Students, administrators need to support graduate student unionization

Andreas Meyris, a representative of Graduate Students United, wrote this in collaboration with other GSU members.

In his March 9 message, Provost Forrest Maltzman argued against graduate student unionization. This was after a 16-month campaign, with hundreds of supporters signing cards in support of a union with bargaining rights. Like graduate students across the country, GW students will continue to push for their basic rights as workers.

Graduate student unionization campaigns at a number of universities withdrew their petitions from the National Labor Relations Board last month. President Donald Trump’s recent appointees to the NLRB are hostile to organized labor. Each of these men, if handed a case from any of these universities, would most certainly overturn the NLRB precedent granting graduate students the right to unionize. Far from accepting defeat, as Maltzman believes, other graduate unions are pursuing a strategy like ours. They are hoping to forge a relationship directly with their respective universities – a relationship that includes independent collective bargaining and the chance for substantive improvements in our status as employees without allowing politics to play a role in determining the conditions of our livelihoods.

While a university administrator promising to abide by a traditional NLRB election sounds like a forward-looking and generous offer, it is, unmistakably, a maneuver to overturn the very decision they claim to support. This is not just our opinion, but the shared opinion of the SEIU, American Federation of Teachers, the United Auto Workers and UNITE-HERE, who, in a joint statement called on private universities – including GW – to recognize graduate student labor.

What GSU wants is recognition by the University and an opportunity to bargain in good faith. We represent a working majority of graduate student employees and would be willing to demonstrate that through a third-party election at any time. This is not unprecedented. When New York University became the first private university to recognize its graduate student union, it did so without the NLRB, and for decades graduate student workers at dozens of public universities have unionized without detriment to their relationship with faculty. This claim is backed by a 2013 survey by scholars from Cornell and Rutgers universities, and a more recent report by the Economic Policy Institute.

Maltzman states that GW intends to make doctoral funding packages more competitive by 2021. First, this claim, neither formal nor guaranteed, provides no monetary amount and only promises to “Ensure the financial competitiveness of graduate aid packages.” While we are happy that Maltzman acknowledges that our funding needs to be improved, we take issue with his willingness to provide vague outlines for the future rather than concrete steps for the present. Most of us cannot wait that long for an increase in our wages. Maltzman also ignores the fact that Master’s students get paid dramatically less for the exact same work as Ph.D students and often without the same benefits.

Maltzman also claims that our funding packages are “worth over $50,000 annually.” This is grossly misleading. Although it is true that funding packages vary, in reality most Ph.D graduate workers at GW actually take home closer to $20,000 per academic year and some graders make only $7,000. Summer funding is not always offered or guaranteed. The only way the $50,000 figure he proposes could possibly add up is if tuition remission were counted as income – just as members of Congress tried to do in the most recent tax reform bill. That motion failed because thousands of graduate students, educators and University administrators stood up to take action. At the time, leaders of private universities supposedly fought against this conflation of benefit and income. Apparently, that was an empty gesture.

To address one final claim: We know that there are a number of channels through which students can dialogue with University officials about their educational experience. We tried those channels, but the University still failed to recognize our needs. Individual department heads, for example, are already working hard to get funding for their graduate students and are at the mercy of those decisions made by the administration. Asking our individual department chairs for better health care and a living wage, among other essentials, is moot and does the work of driving a wedge between grad students and faculty, a concern Maltzman cites in his letter.

The Student Association will be considering a resolution at its next meeting regarding graduate student unionization. We hope that the SA, and the broader campus community, stands with us in demanding better healthcare and fair pay for GW’s workers, and we hope that the administration will listen. If anyone in the administration is uncertain about who we are and what we want, or how much we work or how much we get paid, we invite them, again, to meet with us.

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