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Georgetown University grad students get first union contract, in win for student labor movement

Georgetown University's graduate students have reached a tentative contract with the administration. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)
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Teaching and research assistants at Georgetown University signed a tentative contract with the university administration Friday, securing an agreement for pay and benefit bumps even as the National Labor Relations Board prepares to deny graduate students at private universities legal protection to form unions.

“The gains we have made through this contract ... will enable hundreds of graduate workers to thrive as we do the teaching and research that makes Georgetown excel,” said Daniel Solomon, a teaching assistant and second-year doctoral student in government.

Georgetown University agrees to allow graduate students to vote on unionizing

The Georgetown Alliance of Graduate Employees, which is affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers union, is slated to vote on its first contract in the coming days.

The three-year deal, covering more than 1,000 workers, guarantees 2 percent annual raises for all graduate student assistants. It raises hourly wages by 44 percent for teaching assistants in masters programs, while doctoral assistants who now earn a 12-month stipend of $31,000 will be paid $35,500.

The contract also establishes an emergency assistance fund of up to $50,000 a year for graduate workers. It reduces out-of-pocket health-care expenses from $5,000 to $3,000 for individuals and $10,000 to $6,000 for families.

The deal also includes workplace protections, including a new joint committee to deal with sexual harassment claims. The grievance procedure is similar to one Harvard University graduate students have been fighting for over the past year.

Harvard’s graduate student union demands better sexual harassment protections

Private universities have had a mixed reaction to the graduate student labor movement, with some refusing to bargain on the grounds that students are not employees. Georgetown initially took that stance when teaching and research assistants asked the university to recognize their union three years ago, but it ultimately decided to come to the bargaining table.

“We are pleased to have reached this tentative agreement with GAGE/AFT and look forward to the result of their ratification process," a Georgetown University spokesman said in an email. “We are grateful for the leadership and collaboration shown by both parties in order to reach an agreement in these challenging times.”

Georgetown’s voluntary recognition of the union and the subsequent contract could offer a path for other private universities to achieve labor peace with graduate assistants at a time when graduate students’ rights as workers are under attack.

Graduate labor activists are bracing for the National Labor Relations Board to finalize a rule that denies teaching and research assistants at private universities the legal protections afforded to other unions. The regulation, released in September, asserts that graduate workers are students above all else, not employees of their universities, even if they assist in teaching courses and research that benefits schools.

The ruling will make it difficult for graduate students to win concessions from universities on campuses where administrations resist. But they can still negotiate voluntary agreements like Georgetown’s, making moot the labor board rule change and helping universities avoid litigation over the scope of the bargaining unit or other disputes.

“We hope this contract will provide a model for graduate workers seeking similar protections from their own universities,” said Solomon, the Georgetown teaching assistant. "In a time of grave economic uncertainty for so many educators and researchers across the country ... collective action can win and sustain new gains for our community.”

NLRB reverses course on graduate students’ right to organize as employees

Student activists say their schools have stalled negotiations since the labor board signaled its retreat from a 2016 decision that cleared the way for collective bargaining at some of the nation’s elite schools.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said Georgetown’s contract reflects the resilience of graduate workers and the university’s commitment to its best traditions.

“The contract is a testament to the university and its graduate faculty — it creates economic and educational security in one of the most uncertain times in modern history," Weingarten said. “The university opted to invest in its workers, not forfeit its future.”

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