Northeastern graduate students file federal charges against Northeastern as intimidation efforts to interfere with graduate union continue


Alexa Coultoff

A wall on campus with chalk messaging promoting graduate students right to unionize. The union representing grad students has filed charges against Northeastern after university officials allegedly illegally retaliated against students for chalking.

Alexa Coultoff, news staff

Northeastern graduate students on May 5 filed an unfair labor practice charge, or ULP, against Northeastern after university police allegedly retaliated against two union organizers, visiting their workplaces to question their participation in union action.

The federal charges, filed with the National Labor Relations Board by the union representing graduate students, GENU-UAW, are the latest allegations against the university related to a growing number of reported anti-union messages. According to the ULP, graduate students claim the university intimidated workers with coercive statements, messaging and interrogation tactics, practices that are outlawed by federal labor law.

Niki Thomas, a fifth-year graduate student worker in the bioengineering program, says she was one of the intimidated union organizers. The Northeastern University Police Department, or NUPD, officers visited Thomas’ desk in ISEC after she drew on campus property with chalk.

“After participating in a chalking activity, I was shocked to have armed officers show up at my lab desk without notice to threaten me with false charges,” Thomas said in a statement released May 8 by GENU-UAW.

The charges, she said, were vandalism on account of drawing chalk messages in Centennial Common alongside other GENU-UAW members and members of the adjunct faculty union SEIU 509.

Thomas told The News she was among a group of 20 or more people chalking and putting up flyers, but said NUPD only targeted marginalized union organizers like herself, who afterwards received phone calls and emails from the police.

In a press release statement to The News, GENU-UAW claimed the actions of the NUPD violated the right of graduate workers to “participate in a union free of retaliation and intimidation.” The charge includes a request for an order to make Northeastern “stop abusing their police power.”

Northeastern spokespeople declined to comment on the alleged interactions.

The National Labor Relations Board, or NLRB, receives about 20,000 to 30,000 unfair labor charges per year from employees, unions and employers, according to their website. It is illegal for an employer or union to retaliate against employees for filing charges or participating in NLRB investigations or proceedings, the outline reads.

The graduate workers are anticipating a decision from the NLRB regional director to defend their right to form an official union, despite Northeastern’s previous resistance. In the meantime, organizers continue to advocate in the form of protests, flyers and chalk messages. 

According to Northeastern’s chalking guidelines, student organizations must only use the chalk made available by the Center for Student Involvement. Any writing done with “other chalk” is considered vandalism and subject to referral to the Office of Student Conduct and Conflict Resolution.

But the broader concern GENU-UAW organizers voiced was the alleged efforts of the NUPD to target specifically marginalized members of their organization, despite a greater group of individuals who partake in the same activities.

In 2018, GradQ, an organization that supports queer and trans graduate students at the university, was registered to have a table at a PhD networking event. 

The NUPD only acted to remove Alex Ahmed, a trans woman, and her co-president from the event amidst a mass of other graduate students who were tabling, according to a Facebook video posted by GENU-UAW. 

“Northeastern is just relying on their police to intimidate [graduate students] when they know we have every right to have a presence on campus,” Ahmed said. “They’re betting that the grad unions are made afraid by the police presence so that we stop organizing.”

Looking back on her experience five years ago, Ahmed expressed disbelief that little has changed in the way Northeastern attempts to intimidate graduate students away from forming a union.

Ahmed said it does not surprise her that marginalized students tend to be targeted, but says it speaks to how much unionization will help people with unique identities amplify their voices against discrimination.

Huskies Organizing with Labor, or HOWL, a coalition of 60-plus student organizations, has come forward in support of GENU-UAW. The organization sent a support statement to the NLRB condemning the interrogations graduate students experienced last week.

“Our chalked messages supporting campus workers and calling out administration have been met with, at worst, an immediate hosing-down by the Facilities Department,” the statement reads. “We have never been approached or threatened by NUPD, nor faced repercussions from Northeastern administration for any chalking activities.”