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Graduate student worker union a necessary protection

Graduate student worker union a necessary protection

By The Brandeis Hoot

Section: Editorials, Top Stories

March 24, 2017

Graduate student workers are an integral component of our university community. They are our teaching assistants, and they do the difficult and not always glamorous work in research labs. They serve a dual role as students and workers, with the pay from their work being integral to being able to continue their studies. Their status as student workers is precarious because they are not currently unionized, although they are currently in the process of establishing a union. The Brandeis Hoot supports the proposed graduate student workers union.

Graduate students are at Brandeis to pursue an advanced degree because they have an academic passion, and they take on work at the university to enable their studies. They need the money from their work to afford life expenses while earning their degree, and they need consistency and to be fairly certain of their income in order to budget their life expenses appropriately. This creates a difficult balance between their roles as students and as employees. To this end, they need advocacy to protect their rights and demand just compensation, and it can be very difficult to perform this kind of advocacy as an individual, especially an individual working a significant amount of time while also engaged in full-time or near-full-time study. A labor union would be very beneficial to the graduate student community in this regard.

Institutions overpower individuals. The institution that graduate student workers must work with, and sometimes against, is the university. Graduate students have more than their fair share of grievances against the university, but they attest to feeling afraid to address these with their direct employers for fear of retaliation, such as from professors. As individuals, whose livelihood depends on campus jobs and whose future depends on their degrees, they are vulnerable in the face of a university. But as part of a union, their own institution, graduate student workers can finally advocate for themselves effectively. More than strength in numbers, unions offer institutional structures thanks to their advocacy staff, resources and national networks, systems of support and power unavailable to a lone worker. Specifically, graduate students explain needing an anonymous way to report grievances, because their unique position as students and workers opens them to academic retaliation for speaking about grievances regarding working conditions.

Brandeis University has a strong tradition of employing unionized workers. Non-student Sodexo workers and librarians are unionized in order to defend their rights and benefits as employees, and Brandeis ought to allow graduate students to acquire the same protections. Moreso, Brandeis sells itself as founded in principles of social justice. But overworking, underpaying and generally exploiting graduate student workers is not socially just.

If the graduate student workers are successful in unionizing, the university should not resist the movement to a unionized workforce. Our graduate student workers, who make up such a significant portion of our community, deserve protection from institutional infringement on their rights as workers, and if they choose a union as the most appropriate way to get that advocacy, then the university ought to recognize and respect that decision.

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