Op-ed: Direct action as a means of change for graduate students

Augusto Medeiros Da Rosa | 5th Year Graduate Student

During the past year, graduate students in the College of Arts and Sciences have been organizing to form a union with Service Employees International Union Local 1. Our goal is to unite as colleagues to have a say in the conditions of our work, which are currently unilaterally imposed on us by Washington University. As a fifth-year graduate student in the physics department, active in our peer mentoring program, I have seen time and again how our students struggle due to issues with health care and summer funding that the administration refuses to solve. As an international student from a country whose labor law is currently being dismantled, I understand how important it is that workers have their rights protected. For me, supporting the formation of our union was therefore a natural decision.

We met very strong opposition from this administration from the very moment we began to organize. They understand our strength in numbers, and they have tried very hard to keep us from using it. They went as far as threatening us with deportation, for the sole purpose of keeping us divided and weaker. They challenged the rights of many of our fellow colleagues to have their voices count in the decision to unionize. Our campaign culminated in an undetermined election, and our prospects moving forward were of long legal battles while our issues continued unaddressed. We have decided not to wait, and instead take direct action to make improvements for ourselves.

From the first day of our campaign, the most important thing that we’ve told our supporters is that the union is us. A union is a group of people coming together to change their working conditions. Whether or not a court recognizes us does not change the fact that our power comes from ourselves. Our power comes from our will to take action to improve our lives, and continuing to take action is what we plan to do as the Washington University Graduate Workers Union.

In spite of students asking for changes to be made for years, the University claimed to be ignorant of all of our problems, but that they honestly had our best interest in mind. One of our goals as an organization is to hold them accountable to their word and to make sure that improvements are made. As an example, Wash. U. changed the way our funding works so that they could claim in court that we are not workers—that what we do brings them no benefit. Everyone, including the administrators, knows that this is not true. Their real goal was to appease us. They wanted to claim that guaranteed funding was their plan all along, and they just happened to implement that when we tried to form a union.

What this meant for me and my colleagues in physics is that we were teaching without being required to—doing extra work on top of our already challenging research duties. Since we were doing extra work, it was clear to all of us that the Graduate School owed us money. We came together to claim it, and we got it. This is what we can achieve by working together: positive, concrete change. Graduate workers in other departments are now coming together to do the same and be properly compensated for their work.

Regardless of what this University tells us, the real outcome of this election is that we now have a stronger community and the conscience that nothing will be better unless we make it so. We also understand that we have the power to make improvements, and that the time to act is now. As an independent union, we will take the power that we have obtained for organizing to take matters into our own hands and continue to make life better for graduate students at Wash. U. and make sure that we get the respect that we deserve as workers.