I am a graduate student employee in the College of Computer and Information Science. For the past year, I have been helping organize a union because we deserve to have a say in our working conditions. Though we are certainly students, we are also employed as instructors, graders, research assistants and writing tutors. The university cannot function without our work, yet it refuses to recognize that we are workers.
As workers, we deal with workplace issues. Unlike our unionized colleagues at other universities, we lack reliable child care, affordable health care for spouses and dependents, a variety of visa options, guaranteed summer funding and a formalized grievance procedure to protect against abuse and harassment.
This list is not exhaustive, but has been formed by thousands of conversations with our peers. I have personally heard stories of professors making their research assistants sign “contracts” to work 60 hours a week. My friends have been forced to navigate the Title IX office, missed important meetings because they had to stay home to take care of their children and wasted time and energy trying — often unsuccessfully — to secure mental health appointments at UHCS.
We want to work collectively with the administration to solve these problems. And we want those solutions to be written into a democratically-ratified union contract which cannot be changed unilaterally without our consent.
I recently joined four other workers from departments across the university in our fourth meeting with the administration. Our goal is to secure a fair unionization election, and hundreds of Northeastern community members have signed on to our petition calling for exactly that. However, we were told that the university does not believe that an election agreement is “in the best interest of the students.” They refused to agree to a democratic process. Instead, they would have us go to the National Labor Relations Board, which is currently controlled by anti-union Trump appointees who have publicly said that they would take advantage of any opportunity to rescind our legal right to organize.
This risks destroying the right to organize for all graduate employees at private universities, which includes those at Boston College, Boston University, Harvard University, the University of Chicago, the University of Pennsylvania, Yale University and Columbia University. Why would we throw them — and ourselves — under the bus? We would never do that, and the university knows it. They also know that, if we had a vote, we would win.
Northeastern would rather ally itself with the Trump administration than respect our lawful right to organize. In a mass email sent to all graduate students on February 28, the administration accused us of seeking to “sidestep this established process and the associated procedural safeguards.” That statement is only true if by “established process,” they mean “the Trump administration,” and by “procedural safeguards,” they mean “cadre of comically evil, mustache-twirling, anti-union board members.”
I stand in solidarity with undergraduate activists who are pushing for change on multiple fronts: Progressive Student Alliance, #NEUtoo, DivestNU, NU Students for Justice in Palestine, Huskies Organizing with Labor, Students Against Institutional Discrimination, Students Working for an Accessible Northeastern and the Housing Justice Coalition. We believe that a better university is possible through collective action.
The university cannot run without the labor of graduate employees. We are not going to stop organizing until Northeastern recognizes the value of our labor and our lawful right to form a union.
Alex Ahmed is a fourth-year PhD Student in Personal Health Informatics.