?”

      Mr. Epstein is author, most recently, of “Charm: The Elusive Enchantment.”

      For more of this fine commentary see:

  13. How the hell do I know. I am a uva parent. My first cousin went there. I volunteer at their radio station. reed. I have followed your complaints for years and still do not understand

    • Well, for starters:

      This is not a little child’s first day of Kindergarten. Nor are these kids victims. Nor is UVa. their mom and dad, or Uncle Lou and Aunt Mary at home. Nor should these students be treated that way, and lectured too that way. UVA protests way way too much. We know the game being played there. And so do those who run the place know their game. If you have not noticed, it ain’t pretty.

  14. What is the game being played there? How’s it different from other schools? Is it supposed to be a boot camp? You dip into a bunch of reports and come up with a lot of unconnected stuff.

    • Look at Charlottesville for starters. Look at constant ongoing unrest, scandals, riots there and at UVA since 2012. Look at all the false and malicous accusations made, and promised broken. All the money spent and wasted on vanity projects. All the bloating of UVA Administrators and of grad student and adjunct teachers who are worked to death teaching undergraduates while tenured professors rarely teach those who pay their inflated bills, those same undergraduates whose courses are stripped of substance involving the real world they soon join, their courses prostituted for monies going to junk courses and junk science and/or research that feeds hate and grievance cultures on the Grounds and/or lines the pockets of tenured professors and administrators, while stripping the undergrad students of their legacies, their parents and family nation’s history, and western civilization, thus stripping those students their pride and self confidence and critically needed knowledge, while grossly inflating and fueling the anger and grievances of other students, pitting races one against the other on the Grounds and off, and over time throughout the nation.

  15. If UVA has failed to provide racial equity, everyone making more than $80 K per year who has been employed for five years or more should be summarily fired. They’ve been at this for decades and frigging failed. Why give them a second chance?

  16. I’m not buying that UVA is substantially different that a lot of other Universities. The critics condemn Universities in general. No?

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