What can we realistically expect from “collective bargaining”?
To get a sense what to realistically expect from a collectively bargained contract, agreed to by both BC graduate employees and the BC administration, we can look to what has happened at other universities. Graduate employee union contracts have included increased stipends, expanded health benefits, improved rights for international graduate students, protections against discrimination, a fair process for resolving grievances, and more. You can see many specific examples here.
We can also see what has NOT happened – masters programs have not been closed down, the number of graduate students have not been reduced. Improved working conditions, higher stipends, better benefits, these all would make BC a more attractive place to be a graduate student and make the BC graduate programs stronger. This is why many other universities, have already agreed to respect the democratic voice of their graduate employees and negotiate. This includes other private religious universities similar to BC (Loyola, Georgetown, Fordham).
The majority of graduate employees have signed on in support of the union to build a better Boston College, for ourselves and for future students.
What have other graduate workers won through collective bargaining?
- Contractually-guaranteed annual across-the-board stipend increases and timely payments.
- Enhanced dental, vision, and mental health insurance (including lower co-pays for services and prescriptions).
- Improved family benefits, such as dependent health coverage, childcare subsidies and paid maternity leave.
- Workload protections that enhance the quality of education.
- Vacation and sick leave for research assistants.
- Subsidized public transportation services.
- Protections against discriminatory practices, sexual harassment and assault.
- Improved disability access and resources for people of color.
- Establishment of a fair and transparent grievance procedure.
I heard a Director of Grad Studies say that the Union would level stipends and bring mine down to those below me. Has that happened at other universities with unions?
No. Collective bargaining has not produced that result at other universities.
At the University of Washington a variable pay system existed before the contract and continues under the contract. Under that system, there are minimum pay rates that all departments must follow, but departments are free to pay higher rates. Graduate workers at UW democratically chose to preserve that system, and, while those at the lower pay rates have experienced larger increases, everyone’s pay has gone up after unionization.
In another example, under the first contract at NYU, the minimum stipends for the poorest-paid workers went up 38% over 4 years, while the small number of people above the minimum got at least a 15% raise over 4 years. Again, no one took a pay cut. In the second contract at NYU, the lowest paid workers at NYU Poly received signing bonuses of up to $1,500 and will see their hourly wage double (from $10 to $20 per hour) over the life of the contract, while the highest paid PhD workers received signing bonuses of up to $750 and will see their total compensation increase by roughly 13 percent.
A slightly different example is UConn, where graduate assistants had the same pay rates before unionization and the contract raised all those by 3% per year (in addition to significant increases in fee waivers that are worth an additional 3.2-7.6 percent wage increase, depending on FTE and academic standing). The contract also ensures additional step increases based on academic progress.
In all cases, these guaranteed gains were larger than the small percentage in membership dues, which is why these contracts were overwhelmingly ratified.
Feel free to read summaries of the before and after effects of collective bargaining at these and various other universities on the BCGEU-UAW website.
At Boston College, we will decide what to bargain for and we will determine our own fates collectively with the ratification of our contract. In hundreds of conversations across campus over the last two years, no one has said the Union should propose leveling pay or that anyone should take a pay cut, so we can rest assured pay leveling will not be a union proposal.
What will a union mean for departmental autonomy? Will professors still be able to make decisions regarding what’s best for their department? What sorts of standardization will occur across the departments.
A union contract will mean that graduate students will have a real voice in institutional decisions that affect our working conditions. Currently there are many university-wide policies that affect all graduate students (for example, health care coverage), and with a contract we’ll be able to modify and improve these policies as well as to preserve the policies that work well. But as graduate students we also know that the diversity in our departments exists and we can shape policies to take that into account.
Most importantly, with a union, we will have a fair say in any changes that affect us as graduate workers. As research and teaching assistants we know better than anyone how both university-wide and departmental decisions affect us. A union gives us a democratic voice in our workplace and a way to enact positive change through negotiations with the university. We hope that BC will follow the example of other institutions in stopping their efforts to prevent a union, and instead allow us to express our democratic voice in the election and commit to negotiate fairly with us once the election is over.
