Supporting Each Other During the #BCShutdown and Beyond
BC’s sudden decision to evict undergraduates and transition to online classes for the rest of the semester took many of us by surprise.As each of us makes contingency plans for our classes, labs, and research, even as we experience the instability of our positions and funding structures, we’d like you to know, first and foremost, that you are not alone in this. As a union, we’re in this together.
Second, in the coming weeks, we’d like to hear from you. How have you responded to the shutdown? What are your challenges, limitations, and creative solutions? Do you have the tools and resources you need to make this transition? How is this shutdown impacting you and your family? As a union, we have an opportunity to share resources and advocate for our needs.
Times of instability magnify the precarity of our positions as graduate workers at BC. We’re fighting for the protection of a union contract so that when the unexpected happens, we know we’re secure, economically and personally, and we know what is expected of us in our work. And as always, BC will continue to work through this shutdown and transition to online instruction because of the work we do as graduate workers.
And as always, our union is strongest when we have as many people active in the movement as possible. Send us a message if you are interested in helping grow the union by sharing your story, getting involved organizing, etc. We’ll also be sharing our stories of how we’re being affected personally using the hashtag #BCshutdown online. Join in on Facebook, Twitter, and/or Instagram.
The Boston College Graduate Employees Union (BCGEU-UAW) picketed and held a rally on March 10 where dozens of people urged the BC administration to meet with members of their newly elected bargaining committee. The union called on the University to establish a contract that would address their concerns about harassment, pay, and health care.
“None of the things that we’re asking for in a contract are unreasonable,” Sam Levinson, a member of the bargaining team and a Ph.D. candidate in the chemistry department, said in an interview at the protest. “These are all things that graduate workers at other universities already have.”
Dave Cavell—a candidate running for the Mass. 4th Congressional District, which includes BC’s campus—spoke at the rally. At a congressional debate held on BC’s campus in February, Cavell expressed his support for graduate student unionization.
“My wife is a grad student here who is fighting alongside you,” Cavell said to the protesters. “I started out in the union myself. … Here is one thing that I learned: When we fight, we win. That’s what you’re doing today.”
Kyle McCaffrey, a graduate student at the School of Theology and Ministry and a member of the union’s elections committee, pointed to the Catholic church’s history of supporting unions.
“For 129 years, the popes have said that all people, not just Catholics, have a right to unionize,” McCaffrey said. “Catholicism grants no religious exemption to this administration. It impels them to respect our rights, to bargain with us as equals, and to make room for us to be better women and men—better people—for others.”
Associate Vice President of Communications Jack Dunn said in a statement to The Heights after the protest that there is no legal basis compelling BC to negotiate.
“Their action nullified the election of 2017, and ended any legal basis for the University to grant the students’ request to bargain,” the statement read. “It is important to note that there was never overwhelming support for this unionization effort among graduate students. The now moot election resulted in approximately 1/3 of the eligible graduate students voting in favor of the union, 1/3 (although 46 fewer than the votes in favor) voting against the union, and 1/3 of graduate students not voting at all.”
The statement asserts that BC provides adequate support to its graduate students, such as annual stipends, tax-free tuition, and free health care. The statement also says that it opposes graduate student unionization, claiming that it would undermine the student-to-faculty relationship with an employer-to-employee relationship.
“Boston College has a long history of supporting unions on campus, as evidenced by the strong relationships we have had with our Facilities and Police unions,” the statement says. “The University, however, believes that graduate student unionization in any form undermines the longstanding collegial mentoring relationship experience between students and faculty that is a cornerstone of the BC academic community.”
BCGEU-UAW first filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in March 2017, seeking to hold an election to become a fully unionized group. The NLRB ruled in favor of the election in May 2017, and graduate students formally voted to organize the following September. BC appealed the NLRB decision prior to the vote, and BCGEU-UAW subsequently withdrew its petition, citing that the NLRB was appointed by President Donald Trump and they had seen it “undo rights and protections of workers”—if the board had ruled for the University, the union would have lost its legal right to bargain.
Graduate student workers have continued to rally for the University to voluntarily bargain with the BCGEU-UAW, seeking a contract that, among other things, guarantees health care coverage and protection from discrimination and harassment in the workplace. The bargaining committee is a five-member group that is “expected to bargain for the good of the unit as a whole according to the bargaining goals ratified by the entire unit membership,” according to the BCGEU-UAW website.
