Graduate workers call in sick for three days to support #universal1yr, coronavirus relief demands


Daily file photo by Catherine Buchaniec

Participating The Graduate School students collectively took sick days, refusing research, instruction, class attendance, work emails and other graduate responsibilities.

Yunkyo Kim, Assistant Campus Editor

Northwestern University Graduate Workers held a three-day sick-out from June 3 to 5, another step in an escalation regarding grad school demands since the group first launched its #universal1yr campaign in April.

NUGW functions as a union, though the University does not recognize it as such. Participating graduate students collectively took sick days, refusing research, instruction, class attendance, work emails and other graduate responsibilities to remind the administration that graduate students are fundamental to University operations.

In doing so, students continued advocating for some of NUGW’s key demands: a universal year of extended funding, guarantee of lab safety, sick leave, protections for international students, inclusive healthcare, childcare support and more.

The sick-out organizers also expressed solidarity with nationwide protests against police violence and racial injustice. Expressions of solidarity must be paired with palpable action such as divestment from law enforcement and redirecting of sources to “center diversity, equity and inclusion in its leadership, staff and funding” in The Graduate School community, their statement said.

“We understand that the material conditions of our academic lives, and the right to a collective voice in decisions that affect these conditions, are inherently issues of racial, gender, and decolonial justice,” the statement read. “We are dedicated to building a diverse and democratic union that centers the needs of historically excluded and underrepresented graduate students.”

Yannick Coenders, a sociology third-year graduate student, is a teaching assistant and preparing for a qualifying exam. He’s also been teaching his own course at another school in addition to his work at Northwestern.

As an international student, Coenders said he was shocked the University has not committed to his health, safety and fair wage while he essentially works for them, in addition to completing academic tasks.

“I want the administration to realize that we do work and we need to be treated as workers,” Coenders said. “Sitting out is one way to remind them of their reliance on us.”

The University’s emphasis on a case-by-case evaluation of student needs is also inherently harmful, he said, because the coronavirus pandemic has impacted every graduate worker. It also undermines graduate workers of marginalized identities, Coenders said, as the system sets up administrators at the top to decide who “deserves” COVID-19 support.

Doctoral student Heather McCambly said she would not have joined the sick-out if NUGW did not center black and Indigenous people and other communities of color, in drafting and promoting demands.

“There’s a very strong cultural reliance within the University on a “trust us” approach and case-by-case aid to students, and I know for some reason that has become something they feel good about,” McCambly said. “I think it’s so important to call out: we know how that (case-by-case) plays out long term, and it is not equitable and is in favor of white supremacy and white privilege.”

With summer approaching, McCambly said this is an opportune moment for advocating for graduate necessities.

Given the nationwide protests against police brutality and racial injustice, doctoral student Raina Bhagat also said it feels like an apt time to petition the University through escalated action.

“Due to the way institutional racism operates, it feels like the worst time in the world,” Bhagat said. “And yet, it is the best time to make our voices heard because there are so many things going on, and everyone’s energy and concentration … are stretched to the limit.”

For many participants, the sick-out is a result of long-ignored graduate needs exacerbated by times of civil unrest.

As a black graduate student, Coenders said he feels the campus police is not “there for (his) protection.” Divestment — one of NUGW’s demands — is a key part of ensuring students can complete their education in a safe environment, he added.

“All we ask for is work conditions that enable us to do our work well,” he said. “That is about sixth-year funding. That is about a three-day sick leave, that is about guaranteeing the safety of all those lab workers asked to return to campus. That is also about not living in fear for the police at your own work.“

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