In Focus: Northwestern’s graduate student unionization effort diverges despite common cause
March 3, 2017
As a graduate student instructor, LaCharles Ward always considered himself a Northwestern employee.
The fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in the School of Communication grew up on the West Side of Chicago, where he said he saw the benefits of unions first hand. His grandfather was a union worker for the city and helped build the then-Sears Tower, Ward said.
Unions have always helped Ward understand his family’s history, he said.
“Unions are there to guarantee that workers’ rights are respected,” Ward said. “It is making sure that we have a way to express our grievances if we feel our rights have been breached.”
In the past few months, Ward, along with his peers in Northwestern Graduate Workers, have intensified their efforts to form a graduate student union at the university. Ward said he aims to bring graduate students from various disciplines together to create a unified voice on a fragmented campus.
Though Northwestern raised the stipend for teaching assistants earlier in the academic year, from $22,992 to $29,000, Ward said there needs to be student input on decisions that affect stipends and benefits. When the University makes decisions unilaterally, it decreases the security of students, he said.
“The goal is to bring all of that into the fold and to speak as a unionized voice, which isn’t an easy task to do,” Ward said.
Northwestern’s graduate student unionization effort picked up speed after Aug. 23, when the National Labor Relations Board ruled that graduate students working as teaching and research assistants at private universities have the right to unionize. The case, brought by Columbia University, overturned a previous decision made in 2004.
But among the group of impassioned activists seeking unionization at NU, a divide has emerged about which union to rally around. This split presents a challenge for graduate students who simultaneously face University opposition to their unionization effort.
Matilda Stubbs, a ninth-year graduate student in NU’s anthropology department, said she has felt discouraged by arguments among graduate students. And after the election of President Donald Trump, graduate students are aware of the likelihood that a new conservative-leaning NLRB could reverse the decision.
“In our current political environment, I don’t think we have the privilege to debate (which) union is better than another,” Stubbs said. “Well, look who is president. Do you really think we should take two years to distill our collective? No, we have to move forward.”
If not for federal grants and an employed spouse, Robin Hoecker (Communication ’16) said she would have had to drop out of The Graduate School. When Hoecker came to NU in 2010, she said the University offered no additional support for mothers like her.
“I know a lot of single parents who at the time were trying to survive on $23,000 with a child,” Hoecker said. “It is just ridiculous.”
In 2014, before the NLRB decided graduate students at private universities should have the right to unionize, Hoecker established the Student Parent Alliance at NU. She said she provided recommendations to the University for improving the lives of graduate student parents.
But when NU created a task force in September 2015 to look into the recommendations, administrators did not include anyone from the Student Parent Alliance, Hoecker said.
“They shut us out,” she said. “If you are going to advocate for my interests, I want to know that the person is independent of the University and doesn’t have an institutional backing.”
Despite getting increased benefits such as longer parental leave and access to a child care grant in the fall, Hoecker said there needs to be a formalized structure for graduate student representation.
Northwestern has taken an unwavering stance in opposition to graduate student unionization. University spokesman Al Cubbage told The Daily in an email that collective bargaining is not an appropriate method to address graduate student concerns.
“While we recognize and respect the decision made by the NLRB, Northwestern University has always regarded its graduate students as students, first and foremost, and has been steadfast in its commitment to support, mentor, and train them,” Cubbage said in the email.
In a January interview with The Daily, University President Morton Schapiro said unionization has the potential to weaken the relationship between professors and graduate students. Schapiro contrasted the graduate student unionization effort to NU’s non-tenure eligible faculty unionization effort, which has been stalled for months over disputes about whether certain ballots qualified in a union election held in July.
“In terms of grad students, I feel much more strongly that it’s a mistake, but I respect democratic processes,” Schapiro said. “I just think it’s a bad move.”
Anthony Pinelli, a labor law attorney in Chicago, said graduate students are not independent contractors and must work in the confines of an institution that controls hours of work, payment plans and the rules that govern faculty-student interactions.
