Universities depend on graduate student workers’ labor but won’t provide adequate pay without the pressure of collective bargaining efforts. Unions offer graduate student workers a stronger platform to secure living wages and reasonable workloads.
In early September, graduate workers at Boston University publicly announced a renewed unionization campaign to help graduate workers obtain better wages, year-round funding, and a more effective ability to address grievances regarding racial and gender discrimination. In the last academic year, the stipend-level minimum for 12-month Ph.D. students was $36,782, far lower than the estimated living salary for a single adult in Boston, $46,924.
“Like many people, the cost of living in Boston is becoming increasingly more difficult for us based on our stipends,” said Greer Hamilton, a Ph.D. student in social work at Boston University and member of the union’s organizing committee. “I want to make sure that other graduate students have access to a living wage that allows them to live and thrive in Boston.”
Dwindling funding, exploitative working conditions, and narrowing job prospects over the last few decades have led graduate worker union efforts at public universities to blossom. In 2016, graduate workers at private universities won the right to collectively bargain in a landmark ruling from the National Labor Relations Board, leading to a new wave of unionization efforts over the last few years.
Hamilton said that the union effort has widespread support among students and faculty across BU departments and universities in the greater Boston area. She was particularly happy to see that many students in science and engineering fields, who typically receive higher levels of funding than humanities students, have joined in solidarity. As graduate workers at several universities in the Boston area try to unionize, including Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Worcester Polytechnic Institute, students have attended rallies at other campuses to show solidarity.
“We are now in a place of deepening relationships with each other, and that has allowed us to actually come together and get to this point in time,” said Hamilton.
Struggling to Make Ends Meet
Graduate student unionization efforts in the U.S. began in the 1960s, with the University of Wisconsin-Madison Teaching Assistants’ Association becoming the first graduate worker collective bargaining unit to be recognized in 1970. Collective bargaining refers to the process of an employer and a union negotiating an agreement over wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment, usually followed by the execution of a written contract specifying the agreement reached between the parties. Workers can use collective bargaining agreements to secure a range of employment terms, from prohibiting discrimination to ensuring workers have paid leave for voting.
Non-unionized students can face highly exploitative working conditions, often with fewer benefits and protections than those offered in minimum wage jobs. Graduate students who unionize are often fighting for health insurance, workload limits, and paid sick leave. While graduate students are often perceived as highly privileged, many struggle to make ends meet.
International graduate student workers usually face additional hurdles, starting with the hefty fees required to secure a visa. While domestic students without summer funding can work outside of the university, international students are legally prohibited from doing so with few exceptions and are often forced to survive the summer without income.
The disparity between the way graduate student workers are treated and the way colleges and universities benefit from their work is underscored by how those institutions are becoming increasingly dependent on graduate student labor. Between 2005 and 2015, the number of graduate assistants employed rose by 16.7% while the number of tenured and tenure-track faculty grew by only 4.8%. This has caused higher workloads for graduate students and fueled the movement to organize.
When Anahi Molina started her Master’s in Fine Arts in creative writing at Northern Arizona University, she signed a contract to work as a teaching assistant for 20 hours a week in exchange for tuition and a $13,500 annual stipend. With two weeks of training, she was told to plan a semester class, doing the work of a full-time instructor but earning only a fraction of the pay.
Molina was not alone. She and the other TAs found themselves working 35-40 hours a week, twice the workload they signed up for. Each year, a large chunk of the stipend they made for the 10-month school year—they were not paid during the summer—went back to the university in student fees.
Feeling isolated and burdened by austerity, Molina decided to join the University Union of Northern Arizona, a wall-to-wall union representing faculty, staff, and graduate employees at NAU. She is currently working on a campaign to get student fees waived for graduate workers.
“It’s really demoralizing when you feel like you’re working so hard for so little,” said Molina. “And you’re also sort of told this is paying for your school, so buck up and it’ll be OK.”
What Unions Can Do For Graduate Student Workers
Oregon State University’s Coalition of Graduate Employees (CGE), recognized in 1999, is one of the oldest graduate student unions in the country. Originally launched in response to OSU’s continued refusal to provide graduate workers with health care coverage, CGE’s collective bargaining agreement (CBA) is now a model for other schools seeking unionization. The agreement details the minimum pay students can receive, sets workload limits, and identifies other terms the university must guarantee for graduate workers.
