Graduate students forge ahead
Students rally while waiting for results of challenged ballots
Despite being stalled in their unionization process due to 174 challenged votes, graduate students continued to put pressure on the administration by rallying outside Brookings Hall at 2 p.m. Monday, Nov. 15.
The results of the Oct. 25-26 election to unionize were inconclusive when 174 votes were challenged due to the eligibility of certain voters being called into question. The challenged ballots were primarily masters students and Ph.D. candidates in the Institute of Material Science & Engineering, whose eligibility had not been determined by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) at the time of the vote.
Two members of the organizing committee were also left off the University’s voting list, including Sarah Siegel, a fifth-year student in the history Ph.D. program. Although she expected to be eligible as a Ph.D. student and an assistant to the instructor, her name was not listed among eligible voters. Siegel testified before the NLRB and Washington University lawyers during hearings.
“When it came time to actually vote, the University left my name, along with all masters students and IMSE students, off the list of eligible voters. So, let’s be clear: This was voter suppression,” Siegel said. “But here’s the thing: I don’t have time to wait through months of legal hearings for my vote to be counted. We all need our voices to be heard right now.”
A number of graduate students, including Siegel, marched into Provost Holden Thorp’s office during the rally to make demands and continue negotiations.
“We’re launching the next phase of our campaign today. We’re standing up to the administration and telling them what we deserve from the University,” Siegel said.
Frustration from Siegel and the other graduate students is understandable; the process of getting the challenged votes counted is complicated and could take over a year to complete.
“We have to go through a lengthy process with the NLRB to actually get all those votes counted, and each one of those votes we actually have to argue for the specific situation that the person is in, [and] we have to actually subpoena information from the University,” graduate student Luciano Santino said.
According to Santino, each challenged vote will have to be contested in a hearing. Even if the regional board agrees that the voter was eligible, the University’s lawyers can then challenge that decision and appeal it to the Washington NLRB. The back-and-forth nature of this process could result in a long waiting period for the graduate student union.
At Northwestern University, a similar situation of challenged votes occurred when the non-tenure-track faculty voted to unionize in 2016. It took about a year and a half to get the challenged votes counted, resulting in a close win, with 229 votes in favor of a union and 219 against.
Despite the long procedure ahead, Santino feels confident that the votes will turn out in favor of a union.
“We’re actually pretty sure that we have enough votes to actually win; it’s the process of [getting the challenged votes counted],” Santino said.
Although positive about the voting outlook, Santino explained that the graduate students are not guaranteed anything if the NLRB decides to revert the 2016 Columbia University decision that gave graduate students at the university the right to unionize—a possibility that many existing graduate student unions are concerned about under the Trump administration.
“If we go through that process, that year and a half long process, and during any point in that process the Columbia decision gets reversed, we’re not guaranteed anything,” Santino said.
Although the union has been put on hold, the graduate students have begun working with the administration as a group to gain benefits without actual union status. According to Santino, the University has already guaranteed five to six year funding for Ph.D. students, regardless of whether or not they teach. In addition, some graduate students are being compensated for hours of work for which they were not paid.
“The colleagues in physics that were actually teaching past their technical requirement, they’re now getting back pay from the University for those hours that they worked that they were told that they didn’t have to work,” Santino said. “So, we’re actually making significant gains through this process of applying pressure on the administration.”
Though there is no immediate action to be taken, Santino says the purpose of the rally was to remind both students and administration that they are moving ahead with the process of getting votes counted, while still continuing to negotiate with the administration.
“Effectively, we are moving forward outside of the judicial process,” Santino said. “We are a union; we’re continuing to function like a union even if the University doesn’t have to sit down and bargain with us. We’re still going to apply pressure to them and have them listen to us.”