“None of these asks are outrageous, and indeed, other contracts for graduate workers at other universities, public and private, address issues such as these,” Levinson said in an email to The Heights after the protest.
In a letter released shortly after the withdrawal of the petition, Vice President for Human Resources David Trainor said that without a legally recognized bargaining agent, there was no legal challenge to the University’s position. Since then, the University has refused to voluntarily bargain with the group.
“[Administrators] are going to tell everyone that we are only concerned about money, as if they are not,” said Josh Lown, a Ph.D. student in the BC School of Social Work and a member of the newly elected bargaining committee, to the group of protestors.
“As if there’s not a direct line between how much wealth they accumulate and how little they offer us. … The powerful classes of bureaucrats and managers from the factory line to the ivory tower have always been getting fat out of our labor, scolding us for not pinching pennies while they comfortably own homes in the most expensive towns and neighborhoods in the region.”
Bryn Spielvogel, a graduate student at the Lynch School of Education and member of BCGEU-UAW, served as the rally’s primary host. She emphasized the University’s poor treatment of its graduate workers and their need to quickly negotiate a contract.
“So this is really not a question about whether or not we’re workers, but rather a question of how the University is going to treat us,” Spielvogel said to the crowd. “Thus far it has not been so good. We’re hoping to turn that around and start working with the University to negotiate a fair contract—make sure that everyone has a living wage, make sure that everyone has comprehensive health care coverage and protections from discrimination and harassment in the workplace.”
“It’s not only our legal rights that Boston College is ignoring,” Spielvogel said. “BC’s refusal to recognize the union and negotiate a contract directly contradicts the Catholic social teachings that honor the dignity of work and the rights of workers to form and join the union.”
Featured Image by Julia Kiersznowski / Heights Editor
Betsy Pingree has been living with friends for free because she can’t afford an apartment while finishing her dissertation on the precarious conditions of migrant laborers in the 20th century. Standing with fellow graduate-student workers at Boston College who are demanding recognition of their union, she acknowledged the irony. Like many in her cohort on this leafy Catholic campus in the Boston area, she works as many as 60 hours a week on her research and teaching. She earns a stipend of $22,600 a year; the average one-bedroom apartment in Boston costs $11,000 more than that. She used to live with her husband, a disabled veteran, who helped support her with his government payments. Now that he works out of state, she can’t pay her own rent.
On March 10, Pingree stood outside a Gothic-style Jesuit church at the entrance to the school with other graduate teaching and research assistants, holding placards that read, “Worker rights are Catholic values.” The rally came one day before Boston College announced it would cancel on-campus classes and shift to online instruction because of the coronavirus threat. BC declared that while fully funded graduate students would keep their stipends and benefits, hourly paid graduate students would get a check only “if they are fulfilling their regular responsibilities—and work on campus.” Meanwhile, Sam Levinson, a chemistry PhD candidate, said research assistants like her who work in labs were feeling pressured by their supervisors to continue showing up for work until the university announced it would “ramp down” research by the end of the day on March 20. The crisis only underscored the lack of protection faced by these workers, who accuse Boston College of betraying the Jesuit tradition of reverence for unions by refusing to bargain with them after they won a union election in 2017. “Without a contract, we have no access to any kind of guarantee that our bosses will protect us from harm in this situation,” Levinson said. At the rally, the organizers hoped to grab the attention of a delegation from the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities that was visiting the campus as part of a review process through which schools like BC are supposed to demonstrate their commitment to Jesuit values, including on issues like payment for employees. While the university has negotiated with unions representing police and facilities workers, administrators insist that Pingree and her colleagues are students, not workers. And in opposing their right to form a union, the school has invoked a legal argument that has found increasing favor with federal agencies and courts: that BC’s Catholic mission puts the workers outside the protection of the law—in this case, outside the jurisdiction of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which enforces the right of private-sector workers to unionize.
