WUGWU returns to public activism after pandemic setbacks 

| Editor-in-Chief

The last time WUGWU actively protested on campus was in 2018, when they marched for a $15 wage for all employees (Zach Berman |Student Life)

On March 31, around 50 people — mostly students — gathered in the atrium of the Farrell Learning and Teaching Center on Washington University’s medical school campus. They held white signs and sheets painted in bright red lettering.

It may have not seemed momentous to an outsider, but the protest signified Washington University Graduate Workers Union’s (WUGWU) first return to public activism on campus since 2019, when members occupied Brookings Quad to demand an increase of wages to $15 per hour for University employees. 

The group — which is not officially recognized as a union and therefore cannot collectively bargain with WashU — was founded in 2016. Four years and a pandemic later, momentum and membership fizzled out. WUGWU has just begun its marked return to activism in the last six months, in part fueled by increased interest from WashU medical students after an alleged sexual harassment incident in a University lab came to light in December of 2022. 

Marc Blanc, a PhD candidate in English and American literature, joined WUGWU the day of his graduate student orientation in August of 2018. At the time, the organization was actively recruiting members, passing out flyers and signup sheets to new graduate students. 

“I already believed in unions and had belonged to a union before, so I signed up pretty eagerly,” Blanc said. Soon, he was heading the communications committee, making social media posts about upcoming events. 

As a core member of WUGWU, which claimed over 200 signups, Blanc said he volunteered hours of his time to the organization, being one of the core 6-to-12 people that routinely showed up to weekly meetings. 

“There [were] several times that first year I was like, ‘am I using my time wisely? Should I be studying?’ It was quite a time commitment,” Blanc said. 

Blanc added that involvement spanned across all departments on the Danforth campus. “It was quite cross-disciplinary,” he said. 

“There [were] as many scientists as there were humanities people as there were social scientists. It was a really wonderful mixing of minds and energy.” 

The most dedicated to WUGWU, however, were the humanities students. Blanc suspected a few reasons. One, he said, was that hard science students were better-compensated for their work and were likely less motivated to advocate for higher stipends. Additionally, Blanc said, humanities graduate students are generally more prone to activism. 

“This is not scientific at all,” he said. “But the people who choose this study — English or history — have already kind of voiced skepticism of the workaday world, and are more prone to try to agitate change.” 

Yet when COVID-19 prompted a mass switchover from in-person meetings to Zoom ones, activity across all disciplines dropped off rapidly. Core leaders began to graduate, and in-person recruitment — the way Blanc was sucked in — wasn’t possible. 

Alejandro González, a second-year economics PhD student, joined WUGWU in 2021 after transferring from the University of Washington. For his first year and a half, meetings were on Zoom and it was clear that morale was low.

“I think the union…it’s fair to say that it was in a state of disarray,” González said. 

González said that in the summer of 2022, there was some stirring among WUGWU members to organize for higher stipend increases in light of rampant nation-wide inflation. However, by the time leadership began to consider the question, the University announced they would raise wages and the moment passed. 

A meeting agenda document shared with Student Life by a former WUGWU member showed that four-to-seven people gathered on Zoom about every two weeks in the Fall of 2022. After Nov. 21, 2022, no more meeting notes were recorded until suddenly, in January 2023, nearly three times as many members were listed as present. This came alongside paragraphs on paragraphs of action items and to-do lists. 

The WUGWU Instagram account shows a similar lull in on-campus activity during the past couple years. A post from June 2021 advertises a WUGWU park hangout, but no other posts appear until mid-Jan. 2023, notifying followers of the first meeting of the semester. 

The notes in 2023 surround issues in reporting sexual harassment, as well as attempts to imagine a newer, tighter system to keep mandatory reporters accountable. Many reference the story reported by Student Life detailing how Lila, a PhD/MD student, was sexually harassed by a superior and ended up leaving the University after reporting to her higher-up that led to no immediate action. 

Jamie Moffa, a sixth-year MD/PhD student, was one of a few WUGWU members that stuck through the Zoom era. They joined WUGWU in 2020 and was an active participant. 

Moffa was one of a few members to meet with administrators in Dec. of 2022 to ask for more stringent policies around mandatory reporting, including requesting third-party arbitration and investigation when WashU faculty failed to report sexual misconduct cases to the Title IX office. 

Moffa said they asked for probation for faculty that don’t follow mandatory reporting rules the first time, and making it a two-strike fireable offense. They also requested more transparency if a faculty member was under HR investigation. 

Eva Aagaard, senior associate dean for education at the medical school, was one of the administrators that met with Moffa. She suggested over email that Student Life reach out to leaders of the Task Force on Climate and Culture, which was assembled on Dec. 16, 2022. 

Dr. David Perlmutter, executive vice chancellor of medical affairs, announced that the Task Force would be created in response to “students, staff and faculty [who] have reminded us, in the anger and frustration they have expressed in response to recent events, that we have not done enough to be that place of inclusion and safety, that we have been far too comfortable in our excellence.” 

Dr. Benjamin Garcia and Dr. Dineo Khabele, co-chairs of the task force, commented jointly to Student Life about WUGWU’s demands. 

“We are actively seeking input from students, trainees and faculty with the help of our outside consultant, Catalyst,” they wrote. “We will certainly have more to say after we gather the data.”

Dineo and Khabele also pointed to existing rules for mandatory reporters. “We already have policies in place at the School of Medicine regarding mandatory reporting and we have ongoing training/education around this.” 

González isn’t optimistic about the task force. “It’s another dump of money on an HR initiative that essentially conglomerates a lot of people to hear them out, and kind of do reports, but it does not address any of the issues that we have raised,” he said. “We’re not asking for socialism here. We’re just saying ‘enforce your current roles, be transparent to the University community.’” 

Aagaard sent Moffa an email after their meeting that linked the same HR guidelines, but Moffa and other members of WUGWU still felt that current University policies were not strong enough. 

“The policy about mandatory reporters…it’s very unclear. And it was very unclear to any of us whether there were any repercussions for failing to do your duty as a mandatory reporter,” Moffa said. 

Moffa said that this issue felt symbolic of the problems that WUGWU had been attempting to address over the past few years –– primary investigators having unchecked power over graduate student workers, a lack of clear support systems for PhD students, and a fear of retaliation if one spoke out against a superior. 

“[It] feels like kind of a culmination of a lot of the issues that are that we want to address from academia in a very tangible way,” Moffa said. 

The issue of sexual harassment and reporting procedures has re-invigorated the organization with an influx of medical student members Blanc said. Though involvement isn’t yet up to pre-pandemic levels, he said leadership was “working on that.” 

Next up, Blanc said, is organizing a vote to become an official collective bargaining unit for graduate workers on campus. 

In order to pass the vote, WUGWU will need a simple majority in a graduate student worker body. In light of WUGWU’s recent activism, Blanc is optimistic that they’re well on their way to becoming a force for change on campus.

“More and more unions are winning their elections [at] universities across the country,” he said.  “It’s only a matter of time before it happens here.” 

 


For coverage of the protest on Friday, click here. 

WashU Graduate Workers Union protests University’s handling of sexual harassment cases

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