“We have a system in this country where being an employee leads you to benefits,” Pinelli said. “The University has control over these individuals and they control conduct, yet they escape treating them as employees.”
Troubles with communication
In fall 2012, Stubbs said she learned that NU had substituted its dental insurance for an alternative plan that saved the university money. Stubbs said she received no information or communication from the University on the decision and added that the original insurance had reasonable co-pays and other coverage.
Cubbage said the dental insurance program was discontinued because it was underutilized by the student body. TGS was not consulted on the decision, he said.
Stubbs then reached out to administrators after finding out about the change.
“This lack of communication as our employer and health coverage provider deeply concerns me and I would like to know what steps can be taken to bring the previous dental coverage option back and in the future, improve transparency regarding changing policies of our employment benefits,” she said in a September 2012 email to TGS Dean Dwight McBride.
McBride did not directly respond to a request for comment, but his executive assistant deferred to Cubbage.
“When the TGS Dean was alerted of the change, the dental insurance program was immediately reinstated, and all students were advised that the plan was again available to them,” Cubbage told The Daily in an email.
Stubbs said administrators reached out to her and other graduate students about their concerns and said the original dental insurance plan was reinstated later that year.
A lack of communication between the administration and students has frustrated her over the last few years, Stubbs said.
“We have (Graduate Leadership Advocacy Council), but they would even agree that they don’t actually make any decisions, and they aren’t really consulted,” Stubbs said.
According to its website, GLAC aims to give students an opportunity to voice concerns to administrators and to participate in the decision making process. But many pro-union students have voiced concerns about its effectiveness.
GLAC President Amanda Kleintop and Katherine Simeon, the council’s communication chair, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Cubbage said TGS has and will continue to work closely with GLAC. He said the University would be open to establishing a formalized graduate student government similar to Associated Student Government, which is run by undergraduates.
“The University has also welcomed and included our graduate students in the shared-governance process, such as identifying graduate students to serve on institutional task forces, offering a clear path by which to voice opinions and identify possible solutions,” Cubbage told The Daily in an email.
Even before August’s NLRB ruling, sixth-year graduate student Jackson Bartlett had already been in contact with representatives from the Service Employees International Union, Local 73. SEIU was working with non-tenure eligible faculty at NU, and Bartlett said it made sense to him for the union to continue its efforts to work on behalf of graduate students.
“We were well underway in the union authorization drive,” said Bartlett, who is in the African American Studies Department. “There were not two unions on campus. There was one; it was us.”
Meanwhile, NUGW decided to start a relationship with the American Federation of Teachers shortly after the NLRB decision.
Since aligning itself with AFT at the end of Fall Quarter, NUGW has picked up momentum in the past few months, causing tension among some graduate students.
“SEIU is an important union, and I wouldn’t want to be dismissive,” Ward said. “They have organized well with service staff and restaurant workers, but we didn’t feel that was enough to represent a graduate student body.”
At an October debate sponsored by NUGW between AFT and SEIU, the two factions clashed on a public stage.
Though Ward said the event was one of the best ways for graduate students to learn about the unionization process and get a better sense of which union to affiliate with, Bartlett said he believes debating publicly was misguided, as it put the two sides’ differences on display.
This tension resulted in what Bartlett called a “sham election,” as NUGW left SEIU off the ballot on a vote deciding whether to affiliate with a union.
Eli Lichtenstein, a member of NUGW and a first-year Ph.D. candidate in philosophy, said he was in contact with SEIU representatives throughout the affiliation proposal process. SEIU’s proposal was submitted hours before the deadline, and he said it did not include enough information about a governance structure, how decisions would be made or the norms of communication.
Bartlett said leaving SEIU off the ballot was not an accurate representation of the graduate student body, but exclusively NUGW members. Ward said almost all graduate students were aware of the vote before it took place.
Lichtenstein said NUGW is comprised of some members who have sought support for unionization from sources other than SEIU.
SEIU representatives ultimately chose not revise their affiliation proposal, and NUGW sent the proposal through its listserv the next day to inform graduate students about the group’s efforts.
