Grad students seek to unionize for workers’ rights

By DIVA PAREKH and ISABEL ADLER | September 27, 2018

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STEPHANIE LEE / The News-Letter

Teachers and Researchers United (TRU) announced their intent to unionize graduate workers at the Stand Up, Speak Out rally on Wednesday, Sept. 26. TRU members are seeking to unionize because as students, they are not granted the same rights and benefits as other University employees.

Hopkins community members gathered around the Milton S. Eisenhower (MSE) Library steps to listen to graduate students, security guards and nurses from the Hopkins Hospital discuss their roles and experiences working for the University.

TRU’s movement is part of a larger national trend at private universities to increase graduate student representation through unionizing. Currently, New York University (NYU) is the only private institution with a graduate student union recognized by the federal government. However, Brandeis University and Tufts University, among others, have chosen to voluntarily recognize their graduate student unions.

In an open letter signed by 201 graduate teachers and researchers, TRU called on the University to improve the graduate experience.

“Despite our important role within the University, our voice is minimal in determining our own working conditions or setting the priorities of this institution,” the letter read. “We want an active role in shaping support and inclusion on campus. We want Hopkins to respect our work by adequately supporting us in turn.”

Joanna Behrman, a fifth-year History of Science and Technology graduate student, urged the University to understand that the stipends graduate students receive serve more as wages than as benefits.

“Once you start talking about us as workers, it becomes clear that we have certain rights and it should be obvious that they should be fulfilled,” she said. “If we’re students and we’re being given a certain stipend, it’s like we’re beneficiaries. Whereas for us, it’s really a wage.”

Though the University financially supports graduate students for their first five years, most departments do not guarantee this support beyond the fifth year. Sociology graduate student Sam Agarwal said that past their fifth year, graduate students are required to pay $5,000 per additional year. She added, however, that the additional years are often only necessary when advisors ask graduate students for their help on projects, delaying their graduation.

“You are prohibited from working more than 19 hours [a week] outside of the University. That means if you are paid minimum wage at your part time job, which many of us are, you will earn roughly $11,000 in a year and then give $5,000 to the University and live off of the remaining $6,000,” she said. “This is mind-boggling.”

Behrman agreed, explaining that even though it can take longer than five years to complete a graduate degree, students are only given funding from Hopkins during those years. She says that after this time, students are either expected to find external funding or leave.

She said that particularly in the natural sciences, the status of graduate student funding is largely dependent on the grants their advisor gets.

“If your advisor happens to run out on their grant, whether you’re a fifth year and almost ready to graduate or whether you’re a third year and feel like you literally just got here, you can be pressured to graduate right then,” Behrman said. “And this happens to students on a fairly regular basis. They’re not necessarily ready to graduate, but their advisor has run out of money, so they’re being shown the door.”

According to Agarwal, as teaching assistants (TAs), graduate students continually invest their time and energy into the University without being granted the rights afforded to other employees.

“Grad students TA — some of us for four or five straight years; some of us routinely TA for two classes and are only paid for one; some of us are asked to be an instructor of a class and are only paid as a TA. Through our TAing, we bring immense value to the University. We build lasting bonds with students,” she said. “Then when the time comes around for us to focus on our careers and write our dissertation, the University tells us that they don’t have money to support us.”

Behrman noted that though TRU has been organizing graduate students movements since 2014, this was the first time that they had made a public declaration toward graduate unionization.

“There’s a huge imbalance of power at the University. We are organizing now around the precarity of late-stage graduate students,” she said. “We are organizing now around the need for a contract and voice at our university.”

Similar graduate student movements gained traction in 2016, when Columbia University refused to bargain with its graduate students. In response, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), responsible for enforcing national labor laws, voted that graduate teaching students and researchers are entitled to collective bargaining rights.

After the election of U.S. President Donald J. Trump, however, the NLRB board shifted to a Republican majority that was less sympathetic toward the graduate student cause. Instead of seeking federal recognition, graduate student unions started aiming for recognition from their universities.

For Physics and Astronomy graduate student Alireza Ghasemi, it remains increasingly important for graduate students to know that they can be heard.

“As a graduate activist group, we thought that we should get together. We thought that we should actually inform the students more about their issues and let them open up,” he said. “Sometimes you don’t open up because you don’t know there’s a person to hear your voice.”

Ghasemi also serves as TRU’s representative on the Provost’s Advisory Team on Healthcare (PATH), a group that worked to renegotiate the coverage of University-offered insurance during the spring.

He discussed the state of University healthcare before TRU rallied to improve coverage.

“In research that compared our healthcare with other schools, on average we were at the bottom,” Ghasemi said. “Our goal is to improve the healthcare situation for students. PATH started after the rally TRU had about healthcare.”

However, he said that while other universities currently offer about three months of maternal leave, Hopkins only allows two.

Speakers at the rally asserted that although attaining a livable wage was part of their movement, well-being and healthcare extended beyond that. According to Philosophy graduate student Rima Hussein, the graduate healthcare plan has failed in many aspects.

“We need tangible protection. We need protection that will not disappear when we become a little too frail, a little too complicated and, frankly, a little too pregnant,” she said. “The only way that we can create better conditions for poor workers, workers with children, workers with disabilities, in short — the vulnerable — is to join our powers in collective action.”

To achieve these changes and gain bargaining power with the University, Physics and Astronomy graduate student Erini Lambrides explained that a union was the only answer. She cited the example of TRU’s fight for improved healthcare, emphasizing that the change was only accomplished when graduate students came together.

“That’s when we realized that we just need to have an independent body to constantly be on the lookout for grad student rights,” she said. “And that’s a union.”

In her speech, Hussein agreed, adding that remaining silent was no longer an option.

“It is our time to leave behind the isolation, come together in love and joy and join the goddamn fight,” she said.

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