Northwestern graduate students begin to seek union representation after NLRB decision

Julia Jacobs, Editor in Chief

Some graduate students at Northwestern have begun to organize in favor of unionization in the past month, holding what one called a “flurry of meetings” following the National Labor Relations Board’s decision in August lifting barriers to unionization for student assistants at private universities.

Two labor unions — the Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of Teachers — are vying to represent NU graduate students, while the University continues to assert that unionization and collective bargaining are not the “appropriate methods” to address concerns of graduate students. On Tuesday afternoon, Dwight McBride, dean of The Graduate School, held a two-hour town hall meeting in the graduate student commons at 2122 Sheridan Rd., where students were invited to ask questions about the decision’s impact on Northwestern. There will be another town hall tomorrow evening on the Chicago campus.

Brian McLoughlin, a fifth-year graduate student who attended the meeting, said about 15 students attended and that the administration’s main message seemed to be that starting the unionization process for graduate student assistants would be venturing into “uncharted territory.” In a letter McBride wrote to graduate students dated Sept. 22, the dean urged students to educate themselves about the ruling as well as the “workings and institutional records of specific unions from whom you may be hearing.”

The NLRB ruled student assistants at private universities should be considered employees and thus have the right to collectively bargain with their employers. Illinois law already allows graduate student assistants at public universities to unionize, and some private university student assistants — such as those at the University of Chicago — have negotiated with their administration for improvements to healthcare benefits and parental leave policies, as well as increased pay, among others.

In recent weeks, students have formed an independent group currently referred to as Northwestern Grad Workers, which is intended to coordinate students who wish to unionize, regardless of the organization they prefer, said Kevin Baker, a sixth-year graduate student in the history department. While SEIU sent out an email soon after the NLRB decision asking graduate students to sign union cards — a declaration of students’ support for exclusive representation from that particular union — AFT is waiting for a more concrete election timeline, Baker said.

To request a union election with the NLRB, a union must obtain authorization cards from at least 30 percent of the bargaining unit.

To Baker, a unifying issue for graduate students is negotiating health insurance plans, which he said are essentially “designed for healthy 20-year-olds,” rather than someone in their 30s. Baker said conversations with colleagues at institutions with long-standing unions led him to believe they have better work environments and stronger relationships with their advisors.

However, the University’s position on the issue is similar to other private universities: that graduate student assistants’ qualification as employees would hinder their relationships with faculty mentors and the University. An FAQ on the University’s website also noted that there are “no guarantees” that employee conditions will only be improved with union negotiations.  

The University statement after the ruling as well as McBride’s letter to graduate students highlighted NU’s actions to improve graduate students’ well-being, including increasing the base stipend 26 percent in 2015 to $29,000 and again this year to $29,880. McBride’s letter also highlighted the results of a task force on graduate students with children, which resulted in an expanded parental leave policy and a new child care grant.

“They’re trying to paint a picture of the administration as a body that has our best interests at heart in every case, and I don’t think that’s necessarily the case,” Baker said.

McBride did not respond to a request for comment.

Conversation and activism surrounding graduate student unionization is ramping up while the status of the non-tenure eligible faculty union election hangs in limbo. The NLRB’s Chicago office held hearings at the end of August to determine the validity of 71 ballots from July’s election. Although the hearings are complete, the information is currently under review, said Daniel Nelson, assistant regional director of the NLRB’s Chicago office.

Ruth Martin Curry, a sixth-year comparative literature graduate student, said the state of the non-tenure eligible faculty election has given her reason to see the graduate student campaign as a multi-year endeavour.

Martin Curry helped found Civically Engaged Grads, a member organization of the Graduate Leadership and Advocacy Council, and said meetings with administrators about key issues don’t carry much weight unless graduate students have some sort of decision-making influence. For example, Martin Curry said when GLAC discussed 2016-17 health benefits with administrators, the meeting was a “courtesy” — all the decisions had already been made, she said.

“For me, it’s really about having a seat at the table and having the person in that seat democratically elected by their peers,” Martin Curry said. “I just see more and more that graduate students really lack a voice in some of the … fundamental conditions that affect our work.”

Baker said there will likely be a debate between SEIU and AFT next month. If the threshold of union cards is met, the next step is filing a petition for a secret ballot election. SEIU has not disclosed how many NU graduate students have signed union cards.

Kelli Nguyen contributed reporting.

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