Graduate students in NUGW voted to affiliate with AFT, without an option for SEIU on the ballot. As reported in December, among the 115 people in NUGW, nearly 81 percent voted to affiliate with AFT, the largest higher education union in the country, and its state chapter, while just over 19 percent voted to not affiliate with the union.
“They are trying to control the narrative,” said Bartlett, referring to NUGW members. “We have been surprised that they are out there telling the press that we are gone, that we are off campus. We are ready to go.”
Though tensions run high on both sides, the two groups of graduate students see common ground in the ultimate goal of unionizing.
Bartlett and Ward both said they would accept final outcomes if the NLRB conducts a vote. Until then, the two groups continue collecting union cards, hoping to gain enough to file with the NLRB. Graduate students would need 30 percent of the student population to sign union cards before filing.
A precarious position
Sneha Narayan, a fifth-year graduate student from India, said advocating for unionization leaves international students vulnerable.
“I have had moments wondering if I should rock the boat in any way,” Narayan said. “We have a lot to lose because our visa status is entirely dependent on if we are enrolled in the University.”
Ravi Shankar, director of the International Office, said some international students may be reluctant to speak out on controversial issues such as unionization.
“They are temporary residents so therefore a lot of students, depending on their background, could be hesitant to talking and speaking out,” Shankar said. “Under this current (Trump) administration you can understand the concerns and paranoia of not saying anything.”
Shankar said he recognizes graduate students’ role as both students and employees but does not consider them separate.
“I don’t see them as mutually exclusive,” Shankar said. “They are all part of an integrated and holistic philosophy of education.”
Under the F-1 visa, students are unable to work outside of an on-campus job during their first year and may only work in off-campus jobs that are directly related to their studies and approved by the Designated School Official and United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Shankar said teaching assistant stipends are important for giving financial resources to help international students.
Narayan said she is most nervous about the current political climate and how it will affect immigrants. Though the University has to abide by federal laws, a union would allow NU to better support international students, she said.
“Having a union to put pressure on the University to lobby the government or pay attention to these issues as it affects the campus could be very powerful,” Narayan said. “Being a part of an organized collective can only help with all the uncertainties that we are going to face in the next four years because of the political situation.”
Last winter, non-tenure eligible faculty at Loyola University Chicago and University of Chicago successfully filed with the NLRB to affiliate with SEIU. Last month, graduate students at Loyola followed in their footsteps.
Juliana Locke, a second-year master’s student in the Divinity School at UChicago, said she sees similarities between the movement at UChicago and NU, as both have had to work around the fast pace of a quarter system. Like NUGW, the UChicago group Graduate Students United voted to affiliate with AFT.
Locke said she is optimistic that graduate students’ efforts across the country will help create a “domino effect,” and that media coverage and an increased support for unionization will make it easier to organize.
On Wednesday, SEIU hosted a rally at Loyola to show solidarity with graduate students and non-tenure eligible faculty who are currently bargaining with the administration.
Matharr Bayo, a Loyola junior who spoke at the rally, said he wants undergraduates from universities throughout Chicago to get involved in supporting both teaching assistants and non-tenure eligible faculty.
“Chicago has always been a hotbed of political activism,” Bayo said. “It is up to us to continue that and organizing teachers all throughout Chicago, and it will be a great step to take back that power that was taken from us with this new (presidential) administration.”
Based on the unionization efforts at Loyola and UChicago, it is unknown how long it would take for NU graduate students to sign a binding contract, said David Andrews, a member of Loyola’s non-tenure eligible faculty.
Andrews said forming a union is only the beginning. Based on his experience, he said he fears graduate students are a long way from signing a binding contract.
“The pace of negotiations is so slow we have been stuck on this one issue for almost six meetings,” Andrews said. “The people across the table seem to disagree with every single thing we say. We want to put the pressure on the university to stop stalling and quit trying to wait for Trump’s new NLRB to stop us.”
This story was updated to clarify that the UChicago group Graduate Students United voted to affiliate with AFT.