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Grad Students Who Sign Up To Unionize Are Getting Put On Election Duty

The union effort to sign up graduate students has become a new pillar for get-out-the-vote efforts on campus.

Posted on September 20, 2016, at 5:34 p.m. ET

One early consequence of last month's ruling allowing graduate students to unionize is already playing out on campuses across the country: unions are tapping into a new source of foot soldiers to boost the youth vote for Hillary Clinton and other labor-friendly candidates.

In the wake of the late-August decision by the National Labor Relations Board, unions began recruiting grad students for unionization drives on campus. In the case of the 2 million member Service Employees International Union, that meant launching a "Faculty Forward" website where students could sign a "confidential union authorization form" and be contacted by union reps.

And this week, the SEIU launched a coordinated voter registration effort, on 45 university campuses in 16 states, to be led in part by students who signed up through that site.

One of them is was Cody Burleson, a third-year PhD candidate in neuroscience at Washington University in St. Louis. After filling out the online form, he said he got a call from a union representative asking if he would take part in its get-out-the-vote effort, named "GOTV U."

The voter drive aligned with his support for reducing student debt and unionizing his fellow grad students, he said, as well as increasing pay and medical benefits for teaching assistants.

Use of the students is another example of how SEIU efforts to organize new kinds of workers is translating into more political reach for the union. The SEIU-funded Fight For 15 minimum wage campaign, which is in the process of becoming formally affiliated with the union, has also been using its considerable following among low-wage workers to register voters and boost turnout.

Reaching such voters will be increasingly important for unions looking to preserve their influence as the Democratic base shifts toward young and minority voters. An SEIU announcement of the student voter drive emphasized the college vote helped deliver President Obama key states like Ohio, Florida, and Pennsylvania in 2012.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.