Graduate students look to unionize

Rally to be held Thursday outside Danforth University Center in support of efforts

Emma Baker | Contributing Reporter

Following Washington University lecturers’ failure to unionize, graduate students are now looking to form a union and will hold a rally in the Danforth University Center Thursday in protest of the University’s anti-unionization position.

A key point of contention between Washington University and graduate students hoping to unionize is that under University policy, graduate students are not classified as employees, a position that the students dispute.

This effort to unionize intersects the change in University policy to rename teaching assistants (TAs) as assistants to the instructor (AIs).

Amongst graduate students whose curricula detail an instructional undergraduate classroom component, this was a seemingly abrupt change. Parallel to this, a number of graduate students have concerns regarding the administration’s understanding of the extent of their contributions on campus.

“Graduate students consider themselves to be workers at the University—and universities, like Wash. U., feel that grad students are just students,” third-year Ph.D. candidate Meredith Kellings said. “Since we’re not considered [to be] employees, we feel ourselves not protected in the way that employees are under U.S. labor law…[We’re in] an interesting position where we have no bargaining power, and we feel that unionization would primarily mean we’re employees, but we’d also have a labor contract that would be enforced.”

The University is aware of graduate students’ effort to unionize. In response to these efforts, Washington University published a document of frequently asked questions regarding unionization. According to some graduate students, this document attempted to discourage them from unionizing.

Provost Holden Thorp noted that he understands these concerns and sees how students perceived his response as they did, adding that changes were made in response to expressed objections.

“The thing [graduate students are] objecting to is a section that responds to questions we were getting from international graduate students, and the response that we had up there initially, [which], while factually accurate, was incomplete in a sense because it talked about what the rules were and what that could mean for visa status international students,” Provost Holden Thorp said. “When I saw the objection that the students had raised about that, I agreed that it could be construed as saying that we were taking a position about how we would act in that situation…So we amended the FAQ and said that we wouldn’t share anybody’s immigration status or whether it had changed unless we were legally compelled to do so.”

The August 2016 ruling by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) declared that graduate students were protected under the National Labor Relations Act, overturning the 2004 decision that graduate students were not full time employees of their universities. Due to these relatively recent changes, the policy regarding graduate students’ classifications is still, in many ways, unclear.

“It’s a confusing space, and we are deriving benefits, but we’re also performing labors. So, there’s this weird space on how to categorize it,” Kellings said. “It seems like this is all intended to define our role more strictly to the zone of student, as opposed to moving back and forth between student and employee.”

The University, for its part, has a more straightforward view of graduate students’ status.

“We don’t believe that graduate students should be classified as workers,” Thorp said. “We believe graduate students are students.”

According to Kellings, the University communicated a clarification of the student-mentor relationship with the intention of making assistantships more impactful—a measure meant to improve the quality of education both given and received at the graduate level.

“We’ve gotten some messaging from the University that this is going to be a meaningful change in terms of how our work at the level gets done in terms of assistantship,” Kellings said. “The language has been emphasizing the extent to which this is a learning experience for us, instead of work that we perform for the University.”

Graduate students, faculty and members of the community will unite to march from the Danforth University Center to Brookings Quadrangle on Thursday at 10:45 a.m. in protest of the University’s position. According to the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), approximately 600 graduate students, in partnership with SEIU, are expected file a formal request to schedule a union election on Friday with the NLRB.

“If people have a fear about unionization, they fear that unionization will make us just workers and that will diminish the richness of the academic work that we are here to do or the spirit of academic collaboration,” Kellings said. “Having the peace of mind to know that I wouldn’t have to choose between academic success and my ability to lead a decently healthy personal life is only going to improve my ability to do the good, meaningful academic work I am here to do in the first place.”

Additional reporting by Chalaun Lomax.