March 15, 2018
Four unions began an “unprecedented” national campaign to aid graduate workers at private universities in attaining collective bargaining rights on Wednesday. Consisting of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), United Automobile Workers (UAW)—of which Boston College’s graduate union is a chapter—the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and UNITE HERE, the campaign began with the delivery of letters signed by various union leaders to the administrations of Yale University, Columbia University, University of Chicago, BC, and Loyola University Chicago, as well as a press call on Wednesday afternoon announcing the effort.
“Despite clear votes in favor of unionization at your university, you have attempted to silence graduate workers by using the Trump National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to rig the system against them,” the letter reads. “Your refusal to bargain with a democratically-chosen union both ignores the value of RAs and TAs as workers and contradicts the fundamental values for which your university stands.”
The letter was signed by the presidents of the four unions: Randi Weingarten of the AFT, Mary Kay Henry of the SEIU, Dennis Williams of the UAW, and Donald Taylor of UNITE HERE. Williams and Weingarten were present on the press call, along with union leaders from each of the private universities.
Williams began the discussion with a statement:
“At many of these institutions where the majority have voted yes, administrators have respected their decision and are now working cooperatively with graduate workers to negotiate agreements and ensure the best outcomes for the universities, the students, and the educators.
“But that isn’t the case everywhere. Some universities are refusing to respect the results of these elections and have appealed to the Donald Trump National Labor Relations Board. We don’t agree with that. We think that instead of trying to hide behind anti-union labor boards, they should acknowledge the voice of these workers who are so critical to the quality of our universities.”
Williams then mentioned the letters given to the administrations from the unions, whose worldwide membership combined reaches around 4.4 million workers, and their significance.
“I want to be very clear,” he said. “Today’s actions signal a new phase of our involvement and support of a academic organizing. These workers are not going away, and we will stand with them for as long as it takes and and we will coordinate our resources to support them.”
Bryn Spielvogel, a third-year doctorate student in the Lynch School of Education, spoke on behalf of BC’s Graduate Employees Union.
“We won our union at Boston College last September with a clear majority vote,” Spielvogel said. “Of course, our fight for a union had started long before that because we believe that making improvements in our working conditions, for example securing fair pay, will allow us to focus on doing the best work possible rather than having to worry about whether or not we can pay rent.”
Spielvogel and the other members of the union had originally hoped that BC would voluntarily recognize the union following the election, as New York University and the New School had done.
Vice President for Human Resources explained in a letter to the BC community, however, that the union’s decision to withdraw its petition to the NLRB rendered the election held in September moot, meaning that there is no legal basis to require the University to bargain, and no intention on its part to do so voluntarily. BC maintains that its graduate student workers are students and not employees, and that unionization would fundamentally alter the collegial relationship between graduate students and faculty.
“As someone who has organized and fought for this for a while now, to have the results of our election discredited feels wrong, and so because of that and because this is coming together, we’re really thrilled to have the support of this coalition,” Spielvogel said. “It sends a very clear message that we’re not going to go away and that we’re going to keep building momentum in collaboration with other unions.”
Several of the union leaders stressed that collective bargaining for graduate student workers at public universities has been widespread beginning in the 1970s, and proves that collective bargaining works in the university setting.
“There is a long history of … collective bargaining at public universities that has been there for decades, and there some 60 university campuses where workers are represented around the country, particularly, mostly, in the public sector,” said Julie Kushner, director of UAW Region 9A. “What that shows is that collective bargaining works for graduate workers. And this idea that somehow private universities in the U.S. operate entirely different is just a myth, and in fact, it’s just been a basic way that these administrations have hidden behind the law to try and get away without having to bargain … There is no difference between a graduate teaching assistant at a research university like University of Connecticut and a private university like Columbia.”
Featured Image by Kaitlin Meeks / Photo Editor