Boston College claims that a union will interfere with the “collegial relationship” graduate employees have with faculty. Is that true? How will unionization affect my relationship with my advisor/PI?
No. In their efforts to convince us to vote no, the University continues to raise fears about this even though there is no evidence that graduate workers’ unions negatively affect their relationship with faculty.
In fact, the only peer-reviewed study of the question found that “union-represented graduate student employees report higher levels of personal and professional support, unionized graduate student employees fare better on pay, and unionized and nonunionized students report similar perceptions of academic freedom.”
BCGEU-UAW members see our union as a way to address issues related to our employment directly with our employer–Boston College–thus freeing us to have an academic relationship with our advisors, PIs, and other faculty.
Would unionization prevent me from spending as many hours in the lab as I want? Has that happened at any other universities?
No. Collective bargaining has not produced that result at other universities where RAs have collective bargaining. If you look at two current UAW contracts that include RAS, you can see in both cases that the workload language does not have the effect of preventing one from spending hours in the lab.
Instead, because collective bargaining is a democratic, nuanced and participatory process, the unions at UW and UConn have negotiated provisions that empower individuals to choose to address a work-load problem, while simultaneously allowing those of us, like RAs doing paid “work” that helps our dissertation, the freedom to choose to spend as many hours in the lab as desired.
Put another way, the provisions of a contract would be negotiated between the university and the union. The university has no incentive to propose an hours-capping provision, since it benefits from the research labs produce. The union would have no reason to add such a provision, unless its member RAs made clear they wanted one, through bargaining surveys and other democratic channels. That seems unlikely – to put it mildly. Thus, it is hard to imagine anybody at the table making such a proposal, and even harder to imagine grad workers voting to ratify a contract that included it.
My PI is concerned that the union will make RAs too expensive and it will harm the lab, make our department less competitive, and/or lead to fewer RA positions. Has that happened at other universities?
No. There is no evidence of collective bargaining having any of these effects. Both the union membership and the administration have to agree on a contract and neither party would want that result. Collective bargaining simply means we can negotiate as equals in order to hold Columbia more accountable to do the best it can do.
As an example of how this plays out, in the first contract for postdocs at the University of California, the union negotiated significant pay increases, and the union and the university agreed to a phase-in process so that PIs would have the ability to accommodate the improvements without disrupting current research. Before collective bargaining, the University decided such things unilaterally, and some postdocs made as little as $18,000 per year even though UC had a “policy” stipulating that the minimum postdoc salary should have been $37,000.
Empirically, the overall number of RAs (and TAs) has grown at the University of Washington since unionization in 2004, as has the number of postdocs at the University of California since unionization in 2008. Overall grant revenue has also increased at UW and UC over those years, showing that these institutions remain competitive in recruiting top talent to their research programs.
Funding for my research assistantship comes from a grant, so how could we negotiate over that?
Currently, Boston College determines RA pay rates unilaterally, and those rates – as well as projected increases – are factored into grant proposals to agencies like NIH, NSF, DOD, etc. With collective bargaining, we would negotiate as equals with Boston College for improvements to our pay rates. Grant-funded RAs at UMASS and the University of Washington, as well as postdocs at the University of California, have negotiated guaranteed annual increases to their pay rates through collective bargaining.
Why is a grievance procedure important and how does it work under a typical Union contract?
Union contracts typically include a grievance procedure, which provides due process to a member (or the union as an organization) if a problem arises during the contract or the administration is not fairly adhering to the contract. Though many grievances are resolved quickly and informally, most contracts allow for unresolved grievances to be taken to an outside neutral arbitrator whose decision is legally binding.
For example, GSOC at NYU just won an arbitration case involving NYU’s wrongful denial of tuition remission benefits to workers in the School of Education and the School of Social Work. Affected graduate workers will receive a refund of approximately $1500/semester for each semester they were affected.
For more examples of how a fair and effective grievance procedure can work, you can check out highlights of how graduate employees at the University of Washington have successfully enforced their rights under the Union contract on issues ranging from pregnancy discrimination and tuition/fee waivers to payment and health and safety issues.
