Agreement between Graduate Student Union and administration to be put to vote

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September 14, 2018

The Brandeis University Graduate Union has reached a tentative agreement with the university administration on a union contract, which, if ratified at the vote on Sept. 18, will go into effect on July 1 of 2019. The contract provides higher wages, protections for academic freedoms, creates new opportunities for professional development and gives union members more access to mental health resources on campus.

The unionized students are part of the Services Employees International Union Local 509 (SEIU509). The graduate students at Brandeis, with an overwhelming vote to form a union, joined in May 2017 according to SEIU’s website.

The contract will affect graduate students pursuing a PhD at Brandeis who also are either teaching assistants (TA) or teaching fellows (TF). The contract will not affect masters students, graduates students in the Rabb School of Continuing Studies and Graduate students “receiving University Prize instructorship.”

The vote for the contract will run from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sept. 18, in Shapiro 313 in the Shapiro Campus Center (SCC). If the union ratifies the contract, it will then be sent to the President’s office for ratification from the University’s side. If both sides agree, the contract will be in effect from July 1 of this year through June 30, 2021.

Brandeis is the second school in the nation to petition for a Graduate Student Union, with New York University being the first. A ruling in 2016 by the National Labor Relations Board allowed for graduate students to unionize.

The Brandeis bargaining committee, along with lawyers from SEIU509 drafted the contract in 10 months, instead of the typical 18 months it takes for contracts to be written, according to Anna Henkin, a PhD candidate in the Biochemistry department.

The union began organizing in August of 2016. Benjamin Kreider, a member of the negotiating committee and the organizing committee, mentioned some of the time constraints and concerns facing the union during the organizing process.

“The decision which enabled us as a private university grad students to unionize happened under Obama,” Kreider said. “We had a very explicit conversation very early in the effort that we might lose this right if Trump wins. So that was the biggest time constraint, that we wanted to move quickly so we could have our union election in a timely manner, because the more we delayed that the greater the likelihood we lose the right to unionize at all.”

The contract guarantees a minimum wage for teaching assistants and fellows in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, The Heller School for Social Policy and Management and the International Business School. The TAs and TFs may be paid more, but they cannot be paid less than the new minimums.

Kreider highlighted the increase in pay. “I think the biggest and most obvious gain would be increased compensation,” said Kreider. “Between 16-56 percent raises in pay over three years and…those are wage floors. So the department or the school can choose to pay more but this is on minimum pay.”

By fiscal year 21, which begins Oct. 1, 2020, all TAs will make at least $3,720 for a four credit course and TFs in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences will make at least $5,000. Teaching fellows currently earn $3,200 per course. Teaching assistants at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences currently make $3,200. At the Heller School, graduate students are paid $2,500 and at IBS, they are paid $3,000. For some graduate students, this is a $1500 increase in pay.

Article six of the contract encourages more mental health resources for the graduate students, especially resources that are in locations around campus other than the Brandeis Counseling Center (BCC). “We have also agreed on embedded counselors and waiting rooms where we don’t have to share it with people we’re teaching,” explained Henkin. “Sharing the waiting rooms is both a Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA) and Family and Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) violation.”

According to Henkin, this access makes it much simpler for graduate students to seek mental health support. “There is a lot of mental strain being a graduate student and a lot of emotional turmoil. There is a lot of things that people need support for. And most people think they need to go at it alone because that’s often how the cultural narrative of being a graduate student is being told. But that’s not true,” commented Henkin.

Kreider also highlighted another side of the importance of mental health access: avoiding stigma. “Mental health care is another really big issue, its an issue we discussed quite a bit. So what the contract does is it states that the various departments at Brandeis will have embedded counselors,” Kreider said. “So the idea is that instead of a grad student going all the way down the hill to the counseling center where there’s a sense among a lot of people that there’s stigma. You can run into your students there… which is very awkward….Having an embedded counselor increases access.”

The contract also guarantees professional feedback from TA and TF supervisors on how well they are running their courses and how they can improve. It also encourages more communication about professional development opportunities between the graduate students and Brandeis University.

The contract provides that the union will not go on, encourage or sympathize with a strike while the contract is in effect. It guarantees academic freedom for the union members, saying, “Graduate Assistants have the right to express their thoughts freely and openly in all spaces relevant to the performance of their teaching duties.” Professors will also be required to provide verbal feedback at least once a semester and maintain communication with their TAs and TFs.

Provost Lisa Lynch was quoted in a Washington Post article, saying that she “looks forward to working with the SEIU to reach a collective bargaining agreement with PhD students who teach, and recognize them as vitally important members of our community.” When contacted, Brandeis responded that they will have no comment until the vote.

Just after the NLRB released their decision in August 2016, the graduation union began organizing to to improve graduate life at Brandeis. When Henkin first arrived on campus, she automatically noticed structural issues within the administration. “These issues come with a severe power imbalance from administration and professors. They can destroy your future, they have all the power.”

Kreider also commented on the issues that the graduate students discussed in their early union meetings. “So we would literally go around the table at these meetings and talk about what do you like about Brandeis and what could be improved and we were saying a lot of the same things,” Kreider said. “That was vindicating, to hear someone in a totally different department say ‘oh I’ve experienced this too.’ And then through the union we were able to come together and generate solutions to those problems and you feel like you have more of a say, and you feel less powerless. You’re able to change the conditions you experience as a student worker.”

“Even though I won’t see the benefits of the contract since I’m not TA-ing anymore,” explained Henkin, “having those resources lifts so much of the burden on graduate students that shouldn’t be our burden in the first place.”

Now that the graduate students have a contract, Phoebe Dolan ’21, a member of the Brandeis Labor Coalition, says that the coalition will start working with the other labor unions on campus. These include the dining workers, housekeeping, facilities and librarians. Those interested in being a part of Brandeis Labor Coalition should email phoebedolan@brandeis.edu and follow Brandeis Labor Coalition on Facebook and Twitter.

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