Preston GS, Sindhu GS: What we stand to gain from unionization

Dear graduate student workers,

We write to share with you our excitement for the upcoming election. As first-year graduate students who have not yet begun working for the University, we support you and will soon join you as teaching and research assistants. The group Stand Up for Graduate Student Employees has already welcomed us as new students with a community of mutual support and provided a platform for our voices. We recognize that graduate students are underrepresented in the discussions and decision-making processes that affect our experience, benefits and future opportunities. Graduate school can be an isolating experience for many. Our academic futures often lie in the hands of a very few gatekeepers in our fields. We can minimize that isolation and vulnerability by organizing a union. We believe unionization and a resulting contract of employment with the University is the only way to guarantee that graduate students will have greater representation and power in the decisions that determine our careers and lives.

What do we stand to gain by coming together in unionization? In addition to a seat at the table with decision makers, we will have a means of galvanizing hundreds of graduate students to fight for the changes we all need. Here are only a few examples of what we stand to gain.

Health and Family Care

Imagine a university that respects our personal lives as much as the work and research we produce. As a union, we can follow in the steps of the graduate students at the University of Connecticut who fought to expand the categories of protected and paid leave “for reasons including, but not limited to, illness or injury, immigration hearings, pregnancy, to care for a newborn or adopted child or to care for an immediate family member,” as well as bereavement leave. Brown’s existing leave policies are far more limited and not enshrined in a contract. In addition to a union contract that guarantees health insurance, we could include vision coverage, as at the University of Washington. We could also prevent the University from altering policies without our notice or in non-compliance with our contract, as is stipulated by an agreement between Oregon State University and its graduate student union. Our contract could incorporate an easy-to-read yet comprehensive chart of benefits for reference, and our union representatives could also act as point-people to help us navigate complex and confusing health care terms and coverage.

Protection Against Discrimination and Harassment

Imagine a university where graduate workers who experience discrimination or harassment can turn to their union for support. Imagine a grievance procedure independent of the administration. Our contract could provide support for any student worker who experiences discrimination or retaliation in violation of University policies, from a position crucially external to the University. Imagine an independent, graduate-led support system, available to walk you through options and support you through any investigation or bureaucratic process related to your complaint. Our contract could also delineate a clear procedure for a graduate student to contest the University’s ruling and seek to compel the University to better serve the affected student. We could emulate the University of Washington’s contract in binding the University to establish and maintain “a joint committee to discuss methods of recruiting and retaining, and encouraging career development of (graduate students) who belong to underrepresented groups” regarding workplace issues including disparate treatment based on native language or dialect and parental status. Like the UConn, our contract could stipulate explicitly that the University maintain guidelines to assist transgender and gender-diverse graduates and other groups not always covered by law or existing policy.

Working Conditions, Pay and Costs

Imagine a university where our working conditions, responsibilities and pay are documented and guaranteed for the duration of our programs. Like all the contracts we reviewed, our contract could require that Brown clearly document all duties associated with a graduate’s appointment in advance of each semester and honor those terms. SUGSE could reserve the right to make recommendations to the University, including improved training for our worker positions. Our contract, like New York University’s, could also guarantee compensation for mandatory trainings that are a condition of our employment.

Graduate workers who pay a Student and Exchange Visitor Information System Fee or visa fee could be guaranteed reimbursement, as at Oregon State University. Our union could also agitate for immigration reform and press the University to continue taking clear stands in defense of our community of international graduates. Finally, as was achieved in every contract we reviewed, we could expect to receive an annual raise in our stipends. We can be confident that this raise would cover any annual union dues, as in the experience of all the other graduate student unions we investigated.

These are just a few examples of what we stand to gain from unionization. Other graduate worker contracts contain articles on parking, housing and summer appointments. Perhaps most importantly, each contract contains an explicit grievance, appeal and arbitration procedure to address any violation of the contract. While the contracts incorporate and therefore cover violation of existing university policies, these procedures are independent of any existing University process and stipulate timely progression — for example, NYU’s provost is required to meet with the graduate and their union representative within 10 days of receipt of a grievance, and a response is required within another 10 days.

Our graduate worker union will be our voice — we will collectively decide our unique goals and priorities through a democratic process. Unionization offers a forum for representation backed by the power of collective bargaining protected by U.S. labor law and grounded outside channels wholly controlled by the University. And finally, our contract is only the first step. SUGSE would remain active after our contract is signed through contractually guaranteed meetings between union representatives and the administration and/or required representation on administrative committees. We will continue to be a grassroots organization, working together to address emergent needs and aspirations.

Sincerely,

Katherine Preston GS, English

Siraj Sindhu GS, Political Science

Devon Clifton GS, English

Thao Nguyen GS, Computer Science

Sherena Razek GS, Modern Culture and Media

Nomaan Hasan GS, Anthropology

Aarushi Kalra GS, Economics

Katherine Contess GS, Modern Culture and Media

Katyayni Seth GS, Anthropology

Olivia Lafferty GS, English

Alba Vivar Fabiola GS, Economics

Alexsandro Menez GS, Portuguese and Brazilian Studies

Ayse Sanli GS, Anthropology

Pablo Valente GS, Behavioral and Social Sciences

Eva Rios GS, Political Science

Isaac Effner GS, Political Science

Asimanshu Das GS, Engineering

Katherine Preston GS can be reached at katherine_preston@brown.edu, and Siraj Sindhu GS can be reached at siraj_sindhu@brown.edu. For more information, please visit https://brownsugse.com/grad-unions-across-the-us/.

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Copyright 2018