With a contract, haven’t we tied our hands if something comes up and we want to make a change?
The fact is our hands are tied now. We don’t have the power to make changes in our working conditions, now. We aren’t even empowered to negotiate with the Administration. The Administration has made changes in the past that haven’t been to our benefit, like changing the dental benefits. With a contract, their hands are tied. They can’t make changes without negotiating with us.
The contract can always be “re-opened” or renegotiated if both parties (the Union and the Administration) are in agreement to do so. Additionally, if new programs or new positions are created that weren’t contemplated by the contract, the Administration has a legal obligation to bargain the terms of employment for the new workers with the Union.
Furthermore, if this is a concern going into bargaining and a priority, we can negotiate for the ability to bargain during the life of the contract for things that are not addressed in the contract.
We also asked other grad employee unions (University of Washington and University of Massachusetts), and they have told us that this has never been a problem.
How can a contract accommodate so many different interests between RAs and TAs across campus?
Many graduate employee unions cover grad workers with diverse interests. At the University of Washington, University of Connecticut, University of Massachusetts, and New York University, RAs and TAs have negotiated strong contracts together that address issues that affect everyone, such as health, dental and vision benefits, guaranteed annual pay increases, sick leave and family benefits, while simultaneously including provisions important to particular groups.
At UW, for example, TAs tend to get time off during academic break periods by default, but winning guaranteed vacation time was a huge priority for many RAs (while many had PIs who would allow time off, others had PIs who would not, and who did or didn’t get vacation was totally arbitrary). The contract now guarantees all RAs the right to at least four weeks of paid time off with no work expectations per year. Other examples include holidays, health and safety, parking and transit, travel, and teaching loads. In many cases TAs were able to secure fair and predictable teaching loads – even though that was less of a priority for RAs.
What will a union mean for the long-term future of Boston College? As graduate students we must be stewards not only for the graduate students who come after us, but for the strength and success of the university as a whole.
Graduate student unions have existed at other universities for decades and their institutions continue to thrive. Our union will be part of that! It is absolutely true that the strength and success of the university benefits all alumni of BC. This is exactly why we have decided to join together and form a union. By having a seat at the table in determining our working conditions as graduate employees we can ensure that our values, needs, and concerns help shape the decisions BC administrators make. We all have the same goal – be successful in our scholarship, be healthy, and help BC succeed. A union will enable us to do just that.
How can BCGEU-UAW help STEM students at Boston College?
As a leading union for more than 60,000 academic workers across the US, the UAW has become a progressive leader advocating for federal investment in STEM research. A few years ago, the postdoc union at the University of California (UAW Local 5810) and the graduate worker union at the University of Washington (UAW Local 4121), in conjunction with the UAW nationally, organized a major “Save Science Funding” campaign, which involved emails and meetings with Congressional representatives in WA and CA, leading to a letter spearheaded by US Representatives George Miller (CA) and Jim McDermott (WA) urging Congressional leadership to preserve funding for research. Following their example, graduate student employees at Columbia started organizing the www.stemfunding.org campaign, and obviously might have been more successful if HRC was elected, since she had already set a goal of investing $2 billion in Alzheimer’s research. By joining the UAW, graduate student employees at Boston College will add our voice and collective power to continue advocating and lobbying for continued science funding.
How can BCGEU-UAW help international students at Boston College?
As members of the UAW, graduate students at BC have joined with over 50,000 academic workers who are continuing to use the enhanced political voice with the UAW to create changes beyond Boston College. The UAW advocates for expanded opportunities for international students to work in the US after graduation. The UAW has actively supported, “expanded opportunities for an expanded pathway to citizenship for international academic workers in the US and their families.” More specifically, the UAW and many local unions, as well as other organizations, advocated successfully last year to strengthen and expand the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program, one of the few existing options for international students to work in the US after graduation. The UAW also continues to advocate for “unlimited employment-based green cards” for international graduates of US universities.
Will I have to go on strike? The Provost suggests that we might get fined if we do not. Is that true? How would science RAs strike anyway?
