After a year of galvanizing their peers to form a labor union, a group of graduate students at Georgetown University is now asking president John DeGioia to support their efforts.
“Georgetown is a unique institution in the landscape of private universities in that it has an explicit policy rooted in its Jesuit identity that affirms the dignity of labor,” said Hailey Huget, a doctoral candidate in philosophy and a member of the Georgetown Alliance of Graduate Employees. “We hope the university will live up to those values.”
On Wednesday, the alliance held its first public rally and delivered a letter to DeGioia urging him to embrace a path different from other prominent universities that have tried to thwart similar labor campaigns.
Georgetown spokeswoman Rachel Pugh said university officials are “carefully reviewing” the letter.
The union organizers want to join the American Federation of Teachers. To do that, they need to file a petition with the National Labor Relations Board. Organizers have no firm timeline for doing that and are instead focused on being formally recognized by the university.
Students say they are hopeful university leaders will let the collective bargaining campaign proceed without objection, as they did when adjunct faculty formed a union a few years ago.
Columbia University, Boston College and Yale University are among several prestigious schools that have resisted giving graduate students a seat at the table. They have railed against a 2016 National Labor Relations Board decision to grant teaching and research assistants the legal protection to unionize, arguing that recognizing students as employees would undermine the foundation of their education.
Days after the labor board’s decision, Yale, Columbia and Princeton posted information on their websites warning students that unionizing may alter their relationship with faculty and limit their individual rights as the union becomes their collective voice. Those same universities submitted a joint brief to the labor board ahead of the ruling expressing concern that teaching and research assistants might want to negotiate the length of a class, amount of grading or what’s included in curriculum. They argued that all of those possibilities could lead to lengthy and expensive bargaining.
Despite the opposition, teaching and research assistants at 16 private universities have filed petitions or participated in elections to form unions in the last year, according to the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College in New York. Student organizers say collective bargaining is the only way universities will listen to demands for higher pay, comprehensive health insurance and balanced workloads.
Those very same concerns underpin the campaign at Georgetown. Most graduate workers at the university receive a stipend of about $28,000 to live in one of the most expensive cities in the country, Huget said. To make ends meet, Huget has worked as a security guard during the summer, when work at the university dries up. And while Georgetown covers her tuition and health care, Huget said the out-of-pocket costs for the insurance are expensive. Her insurance plan requires her to pay $6,350 out of pocket before 100 percent of the benefits kick in.
Huget became involved in labor organizing last year after she and other graduate students fought off an attempt by Georgetown to increase the number of hours they could be asked to work without additional pay. She said she was struck by the university imposing a unilateral change to working conditions without input from students.
Kevin Carriere, a doctoral candidate in the psychology department, points to the same episode as an example of the “disconnect” between university officials and graduate workers. He recalls another incident over the summer that impressed upon him the need for a graduate union. Student workers in his department, he said, told administrators that cuts to summer funding for graduate research had left them struggling to get by and were encouraged by administrators to work on their budgeting.
“The graduate school and deans have hosted events to hear about our needs, but when we come forward with issues that are important to us, they are dismissive,” Carriere said.
The graduate alliance is comprised of teaching assistants, teaching associates and research assistants across Georgetown’s 33 departments.
“By joining together in a union to raise their voice, Georgetown graduate employees are honoring the best traditions of their institution,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “And as professionals who grade the papers and conduct the research that makes Georgetown run, they deserve, just like their academic peers, a real say in the decisions that shape their working lives.”