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Graduate student workers to petition for a union

By Ryan Spencer

Section: News

March 24, 2017

Graduate student workers, specifically teaching fellows, lab assistants and adjunct professors on campus, are in the closing stages of forming a labor union.  

The workers plan to hold union elections by the end of the semester after filing with the National Labor Relations Board, according to members of the union’s organizing committee.  

The graduate student workers hope that forming a union will allow them to collectively bargain with the university for both department-specific changes and blanket benefits for all graduate workers.

Some of the main goals of forming a union are to improve transparency of administrative decision making, add dental and vision to employee health plans, improve career services available to graduate students and get better subsidization for commuting to and from campus.

Diana Filar, a member of the union’s organizing committee, said that commuting to campus via the commuter rail costs her approximately $13 a day and that the student commuter rail pass is worthless, if not more expensive, since the pass does not account for periods of time in December and May when students are not commuting due to seasonal breaks.

The pass, which commits students to a four-month duration from October to January or February to May, provides an 11 percent discount, according to the Brandeis website.  

This year, Brandeis was not in session from December 20 until January 17, and the final day of exams in the spring is May 12, meaning graduate students would likely not be commuting during these periods of time through which the four-month-long commuter rail pass runs.

Long hours working in labs, including working on weekends and holidays, is also a concern that union organizers hope a union would help them negotiate.

There is “a very palpable sense of fear” among students that professors, who control many aspects of their student workers’ lives, might retaliate against students who voice problems, especially in science departments, according to Anna Henkin, a member of the union’s organizing committee who works in labs on campus.

Henkin hopes that through forming a union and negotiating with the university, a procedure for anonymously reporting grievances can be set up so that problems can be heard without directly confronting the professors who have control over students’ grades and work schedules.

The union contract, if formed, would have the ability to create sub-clauses specific to particular departments.

Four graduate workers, all but one of whom were on the union’s organizing committee, expressed dissatisfaction with career services in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) in interviews with The Brandeis Hoot.

The graduate workers noted that while the Hiatt Career Center, which provides career services to undergraduates, has 16 staff members, GSAS has one individual in charge of career counseling, according to the Brandeis website.

The Brandeis administration has been supportive and open with the graduate student workers’ efforts to form a union, according to Filar.

The organizing committee is close to having 30 percent of the eligible graduate workers sign union authorization cards, which demonstrate an individual’s support for the formation of a union but not necessarily an intention to join the union, according to several of the committee’s members.

Graduate students obtained the right to unionize in August of 2016 when the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) overturned a previous ruling that stated that graduate student workers were students before they were employees and were therefore not entitled to unionize.

Columbia University became the first private university to create a union after the NLRB’s decision.

Boston-area schools such as Harvard University, Boston College and Tufts University have had mixed results in the unionization process so far.

NLRB hearings, which would determine the fate of a close election, ended on Friday, March 17, and a final decision is not expected until next month, according to an article in The Harvard Crimson. Harvard’s vote for the formation of the union ended with 1,456 ballots opposing unionization and 1,272 supported unionization, but due to questions of voting eligibility, 313 votes have been contested, and the NLRB’s conclusion on the issue remains to be seen.

Boston College has petitioned the NLRB after 30 percent of the eligible student employees signed union authorization cards, according to the Boston College Graduate Union website. Tufts also has students working toward unionization.

With the Trump administration’s decision to appoint two members to vacancies in the NLRB, several members of the union’s organizing committee are fearful of another overturn of graduate student workers’ right to unionize.  

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