Graduate student workers rally for union recognition


Hannah Bernstein

More than 50 students gathered in the West Village Quad Wednesday to rally after union organizers announced that a majority of graduate student workers signed cards declaring support for unionization.

The Graduate Employees of Northeastern University are attempting to form a union with United Autoworkers Union, which already represents thousands of graduate-level university employees across the country. Northeastern’s union would include graduate students who work as teaching assistants, researchers, residence directors or have other employment on campus. Currently, graduate student workers lack the ability to negotiate their pay or benefits with the university.

In the past, grad students have faced problems with cancelled room reservations, emails from the university telling students not to unionize and interactions with Northeastern police who told students they could not hand out fliers.

Lara Rose, a second-year English Ph.D. student, said organizers have gained enough support among graduate students to successfully create a union if there were to be a vote. Rose said the next step is to ask the university to recognize their legal right to vote to unionize.

“We are rallying to celebrate majority support for the graduate student union,” Rose said. “We’re calling on the university to respect our right to vote.”

Rose spoke at the rally and led chants as the group walked through Ruggles Station to 716 Columbus Ave., where Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun’s office is located.

“We haven’t called for the election yet,” Rose said. “We’re waiting for them to say, ‘Okay, we respect your rights. We legally accept your legal right to vote.’”

Protesters shouted chants such as “What’s disgusting? Union busting” and “No contract, no peace” as they marched through campus. When they reached 716 Columbus, Rose collected signatures from the protesters and was escorted by a Northeastern police officer to deliver the letter to Aoun’s office upstairs.

Sam Maron, a fourth-year Ph.D. sociology student and union organizer, said graduate students want bargaining power.

“We’re here because we want a seat at the table,” he said. “We do the work that is essential to make Northeastern possible. We do the research and teaching that are central to Northeastern’s mission and we want a voice in setting our wages, benefits and conditions.”

According to a Northeastern University statement, the university maintains its commitment to graduate students but does not support the formation of the union.

“We continue to believe that representation of students by a non-academic third party that has no connection to the university is not in the best interest of our students, and could dramatically change the relationship students have with their faculty mentors,” the Nov. 8 statement read.

Maron, who has been involved with the union efforts since they began last year, said the workers have concerns such as affordable child care, health insurance benefits, job security and summer funding.

“I started talking to my colleagues and I heard about some of the problems they faced,” Maron said. “I decided that I wanted to try and help work to make that better.”

Maron himself lacks summer funding for his research and said he’s had to seek out other jobs outside of academia to pay his rent.

“I’m expected to continue doing research and writing, but I often have to find other kinds of work to be able to continue paying rent in the summer,” Maron said.

Protest attendee and Ph.D. student Elisabeth Wilder also sees problems with the current system. While she gets her health insurance through the university, she lacks coverage for dental care.

Wilder, a fifth-year sociology candidate, said she knows some of her colleagues have had much worse experiences than her, and she is hoping for serious change.

“I am firmly of the belief that if there is injustice for one person, then the system is not just,” Wilder said. “You can’t have some people free and some people not.”

Maron said ultimately, he wants university officials to acknowledge how crucial graduate student workers are for the success of academics on campus.

“Graduate work might seem abstract — we’re often invisible — but we do teaching and research that is essential to the functioning of the university,” Maron said. “We are both students and workers.”