A Primer on Grad Labor

What is a union?

A union is a group of workers who come together to democratically make decisions about their workplace. Most unions seek to bargain a contract with their employers about the terms of their work including things like pay, healthcare, time off, and working conditions.

Why do workers need a union?

When most people think of unions, they think about factories, but unions exist in all sorts of professions, from nursing, to teaching, to journalism. All workers can benefit from having a say in how their workplace is run. Unions are committed to democracy and solidarity. They try and improve the quality of life for the most vulnerable workers.

Why are graduate students workers?

Graduate Students United, the graduate student union, has been active on this campus since 2007 and has won some concessions from the university, including multiple pay raises and an increased childcare stipend. GSU’s main goal, however, is to bargain a contract with the university. In the fall of 2017, a critical mass of graduate students demanded union representation and the National Labor Relations Board oversaw a democratic election to determine if graduate students wanted union representation. GSU won the election in a landslide, and the university should have begun bargaining a contract with GSU that quarter. However, the university argued throughout that election campaign that graduate students do not deserve a union because they aren’t workers. Graduate students work as teaching assistants, research assistants, workshop coordinators, lecturers, writing interns, and more. They teach classes, grade papers, run discussion sections, hold office hours, and do much of the work that allows undergraduate education to happen. Currently, the university is still refusing to recognize the results of the election and ignoring the democratic voice of graduate workers. They are maintaining their position that grad workers do not contribute to the work of the university at all.

Why do graduate students need a union?

Despite being experts in their fields, carrying out cutting edge research, and teaching at one of the most selective colleges in the US, graduate workers face a lot of obstacles. Graduate workers face low pay, late paychecks, and the expectation that they do work without being paid at all. They work second and third jobs to pay rent and afford childcare. Many forgo receiving healthcare while working for this university because they cannot afford it or access it. The failure of the university to treat its grad workers as anything other than cheap labor they can disrespect and ignore affects the quality of instruction grad workers can provide. Grad workers take great pride in the work that they do, particularly their work in the classroom. They want this university to respect that work and provide the tools and resources they need to live up to their potential as teachers. Your learning environment is their working environment, and GSU is fighting to improve both.

What can you do to help?

Find the graduate workers in your life! Look for us wearing buttons when we teach, you might be surprised at how much of your instruction is done by grad workers. We are your TA’s, your tutors, your professors, and your thesis advisors. Follow GSU on Facebook or Twitter. Add your name to our solidarity list to get notifications about upcoming rallies and actions as we continue to pressure the university to recognize us.