Graduate students rally, file for election with National Labor Relations Board
Washington University graduate students gathered at a rally outside the Danforth University Center and marched toward Brookings Hall in order to speak with administrators about their plans to unionize through the Service Employees International Union on Thursday, Sept. 14. The following day, the group filed for election to unionize with the National Labor Relations Board.
Before the march began, graduate students, faculty and alumni made speeches on the steps outside the DUC. Health insurance, stipends and international students’ rights were among the main topics discussed.
Once the rally reached Brookings Hall, a group of six graduate students went into Provost Holden Thorp’s office to discuss the matter of unionization with him and William F. Tate, dean of the graduate school and vice provost for graduate education, in person.
Grad students rally in Brookings Quad pic.twitter.com/OAGSNO0xfA
— Student Life (@studlife) September 14, 2017
“We asked them to remain neutral during the process of unionization…and if they could commit to not delaying the process once we file for election, and they refused to do that,” graduate student Amanda Kubic said. “They were sharing our concerns and they weren’t trying to dismiss us…but they weren’t willing to admit or to agree with us that unionization was in the best interest for graduate students.”
Members of the administration have made it clear that they view graduate students as students only, not employees. However, Kubic explained that graduate students do work such as teaching classes, grading papers, meeting with students, running labs and doing research.
“The University doesn’t want us to think of ourselves [as workers] because it means that they can continue to exploit our labor,” Kubic said. “But we’re providing services to the University, and they’re paying us for those services, so I think by any common definition of an employee, we are employees.”
In a speech, she noted that many graduate students have to take out personal loans and take on second jobs in addition to their studies and work at the University. “I want to ask the University [administratprs] how they think we can be effective workers and effective teachers if we can’t even take care of ourselves,” Kubic said.
According to Thorp, the University is aware of the work that graduate students do; however, its stance is still against that of unionization.
“We do recognize that there are many ways in which graduate students have evolved into doing things that would cause them to want to be classified as workers. We want to try to reverse those things to make graduate school more like school and less like work. We believe we’ll be in a much better position to do that if we don’t have a union than if we do,” Thorp said.
According to chemistry graduate student Luciano Santino, graduate students get taxes deducted by the University, and they are paid monthly. They are also dependent on the University’s health care under the Affordable Care Act. Graduate students in the College of Arts and Sciences are given two options in terms of health care: They can either purchase the University’s insurance or go through other providers. The alleged lack of comprehensive health care is one of the group’s main motivators in the union effort. In addition to insurance, there are multiple other fees graduate students have to pay the University.
“Essentially, because the University doesn’t see us as employees, we’re liable for student fees at the beginning of the semester, which are almost the same amount of money as our stipends,” Santino said.
The decision to unionize stems from these main grievances over health care and stipends. If the union goes through, then the University would be legally obligated to negotiate these issues with the graduate students, according to Santino.
“[The most important thing] is to give grad students a seat at the table when we’re making decisions about things that really affect our lives,” Kubic said. “Right now, the University has 100 percent of the power around making those decisions.”
Graduate students are not alone in their efforts. A number of faculty have signed on to a “Dear Colleague” letter to the administration, asking the University to stay neutral throughout the unionization process. Angela Miller, a professor of art history, spoke at the rally on Thursday.
“Higher education, especially at elite institutions like Washington University, has taken a wrong turn. Education is about training minds, not building luxury facilities,” Miller said. “We would like to ask the University to direct a small part of its considerable wealth to the welfare of those without whom this university could not function. We ask that the University honor its own highest principles by taking care of its most vulnerable members.”
Despite conflicting views with the administration, the graduate students are hopeful that the vote will pass and that they will be able to move forward in the unionization process.
“I’m really optimistic,” Kubic said. “I anticipate that there will be some pushback from the University, but I think that, collectively, we as graduate students can make our voices heard and can see the process through.”