During this year’s contract negotiations, CGE secured a 4.75% cost-of-living adjustment and a 9% increase to the minimum salary. The new contract also requires earlier notification of employment status, expands the union’s Hardship Fund, and requires anti-harassment training for supervisors and employees. The wins came after six months of bargaining, organizing, and pressure from students and government officials who showed their support through personal testimony, letters to the editor, and meeting attendance.
“The core of it is collective power,” said Tilottama Chatterjee, a CGE bargaining team member and Ph.D. student in biochemistry and biophysics. “This huge group of people [does] the work to keep this university running, and if this group [says] that they’re not going to accept something, that is a threat to OSU and ultimately what [got us our] wins.”
The cost-of-living adjustment has been a relief to Chatterjee and other students dreading summer rent increases and skyrocketing inflation. The new requirement to notify graduate students of their employment status at least 30 days before the start of the term is helping students plan for the year and avoid the anxiety of not knowing whether they will have funding to continue school. Other provisions CGE has bargained for will help students deal with financial emergencies and address harassment from supervisors.
“That day was incredible,” said Chaterjee. “I firmly believe that we did everything that we could within our power to get what was best for all of the grads here.”
The Limitations of Unionization
However, CGE did not get everything they hoped for. OSU rejected a push for summer funding for international students ineligible to work outside of their university, saying it could not afford to provide summer funding to all students and providing funding solely to international students would constitute unlawful discrimination. The university also refused to provide child care support for working parents.
Unions also face organizing challenges before getting to the negotiating table. While union dues are generally a small percentage of a worker’s salary and more than made up by bargaining gains, they can still be a sizable amount for workers not earning much to begin with. Some international students are hesitant to join a union out of fear that retaliation could jeopardize their ability to stay in the country. Chatterjee, an international student, has anxiety about retaliation and finds it hard to stand up for herself individually—but that is a large part of why she thinks the union is necessary.
“People in general and especially international students have this idea that if you just keep your head down and do your work, people will leave you alone and won’t exploit you,” said Chatterjee. “You’re going to get exploited no matter what. I’d rather have a support system behind me like the union that will protect me when I need to stand up for myself.”
“We have laws that say that we can unionize and that we won’t face any backlash, [and they] cannot use unionization [against you] in future job interviews,” said Sanjana Krishnan, an international graduate student at the University of Kentucky and member of United Campus Workers, which represents campus workers at universities and colleges across Kentucky. “That’s one thing that we say to international students specifically.”
Some states have restrictions on collective bargaining that severely limit union impact. Unlike Oregon and Massachusetts, Arizona prohibits collective bargaining between universities and their unions. While students in Oregon and Massachusetts can negotiate for an agreement that works in the best interests of both the universities and the union to minimize the risk of a painful strike, students in Arizona are largely restricted to one-sided advocacy efforts like petitions. While workers can still withhold labor and time, such actions are risky without the prospect of an enforceable CBA at the end.
“This is a really big struggle that our union has,” said Molina. “We don’t know how to answer this question of how do you get anything done.”
Unionizing Your School
While unionizing a workplace can seem like an intimidating task, graduate students who have done it before are excited to help others. Chatterjee said CGE is always open to helping new unions set up and offer advice based on their own processes and experiences. She added that new unions and established unions should prioritize equity in the bargaining process.
“It’s important for new grad unions to make sure that all of the different groups within the union are accounted for to make sure that the wins benefit everyone,” said Chatterjee. “Especially the ones who are the most marginalized within their bargaining units.”
Greer said starting a union is all about developing relationships with other students. Schools and departments in higher education are often highly segregated, and students who share similar interests often don’t have the opportunity to share their experiences with each other. The first step to starting a union is breaking these silos.
“Get outside of your department in school and begin to have conversations with other people,” said Greer. “Begin to learn about what their needs are and what they would like to see if a union were present.”
Higher education institutions benefit significantly from graduate student labor, which provides an affordable source of teachers and research assistants at a time when state governments are making deep cuts to public universities. But too often, these institutions fail to compensate graduate student workers in accordance with their value. Rather than relying on the goodwill of institutions, advocates say that unionization is essential to ensuring that graduate student workers are paid living wages and adequate support, even in cases like NAU where state laws restrict its effectiveness.
“What [the union provides] is support and solidarity in the midst of extremely unfair labor practices,” said Molina. “There’s a chance that our grad fees campaign will create material change, and that is all because of the union’s support for grad students.”
Sravya Tadepalli is a freelance writer based in Oregon. Her writing has been featured in Arlington Magazine, Teaching Tolerance, the Portland Tribune, Oregon Humanities, and the textbook America Now. Sravya is also a 2018 Harry S. Truman Scholar.