We decide if a strike is a necessary action to take. Under the UAW, 2/3 of those participating in a strike authorization vote must vote yes in order to authorize the Union to call a strike. While a strike is most effective if we all participate, it is an individual decision whether or not to participate.Striking is a last resort as a tactic and is rare. 98% of union contracts are reached without a strike.
Second, there are alternatives to striking as a way to achieve bargaining objectives. For example, at the University of Connecticut, where state law prohibits striking in the public sector, graduate assistants organized and started a two-day sit-in toward the end of contract negotiations in 2015. On the evening of the first day of the sit-in reached a tentative agreement for a great first contract.
As for science RAs and strikes, at the University of Washington RAs have fortunately not had to strike since formation of the union in 2004, but have started preparations for a strike several times in order to achieve a fair contract. In the process of preparing for a possible strike, RAs engaged in a process to figure out how to participate in a strike without damaging their own academic progress.
If we were to contemplate – together, democratically – a strike here at Boston College, we would obviously have to sort through that set of issues as well.
What have graduate student employees unions achieved at other universities?
- This year, GSOC-UAW at NYU won pay increases such that a PhD working as a TA makes around $37,000 per year, medical coverage assistance for up to $4,300 for dependent spouses and $3,700 for children, and a child-care fund that begins at $60,000 starting Jan 1, 2016 and increasing $10,000 each calendar year up to $100,000.
- After an eight day strike in 2014, the University of Oregon Graduate Teaching Fellows won a 10% wage increase, two weeks of paid family or medical leave, and a $150,000 ‘hardship fund’ from which students can receive grants for family and medical purposes.
- Graduate workers at the University of Washington won nearly a 40% increase to minimum stipends in their 2012 contract, and have secured health care with no cuts since 2004.
- Since its founding in 2007, Graduate Students United at the University of Chicago have campaigned for and won a doubling of teaching assistant salaries, better standards of care at the Student Care Center, and the right for students on parental leave to retain their student status, allowing the retention of visa status, health insurance, and access to university facilities.
I heard Harvard graduate students voted against UAW representation. Is that true?
Actually, the regional National Labor Relations Board ruled recently that the election was invalid due to Harvard’s negligence. The Harvard administration failed to include 500 eligible individuals on the official voter list. This negligence created major confusion, with more than 1200 challenged ballots cast by individual not on the list. The regional NLRB determined that Harvard’s negligence deprived voters of a free and fair election and ordered that there be a new vote. Harvard has appealed this decision, but organizers are hopeful that a new election will be held soon.
The UAW has a very strong track record in the Northeast, with nearly 10,000 academic workers choosing UAW representation in the last four years alone. See details below for the results.
- 2013: GOSC/UAW at NYU/Poly- 98% Yes Votes
- 2014: GEU/UAW at UConn- 70% Yes Votes
- 2015: BCF/UAW at Barnard- 91% Yes Votes
- 2015: ACT/UAW at NYU Poly- 89% Yes Votes
- 2016: GWC/UAW at Columbia- 72% Yes Votes
- 2017: SENS/UAW at New School- 99.6% Yes Votes
~Answers about BCGEU-UAW and Membership Dues~
What is BCGEU-UAW?
BCGEU-UAW is an organization of graduate workers joining together to build power, create a democratic workplace, and negotiate to improve our working conditions and secure those conditions in a binding contract that cannot be unilaterally changed by the university. We will determine democratically our priorities and leaders.
- We will elect a bargaining committee from among our grad worker community.
- We will fill out bargaining surveys to tell the elected bargaining committee what matters to us.
- We will vote to ratify an initial bargaining agenda the elected committee develops based on our survey feedback.
- When our elected bargaining committee reaches a ‘tentative agreement’ with Boston College, we will vote whether to approve that agreement as our first contract.
- If we ratify the contract, we will then elect leaders to run our union and to help ensure that our contract is enforced.
Can graduate workers form unions?
Yes! On August 24, 2016, the National Labor Relations Board, the federal body that oversees labor law in the United States, ruled in a case involving Columbia University that graduate students at private universities are considered employees under the National Labor Relations Act, and thus have the protected right to collective bargaining. The Columbia decision overturned a previous precedent from 2004, when members of the NLRB appointed by George W. Bush stripped the rights of graduate workers at private universities to unionize.
