Who’s Got Your Back?: Northwestern Graduate Workers mobilize through virtual programming

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Daily file photo by Cameron Cook

Northwestern University Graduate Workers protest in Nov. 2019. NUGW hosted a week of programming seeking to mobilize graduate workers toward COVID-19 accommodations, eventual unionization.

Nick Francis, Copy Chief

Northwestern University Graduate Workers hosted a weeklong series titled Who’s Got Your Back? to encourage more workers to join the organization and reflect on the state of University graduate workers one year after the pandemic’s onset.

The week consisted of four events including a general information session and happy hour, but current and prospective members also attended meetings addressing graduate worker healthcare and guaranteed six-year stipends for Ph.D. students.

Who’s Got Your Back? comes after the National Labor Relations Board in March allowed graduate students at private universities to unionize. In order for NUGW to gain official status, they must hold an NLRB-sanctioned election and garner a majority vote from the bargaining unit.

However, getting to the election might be harder than it sounds, Ph.D. candidate and NUGW co-chair Charlotte Rosen said.

“Universities can engage in lots of different stalling tactics to prevent actually bringing us to the bargaining table,” Rosen said. “So that would sort of be a new leg of the fight.”

The University currently does not support unionization. NU said the formation of a union would alter the relationship between students, faculty and the University, but still encourages graduate workers to stay informed on the issue.

Unity is the crucial component for NUGW to achieve unionization, according to Rosen, which is strengthened by events like Who’s Got Your Back? Only unity will afford the organization votes to legitimize as a union and guarantee officiated access to collective bargaining and negotiation efforts, Rosen said.

Ph.D. candidate and NUGW research chair Andrew Montequin said some of these efforts — the group’s central mission — include increased healthcare benefits, guaranteed six-year stipends for Ph.D. students and accommodations for bereavement. These requests all also address problems exacerbated by the pandemic.

“Because of these confounding crises, there’ll be a lot of people running out of funding,” Montequin said, “and the University never directly responded.”

According to an internal NUGW document, 12 percent of respondents had childcare responsibilities during the pandemic, and nearly 75 percent of that population found their circumstances “extremely or somewhat unmanageable,” with half of them indicating they received no University or departmental support during that time.

Montequin said NUGW’s case is further supported by NU’s financial status after fiscal year 2020 in which the University reported “investment gains of $816 million and other inflows exceeded spending and administrative support of $562 million.”

“What we’re hearing from the universities is that ‘there’s not the money to do that,’” Montequin said. “But then it turns out they ended up with a big budget surplus at the end of the year, and still had a lot of liquid assets left around.”

Montequin said NUGW’s calls are in part shared by other student organizations like Graduate Leadership and Advocacy Council. NUGW, he added, hopes to strengthen the collective effort by bringing in financial analysis and large-scale data.

One year ago, Rosen said NUGW was just making inroads. Now, despite uncertain timelines and COVID-19 conditions, it is amassing a student population calling for change.

“We’re growing every day and I think that we’re going to fight to get to a point where we feel confident,” Rosen said. “We’re stronger than ever and are really energized and moving toward circumstances where we could host and then win the election.”

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Andrew Montequin’s position within NUGW. He is NUGW’s research chair. The Daily regrets the error.

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