‘Reprehensible and disgusting’: Graduate student union fires back at university for alleging protest coincided with memorial ceremony


Alexa Coultoff

A message advertising the graduate student union protest on the ISEC bridge. Messages like this one appeared all over campus in the days prior to April 14 to advertise the protest.

Sonel Cutler, campus editor

Following a recent protest calling on Northeastern officials to allow graduate students to unionize, the university admonished organizers for failing to plan the demonstration around a campus ceremony for the victims of the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing.

“We were surprised and disappointed that this protest was scheduled at the same time the university held a tribute to honor the victims and heroes of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing,” Marirose Sartoretto, a spokesperson for the university, told The News in an email statement April 25. “Many in the Northeastern community were upset by this unfortunate overlap and we sincerely hope that the protesters will plan more thoughtfully in the future.”

But in an April 26 email statement to The News, the GENU-UAW Organizing Committee that staged the protest accused the university of  “weaponiz[ing] the tragedy of the Boston marathon bombing to undermine our labor rights as graduate workers.”

“This is a reprehensible and disgusting response by the university,” the Organizing Committee’s statement said. “It is also a clear attempt to distract from the fact they are unwilling to pay graduate workers a living wage, offer comprehensive health care or childcare, or protect us from exploitation, discrimination, and harassment.”

GENU-UAW also claimed organizers began advertising the protest before the university sent out a campus-wide email April 11 announcing the marathon commemoration event. 

University officials confirmed the email was the first public advertisement of the ceremony.

“Just to be clear, we announced our April 14 rally in emails and flyers starting on April 4, far before the university announced on April 11 the marathon memorial event for the same time. We specifically made sure that the rally would not coincide with the anniversary of the bombing on April 15, which is a solemn day for all Bostonians,” the Organizing Committee’s statement said. 

GENU-UAW emails reviewed by The News verified the protest date had been publicized by April 4. 

“We find it deplorable that the administration would choose to use the memorial event as a means to characterize our rally for a union election as insensitive or careless,” the Organizing Committee’s statement said. “Meanwhile, Northeastern is carelessly attempting to challenge the unionization rights of graduate students across the country. If the university is ready to actually respond to and resolve the concerns that led to our rally, they can stop obstructing our right to a fair union election for all graduate workers.” 

In legal documents sent to the National Labor Relations Board March 28 arguing against the formation of a union, Northeastern refuted the claim that graduate students working as research assistants are school employees. Citing its experiential learning model, the university said that graduate students were not entitled to the benefits of an employer-employee relationship.

“The primary goal of Northeastern’s teaching assistantship is to further students’ experiential learning and prepare students for their careers,” the post-hearing brief reads. “At Northeastern, students are encouraged to learn and appreciate the intellectual rigors of complex research projects and assignments. They are not ‘directed’ in the same way that an employer directs or controls an employee’s work.”

The university’s filing emphasized that the relationship between post-grad students and Northeastern is “an academic relationship, not an employment relationship.”

“They are not students and employees,” the document reads. “They are students.”