By Calli Remillard, news staff
Aiming to improve work conditions, protect student employment and secure benefits, Northeastern graduate students began unionizing over the summer with a national guild.
Graduate Employees of Northeastern University (GENU) started to form a union with United Autoworkers Union (UAW), the national union that represents thousands of graduate students at universities such as Columbia University and New York University. GENU-UAW encompasses all graduate students employed at Northeastern, including teacher’s assistants, writing center consultants and chemists.
“We have a concrete desire for the university to do more,” said Alex Press, a member of the GENU organizing committee and a third–year graduate student pursuing a doctorate in sociology. “We think of it as a movement, not just specific to this campus.”
GENU also aims to provide protection for students potentially affected by President Donald J. Trump’s travel ban for seven Muslim-majority countries through the security of a union contract.
UAW Region 9A Director Julia Kusher condemned the immigration ban in a public statement and said the union would oppose the executive order and support those affected by it.
“Many of the best and brightest researchers in our universities come from the countries affected by his executive order, and his actions aim to close down that free flow of people and ideas that we stand for as a union and a society,” Kusher said in the statement.
UAW’s commitment to protecting students potentially affected by the travel ban was important to graduate students who joined the union.
“Some students will find something else to do to continue their research and avoid going home, for fear of not being able to come back in,” said Daniel Patterson, a member of the organizing committee and a first–year computer science doctorate candidate.
In a Feb. 17 e-mail to university graduate students provided to The News by university spokesperson Matthew McDonald, Northeastern Associate Vice Provost for Graduate Education Phil He said UAW was trying to capitalize on graduate student fears surrounding Trump’s immigration ban.
“The [United Autoworkers Union] has emphasized as part of its initial union organizing message to graduate teaching and research assistants that international students need a union on campus to protect their interests in light of the recent travel ban turmoil,” the e-mail said. “It is unfortunate that the Autoworkers are seeking to exploit student fears and use the campus immigration protests as a means to leverage support for a graduate student union.”
He then requested that the graduate students treat the union’s presence on campus with the same skepticism they would give any unknown organization that could have a substantial impact on their graduate experience.
In the wake of the e-mail, graduate students took to Facebook and shared pictures of themselves and reasons why they support the union with the hashtag ‘#WeAreTheUnion.’ The organization has welcomed and educated new people with their social media campaigns, which continue to garner support, Press said.
Many universities, including Harvard University and Boston College, have also begun to to form graduate student unions, Press said. GENU began to organize after the founders saw the success of graduate student unions at these neighboring universities.
A major benefit to unionizing is that it will give graduate students a voice when it comes to decisions on how money is spent, Patterson said.
Press and Patterson, who work and study in two different departments, said there is little communication across departments and that there are discrepancies in working conditions within all of them.
“One thing people might say is, ‘We don’t have guaranteed funding for the summer, but here’s a stipend for the year’ and then there may be a quarter of that that you just won’t get,” Patterson said.
In the group’s mission statement, the graduate students said there is a need for collective bargaining between the university administration and the union so that working graduate students can focus on providing quality research and education.
“We are a significant part of this institution,” Press said. “We should be involved in the conversations at the university. We want as much involvement, because at the end of the day the union is only as strong as the amount of people helping to actively build it.”
Photo by Lauren Scornavacca
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated that graduate students unionized last month. It has been corrected to say that graduate students began unionizing over the summer.