Graduate student group begins unionization push citing wage, health care concerns

Media Credit: Olivia Anderson | Photo Editor

Scott Ross, a third-year doctoral student in the anthropology department, said he started the unionization effort last spring because a union would give graduate student employees a chance to negotiate with the University for more favorable working terms.

Nearly 40 graduate student employees are taking the first steps to form their own union, demanding a greater say in wages and health care costs from the University.

Graduate student organizers released a letter publicly Monday urging others to join the effort they said would give graduate student workers a formal way to address their grievances at the highest levels of the University. In interviews, five graduate student organizers said student workers have faced stagnant wages, unequal pay among peers and costly health insurance, which has caused financial hardship for many students dealing with the soaring cost of living in D.C.

“Unlike employees in other sectors – including many graduate workers at other universities – we have no way of negotiating our salaries, we have little choice over our benefits, such as health insurance, and we have few methods of making our voices heard,” organizers wrote in the letter.

The drive is the second major unionization effort at GW in less than a year. Resident advisers won the right to formally organize last spring, but a vote to form a union was never held.

Defining the union’s role
University spokeswoman Maralee Csellar said officials haven’t received a petition for graduate student representation, but the University would be “understandably concerned about the constraints that unionization would impose on our faculty, students and academic programs.”

Last year, the University contested RAs’ push to unionize, arguing they were not employees of the University.

Csellar said graduate students receive “competitive packages” from GW, which can include financial assistance, tuition waivers and subsidized health insurance. She said their pay varies by position.

“Graduate students at GW serve an important role in our labs and classrooms as part of their educational experience,” she said in an email.

Scott Ross, a third-year doctoral student in the anthropology department, said he started the unionization effort last spring because a union would give graduate student employees a chance to negotiate with the University for more favorable working terms.

“At a time where both workers and universities are increasingly being criticized and put pressure on, I think graduate student workers are in a really unique place to try to step up and build communities that can care for one another and help each other through collective action at a place like GW,” he said.

He said he didn’t address his concerns with the University because graduate students do not have a “clear channel” to officials when they feel they are being treated unfairly.

Launching the effort
The National Labor Relations Board ruled last August that graduate and undergraduate teaching assistants at Columbia University have the right to organize, setting a precedent for other private colleges to follow suit. After Columbia’s graduate students voted overwhelmingly to unionize in December, graduate students at some of GW’s peers – like American University – also formed collective bargaining units.

Ross said graduate student leaders have already begun collecting cards of support from graduate student workers and he hopes to hold an election by the end of the semester. Once the leaders collect cards from at least 30 percent of the graduate student employees, the group can file a petition to hold an election, according to the NLRB.

He said that while many common complaints from graduate employees include insufficient pay or concerns about costly health insurance, leaders of the effort are still in talks to determine a broad platform that graduate students can rally behind.

Several doctoral candidate teaching assistants at GW said they make between $22,000 and $25,000 each academic year – which is a combination of their TA salary, which falls between $2,500 and $3,000 per semester, and a separate stipend. Ross said master’s students often make less in their TA positions, about $1,600 a semester.

Typical annual expenses for a single adult living in the District clock in at more than $32,000, according to a living wage calculator from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Ross disputed the University’s argument that graduate students’ work is a part of their education at GW.

“What most administrators fall back on is that graduate students are having an educational experience and not actually working, but I would argue that we’re doing both at the same time, and that that’s not a contradiction,” he said.

The group of graduate students – the vast majority of whom study in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences – partnered with the SEIU Local 500, the same labor group that helped RAs’ attempt to unionize last academic year, to move their effort forward. The group also represents GW’s union of adjunct faculty and American University’s union of graduate student employees.

Christopher Honey, the communications director at the SEIU Local 500, declined to say what assistance the group has been providing graduate student employees.

“I’ve been to a couple of the grad students’ meetings and it feels like there is a lot of energy and interest in this – especially since the graduate student workers can see that their counterparts at American University have already formed a union,” Honey said in an email.

Scott Patrick, a sixth-year doctoral student at American University who helped launch the unionization effort at the school last year, said a union has already allowed graduate workers to negotiate for free health care provided to doctoral students who have fellowships.

Patrick said AU officials also initially opposed unionization efforts, saying graduate student labor was a part of their educational experience.

“Obviously every graduate student worker who works, grading papers or doing research, considers what they’re doing work,” he said.

Addressing the specifics
Hannah Seymour, a first-year doctoral student in the physics department, said unionization could help address scheduling issues that she’s encountered. Seymour said she had no input in creating her teaching schedule and was placed in a class at 8:30 a.m. on days when she has a night class in her program, which does not end until after 8 p.m.

“I’m partially responsible for the undergraduate students getting as much as they can out of the course, and it worries me that I’m not able to help them reach their full potential in the course because of the scheduling and the pressure that it puts on me,” she said.

Chloe Ahmann, a sixth-year doctoral student in the anthropology department who signed the letter, said she is aware of pay gaps within her department and others across the University. She said last year, despite leading a class on her own, she was paid several thousand dollars less than other TAs in her department – a situation she said was “frustrating” and “insulting.”

“At the very least, GWU owes graduate student employees an explanation for these disparities,” she said.

Lillian Bautista, Riley Burke, Dani Grace and Rebecca Leppert contributed reporting.

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