The rise in corporate religious rights has coincided with an erosion in legal protections for workers overall. Forced to turn to a higher power than the law, workers at Catholic institutions have invoked the long history of support for unions in Catholic teaching. These workers have mounted campaigns accusing their institutions of taking advantage of the Trump administration’s evisceration of union rights while abandoning their Catholic values. “The efforts by these universities come at a time when a conservative judicial majority right now in the Supreme Court—and a growing sentiment on the federal court benches in general—favors using constitutional principles like the First Amendment as a battering ram against workers’ ability to bargain collectively,” said Joseph McCartin, a professor of history at Georgetown University. “What you’re seeing is institutions that are hiding behind the law but ignoring their own social teaching.”
The NLRB is composed of Donald Trump appointees who have made clear their intention to roll back union rights, including those of graduate students at private universities like BC. In September the board issued a draft rule—which is under review after a flood of public comments—to revoke the right of these students to unionize under its jurisdiction, reversing a ruling from 2016 that spurred a wave of graduate student unionization nationwide. In a second blow to workers at religious universities, a federal appeals court in January ruled that Duquesne University did not have to recognize its adjunct faculty union because of its Catholic mission. “The workers at these institutions find themselves doubly betrayed, because on the one hand, like workers everywhere, they’re finding that the law provides less and less protection for them in the 21st-century economy,” McCartin said. “At the same time, they are working in institutions whose principles and teachings would seem to uphold their right to come together, and yet those institutions are now telling them that no, they don’t have those rights.”
Since the 2016 election, labor organizers have anticipated that a Trump-appointed NLRB might issue a sweeping exemption to religious universities. The fear of such a ruling prompted the Boston College graduate union to withdraw its petition to enforce its election in 2018. In a statement to The Nation, BC said this withdrawal “ended any legal basis for the University to grant the students’ request to bargain.” (The statement added that teaching and research assistants receive “generous annual stipends.”) But Bryn Spielvogel, an education PhD candidate who makes $21,000 during the academic year, said the university shouldn’t rely on the Trump administration’s anti-union position. “They no longer have a legal obligation to recognize and bargain with our union, but we believe that they still have a moral obligation to do so, particularly as a Jesuit university that holds up social justice as a core value and mission of the university,” Spielvogel said.
A higher law: Graduate student workers at Boston College argue that the university is betraying its Jesuit values in refusing to recognize their union. (Daniel Patterson)
In August 2013, Margaret Mary Vojtko was found unconscious from a heart attack on the front lawn of her derelict home after being let go from her job as an adjunct professor at Duquesne University. Vojtko, who at age 83 was being treated for ovarian cancer, had been earning less than $10,000 a year with no health benefits and was laid off without severance or retirement benefits from an institution where she had taught for a quarter of a century. She never regained consciousness, and her death two weeks later became a rallying cry for the plight of adjuncts, who work on fixed-term contracts; such non-tenure-track positions make up more than 70 percent of teaching positions in higher education. The year before her death, adjunct professors at Duquesne voted to form a union, but the university refused to recognize them, claiming it didn’t have to because of its Catholic mission.
The adjunct professors at Duquesne point out that the university’s Catholic mission has not prevented it from recognizing the rights of police, public safety dispatchers, and other workers who are unionized at its Pittsburgh campus. But according to the school, the adjuncts are different because “the academic work of the University across all disciplines is the work of the Church and contributes to the Church’s mission of evangelization.” Clint Benjamin, an adjunct professor of English at Duquesne, rejected that idea. “I would say that there is zero religious content in my curriculum,” he said. “I guess by showing up, in their eyes, I work for the mission, but you don’t have to be religious to go there. I didn’t have to take a fealty oath or anything.”
He called Duquesne’s decision to evoke its Catholic mission against the adjuncts “willfully hypocritical.” Duquesne, in response, pointed to a statement from the Rev. Dennis Holtschneider, the president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities. “Duquesne voluntarily recognizes four unions on campus and is not so easily dismissed as anti-union, or anti-church-teaching on unions,” he wrote. “The question at some Catholic universities is less about unions as a larger reality, and more about particular unions in particular situations, especially when the Catholic identity of an institution could be impacted.”
But Benjamin noted the school’s Catholic mission should make it even more inclined to protect adjuncts, who work in precarious conditions. He has not been assigned any classes at Duquesne this semester because of low enrollment. When they have work, adjuncts there make only $4,000 a course.