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Graduate student workers file to form union

After months of preparation, graduate students say they are close to having a “voice” on campus

Correction appended.

AU graduate student workers filed to form a graduate student union, on Feb. 24, said Scott Patrick, a Ph.D candidate within the School of Public Affairs.

The group teamed up with SEIU Local 500, a union organization which represents students from colleges and universities across the D.C., Maryland and Virginia region, to file for the union. After a representative from SEIU Local 500 filed an online petition on Friday, five graduate school students delivered a letter to Provost Scott Bass, which initiated the first step in forming a union on campus.

The filing comes within seven months of the National Labor Relations Board’s ruling that granted graduate student workers, namely those who are paid by their private school as teaching assistants or researchers, the power to negotiate with school administrators about their pay, better working conditions and other employment issues that crop up while pursuing an advanced degree.

“It’s time that academia is brought into the 21st century,” Patrick, who is in his fifth year of finishing his degree in government, said. “We’re expected to accept the old belief that graduate students must settle for Ramen noodles and perform extra work without getting paid.” 

Provost Scott Bass released a memo on March 1 announcing the filing to students and stating the University’s respect for the possible union.

“While the University has concerns regarding the unionization of students and, by consequence, the bargaining over matters traditionally involving issues of academic discretion, the University also respects that, under the law, graduate students have the right to organize and engage in collective bargaining,” Bass wrote in the memo.

Graduate student workers have been meeting on campus since September to discuss ways to have stricter guidelines between themselves and faculty. They want to advocate for fair pay, codified protection against unwanted behaviors from supervising professors and better benefits such as health care and summer housing plans for international students, Patrick said. 

In order to form a graduate student union, working graduate students need to have at least 30 percent of their population sign union cards due to a rule set by American universities, Patrick said. However, union representatives guessed the amount of the exact number of graduate student workers that signed cards because the total number of student workers is unknown to the public, he said. Once they win an election to form a union on campus, the new union will receive a list of those who are eligible to join the AU graduate student union.

Patrick, who has a master’s degree in government from AU, said that after the petition to form a union is filed, graduate student workers need to win an election within 30 days of filing to form a union. That means that the rest of the graduate student workers must vote for the creation of the union, and win by a simple majority of at least more than 50 percent of total graduate student workers.

Afterwards, the group will negotiate with the administration until an agreement for the issues they want to advocate for has been reached. From there, the new graduate student union members will sign a contract with the administration.

Patrick said a graduate student union will provide a stricter, uniform standard to hold professors accountable for what and how much they assign to graduate student workers.  

Graduate teaching assistants are typically scheduled for 20 hours of work per week, Patrick said. However, if he needs to grade papers, he might work 40 hours without being compensated. 

Depending on the supervising professor and department, some workers perform less time-consuming tasks than others. For instance, some only work 20 hours by sitting in class and taking attendance, while others perform research that is outside of the students’ interests to support a professor’s workload. Guidelines for stipends and hours worked are given to graduate students and professors, but there is no enforcement system in place to make sure only 20 hours of work is being performed. 

The benefits of a graduate student union

AU graduate students are not only worried about being paid fairly, but are also contemplating their health care benefits - especially under the new White House administration. They don’t receive benefits, so they must either choose between AU’s health care package or find something on their own.

“Even though I am on my parent’s plan right now, I’m not sure if I’ll still have health care if Congress changes the Affordable Care Act,” Bethany Zaiman, a master’s student studying public anthropology said. “I’ve just applied for a Ph.D program so I’ll still need good benefits after I’ve turned 26.” 

Cherie Saulter, a Ph.D candidate within the School of International Service, agreed. 

“Washington, D.C. is one of the most expensive cities in the country,” Saulter said. “Even with my stipend, I can’t afford AU’s health care plan or anything from the private market.”

Saulter said she signed the union card to make sure that all graduate student workers are protected from the typical workplace challenges that women often face alone. 

“Having a voice on campus means that we can address serious issues as a group to the administration with the guarantee that concerns are not ignored,” Saulter said. “Otherwise, it’s just individuals visiting an office with unanswered complaints.” 

International students face additional barriers 

International students often struggle more to finish their degrees compared to American students because of international student visa rules, Barbara dos Santos, a second-year Ph.D candidate from the School of Public Affairs, said. Since international students are ineligible to receive federal funding and cannot work outside of their school, they have to work extra hard to come up with tuition and summer housing options, dos Santos said. 

“I just want to work with the administration so that I do not feel so stressed out about paying my rent during the summer,” dos Santos said.

Correction appended: The original story incorrectly stated that SEIU Local 500 represents groups across the nation. It has been changed to say "across the D.C., Maryland and Virginia region."

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