Two unions debate in hopes of representing Northwestern graduate students

Yvonne Kim, Assistant Campus Editor

More than 100 people attended a debate hosted by the Northwestern Graduate Workers on Thursday between two unions — the Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of Teachers — vying to represent graduate students at NU.

The debate, held at Evanston Public Library, comes nearly two months after the National Labor Relations Board ruled in August that student teaching assistants have the right to collectively bargain as university employees. The ruling lifted barriers for graduate students at NU to seek union representation, and some chose to form NU Graduate Workers last month.

SEIU is in the process of collecting signed authorization cards from graduate students who hope to be represented by the union, while AFT’s strategy is to wait for a more concrete election timeline. At least 30 percent of the bargaining unit must sign a card to initiate an official union election with the NLRB.

Two representatives from each of the unions spoke at the debate, which opened with questions collected from graduate students beforehand. Questions reflected graduate students’ interest in the unions’ differing backgrounds and strategies in approaching the potential election.

“(The unionization issue) comes down to a really, really simple equation, which is voice,” AFT national representative Samantha Jordan said. “The work that you do is incredibly vital to this institution. The research that you do not only enhances the reputation of the institution but also brings financial benefits to the institution. You don’t reap those financial benefits.”

Jason Grunebaum, a bargaining member at the University of Chicago’s Faculty Forward Union, which is represented by SEIU, said graduate students should unionize to have a say in the conditions of their employment and to ensure administrators can’t “do whatever they want, whenever they want to do it.”

Ian Hartman, a fifth-year graduate student in the Screen Cultures program at NU, told The Daily the event was helpful in providing details about the unionization process.

“The moderators did a really good job of introducing the general scope of what this whole thing’s about,” Hartman said. “I certainly feel more informed than I did before, even though I’ve been involved with this for a while now, so I think it piqued some interest.”

The latter portion of the debate was a Q&A for graduate students in the audience.

Students asked about the differences between the two organizations’ approaches to local membership. Unionizing under AFT would result in students forming their own local union, while unionizing under SEIU would lead them to join Local 73, a group that represents service workers throughout Illinois and Indiana.

“We’ve really benefited from a strong organizing structure that SEIU has provided us,” Grunebaum said in response to a question from the audience. “At the same time, I’ve felt that we’ve had complete and total autonomy.”

Jordan, the AFT national representative, said political autonomy is “incredibly important” and that graduate students being able to run their own organization is key.

“Being your own local doesn’t mean that you don’t get to take advantage of the depth and wisdom of the international or the state affiliate,” she said. “Certainly there are always supports in place to work with you and for you.”

Other graduate students addressed dues, strike pay and differences between graduate students and non-tenure faculty members, who filed for union election in June but are waiting for a final verdict.

Kevin Baker, a sixth-year graduate student in the history department, told The Daily he saw a “lot of new faces” at the debate.

“It’s good to see that momentum is in our favor and that our organizing work is paying off,” Baker said. “We’re all very excited … We’re going to keep doing what we’re doing.”

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