Last month, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) issued a ruling that grants graduate teaching and research assistants at private universities the same collective bargaining rights as their peers in public institutions within states that allow it. This decision affirmed what many of us consider obvious: graduate students who work in labs, grade papers and teach classes are employees of the university, and, as employees, we are entitled to form a union.
Even before the NLRB ruling, graduate students had been working with organizers from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) to take the first steps towards forming a union here at Northwestern. We believe AFT is the better option.
SEIU is a recent arrival to higher education and has not yet successfully negotiated a contract for graduate employees anywhere in the country. Here at NU, SEIU’s drive to organize non-tenure-track faculty last year ended in a contested election, the final results of which are still being adjudicated by the NLRB. SEIU’s current graduate campaign is characterized by the same strategy that drew criticism during their adjunct drive: a rapid push for workers to sign authorization cards, then filing for an election as soon as the campaign reaches the minimum 30 percent threshold of signed cards. This truncated timeline comes at the expense of workers’ efforts to deliberate, organize and strategize ahead of a vote. It also risks defeating the more significant aim of unionization: building collective power.
AFT is better positioned to represent graduate workers and help us fight for our interests. As a bottom-up, member-driven union, it favors a deliberate, grassroots approach to build strong majorities within our bargaining unit, and it has the resources and expertise to translate these majorities into effective representation. AFT represents 200,000 academic faculty and staff members across the United States and has represented graduate employees for almost 50 years. In that time, AFT locals have routinely secured important gains for their members, such as increases in graduate compensation and stronger benefits packages. Recent AFT contract victories include parental accommodations, antidiscrimination protections for transgender workers and disability accommodations beyond those required by law.
AFT affiliation would also provide a robust framework for self-governance. While affiliating with SEIU would mean incorporating into Local 73, a local that represents over 25,000 workers across both Illinois and Indiana, AFT would allow us to form our own chartered local, offering us more direct control over our finances and the bargaining process.
The question graduate employees face is not just whether to start a union, but also how a union can best represent its members. AFT is the better choice.
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