The decision means that graduate employees at private universities, after a majority of graduate employees have signed authorization cards, may now petition the NLRB to hold an election. When a majority of students vote yes, our union will be certified and we can take the next steps toward bargaining a contract with Boston College. (For more on this process, see our Roadmap to Victory.)
Why the UAW?
Usually graduate workers choose to organize with a larger labor union such as the United Automobile Workers (UAW), which began as an auto workers union in the 1930s but now also represents workers in service industries, non-profits, and university positions such as staff and research and teaching assistants. The UAW now represents more than 50,000 academic workers across the US, including more graduate workers than any other union. By organizing with a union like the UAW (which represents organized students at NYU as well as the Universities of Massachusetts, California, Washington, and Connecticut) grad workers join our power with hundreds of thousands of other members across the county, and gain access to extended resources and opportunities. These often include access to labor lawyers, and professional training to help ensure we have the strongest union and best contract possible.
What does having a union mean?
Voice. Unions give graduate workers real and meaningful voice in how the university operates. In an era of increasing academic corporatization and reliance on contingent researchers and teachers over tenured faculty, graduate worker unions give us a powerful voice in determining the future of our working conditions as well as the shape of the university as important institutions in our society.
Security. Graduate workers are particularly vulnerable, and unions provide a safety net to prevent grads from falling through the cracks of funding and bureaucracy.
Community. By organizing, we join tens of thousands of graduate workers, postdoctoral researchers and adjuncts working to improve the academic workforce. Our union here at BC aims to build relationships across disciplines and departments premised on the foundation of grads supporting grads.
Power. Without collective bargaining, BC decides our conditions unilaterally. With collective bargaining, we can negotiate as equals, use our voice to change the direction of BC, and ensure graduate employees’ contribution to the success of the University is compensated and respected.
Which workers would be represented by BCGEU-UAW?
We are seeking to represent any graduate student workers doing teaching or research work, on all BC campuses. When the regional NLRB determined who would be covered by a Union in 2002 at Columbia University, for example, it included TAs and RAs all across campuses.
What are the rights of international students to participate in the union?
Because they have the same legal right to join a union as US citizens, international graduate student workers have played a central role in organizing and running unions at more than 60 university campuses across the US. Visa requirements in no way compromise your right to belong to a union that represents you in a US workplace. No graduate student worker union has reported any complications among their members arising from the dual status of being both an international student and a unionized employee.
How do we form a Union?
There are two basic ways: through voluntary recognition by Boston College; or by certification through the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Under either scenario, building and maintaining strong majority support among graduate student workers will drive the success of our campaign and make our union more democratic and participatory.
Is the NLRB the only option?
No. Boston College can choose to voluntarily recognize our union when we have a majority of the graduate employees showing support for the union by signing authorization cards.
In exchange for withdrawing a petition before the NLRB, graduates at New York University, a private institution, received voluntary recognition of their union from the NYU administration. In their December 2013 vote, 98.4% of NYU graduates’ ballots cast were in favor of a union. Although the university was not required by law to recognize the union and negotiate a contract, the administration chose to do so.
Grads at NYU recently negotiated a new contract with the university in which they won significant pay increases (when teaching for an academic year, a graduate worker now makes around $37,000 per year), free dental insurance, and childcare fund starting at $60,000. They were able to win voluntary recognition because they had strong graduate support and continued to take action to make the university respect their decision to form a union.
What does signing an authorization card mean?
Signing a card means that graduate workers at Boston College want a union and are officially joining Boston College Graduate Employee Union-United Auto Workers (BCGEU-UAW). Collecting authorization cards are a necessary step to gain official recognition of BCGEU-UAW.
If you graduate or leave Boston College, you will no longer be a member of BCGEU-UAW.
How much are membership dues and when do we start paying?
Dues are an important source of resources that help us have an effective relationship with the University. However, we control when we start paying membership dues and will not pay any dues or fees until we have voted to approve the first contract. Dues from UAW workers across the country help to provide the resources for organizing campaigns such as ours. Dues in UAW are currently 1.44% of gross income and would only apply during times that you are working in a position covered by the Union.
