Letter to the Editor: We are graduate students in support of SEIU

We are graduate student employees who work at Northwestern University. Some of us teach as instructors or teaching assistants, while others assist faculty as research assistants or conduct our own independent research. Regardless of our specific circumstances, we each appreciate the opportunity to bring our knowledge and experience into the classroom and enjoy being a part of such a vibrant academic community.

Graduate student workers are vital to the mission of higher education. Our teaching, grading and instructional support are core components of undergraduate education. Our lab work and fieldwork underwrite major new discoveries and innovations. Our research and scholarship contribute both to the broad advance of knowledge and to the reputation of our institution.

Yet professional graduate student needs, perspectives and voices are too often overlooked. Over the past few months, we have spoken with our colleagues across the University about a range of issues impacting graduate students. Several core themes emerged from these discussions, including concerns about sudden unilateral changes to our pay and work conditions, inadequate flexibility in health care coverage, wanting more robust and clear methods of addressing workplace issues, better processes for addressing workplace harassment and discrimination, continuation fees and other financial burdens, and the rising costs of living in the greater Chicago area.

On its homepage, NU proudly proclaims social justice as part of its values, committing “authentically and ethically to create an inclusive and socially just learning environment for all members of the Northwestern University community. ” Yet the reality of our University’s labor practices belie the commitment to educational quality implied by that description. Only 22 percent of NU’s revenue is dedicated to instruction, while student tuition has risen 62 percent over the past decade. Meanwhile, the University’s endowment of $10.2 billion is among the highest university endowments in the country.

The fact is that NU relies on graduate student labor and spends a surprisingly small percentage of its budget on student instruction, which affects our own working conditions as well as our ability to provide quality education to NU’s talented students. As graduate student workers, we need a strong, united voice in order to effect change on these and other issues.

Since surprisingly, we even lack a democratically elected graduate student government, unlike peer institutions, this is even more reason why require some sort of meaningful path toward shared governance between graduate student employees and the administration. We believe the best way to improve our working conditions and our positionality as members of the campus community is by coming together to form a union for graduate student workers on our individual campuses and to unite with our peers at universities across the country.

Graduate employee unions are not new, and we are now part of a national movement. We are standing up and saying it is time for the people responsible for the core mission of instruction and scholarship to have a voice in the decisions that impact our degree path, our livelihoods and the future of higher education.

We have seen contingent faculty begin to organize their labor across the country. Specifically, over the last three years, non-tenure track faculty at nearly 50 universities voted to form a union under the banner of SEIU Faculty Forward, joining a nationwide movement of nearly 100,000 SEIU members who work in higher education. In August, grad students at Duke, American University and many other universities across the country began to form their union with SEIU.

By forming a graduate student union with SEIU, we can join our colleagues on campus and across the country in order to improve our work conditions and the quality of higher education as a whole.

In solidarity,

John Marshall, Neuroscience

Joseph Grant, Political Science

Sarah Gates, Music

Ira Murfin, Interdisciplinary PhD in Theater and Drama

Paul Williams, Astronomy and Physics

Max Freeman, Bilingualism and Psycholinguistics

Niki Charlafti, Music

Kathleen Hall, Linguistics

Matilda Stubbs, Anthropology

Luis Fernando Amaya Munoz, Music

Noah Jenkins, Music

Jackson Bartlett, African-American Studies

Toby Altman, English

Daniel Radzicki, Neuroscience

Michael Katz, Physics and Astronomy

Ruby Fried, Anthropology

Khadene Harris, Anthropology

Jose Arellano, Music

Theodore Foster, African-American Studies

Sam Tenorio, African-American Studies

Maureen Winter, French

Niharika Sravan, Physics and Astronomy

Vinita Chaudhry, Anthropology

Kyle Kremer, Physics and Astronomy

Dario Valles, Anthropology

Eve Chase, Physics and Astronomy

Sureshi Jayawardene, African-American Studies

Angela Young Smucker, Music

Annalese Duprey, English

Benjamin Ricciardi, Religious Studies

Arturo Marquez, Anthropology

Chelsie Yount-Andre, Anthropology