How is the dues money allocated? What is it used for?
Dues cover all of the day to day cost of having a strong union, including paying for the best legal representation (such as that utilized in the NLRB case), staffing, rent, equipment, and supplies. Dues also pay for the following:
Technical support for contract negotiations:
- Health insurance experts who can take on the University’s consultants in order to pursue the best benefits for the best price.
- Researchers who can help analyze University finances. Legal advice where necessary.
- Experienced negotiators to help achieve our goals in bargaining, both at the bargaining table and in terms of developing an overall contract campaign.
Support for new organizing campaigns (for example, the organizing staff and legal support for the BCGEU-UAW campaign is paid for by existing UAW members’ dues money)
Political action: 3 percent of dues money goes toward the UAW Community Action Program (CAP), which supports progressive community and political action, including legislative and other policy advocacy on issues that matter to UAW members – for example, the UAW advocates strongly for fair, comprehensive immigration reform and expanded federal support for research funding, among other topics. [NOTE: legally, dues money cannot be used for federal campaign contributions, such as the presidential race—that money comes from members’ voluntary contributions separate from, and in addition to, dues.]
Most of the day-to-day work enforcing the contract and representing our membership is provided by the local union. The rest of the dues is allocated to the International Union (18%) and the Strike and Defense Fund (32%). Depending on the overall financial health of the Strike and Defense Fund, both the Local and the International Union receive an additional allocation of dues called a “rebate”.
I heard the UAW uses membership dues money to engage in political action. How has that benefited graduate student workers in the UAW?
A very small amount, 3% overall, of membership dues money goes toward political action, but it enables a powerful voice on issues that matter to us, and especially so under the current presidential administration. In fact, as a leading union for more than 65,000 academic workers across the US, the UAW has become a progressive leader advocating for federal investment in STEM research, expanded opportunities for international students to work in the US after graduation, and gender equity in the academic workforce, all of which enhance accessibility and innovation at our universities.
Why pay dues to an organization which is “mired” in “corruption?”
The alleged activity of this one individual leader is appalling and goes against the fundamental values of transparency and accountability the UAW has upheld for more than 80 years. This activity did not involve UAW membership dues money, but rather Chrysler money that funds the National Training Center (NTC). Fortunately, the UAW has a long-standing, strict system of transparency and accountability to prevent one individual from misusing members’ dues money. The Union has worked actively with Chrysler to see that financial protections and oversight are in place to prevent this type of thing from occurring again at the NTC. Gary Casteel UAW, International UAW Secretary Treasurer assured that; “This was an isolated incident involving a rogue individual in our organization and a rogue individual in the corporation. No union funds or dues were involved. Regardless, when our union became aware of these allegations, we promptly began an internal investigation and we have cooperated with authorities.”
The International Union, UAW maintains robust financial and accounting practices which promote transparency over members’ dues money, to prevent the possibility of one dishonest, malicious individual from abusing the trust placed in them as elected leaders who have a moral and democratic obligation as stewards of the union’s resources. These systems have served UAW members well for decades, as no International Union, UAW leader has ever been indicted for misuse of International Union funds.
How is a union different from the Graduate Student Association (GSA)?
The graduate student council exists to fund student groups, award grants, sponsor student life, and have regular meetings with university administrators. Though the GSA can communicate concerns to the administration, it has no power to negotiate a binding contract on behalf of graduate workers, and the administration is under no obligation to act on any recommendations or requests that the GSA might make.
But I feel like my life is pretty good.
Without a union you may have it good right now, but Boston College could make a change at any time, without considering your concerns, and you have no recourse. This has happened to many grad workers at Boston College already. With a union, we get to negotiate a contract which is enforceable which would protect the benefits we like, and improve in the other areas. If you have it good, then it is in your best interest to join the union to help prevent cuts which so many of us have seen recently. Graduate unions are also organizing for better working conditions and benefits nationwide, and by standing together with tens of thousands of other grads we are part of a national movement.