#OneYearOut, NUGW continues call for funding extensions and worker protections


Illustration by Meher Yeda

Northwestern University Graduate Workers released a petition last March calling for a universal, one-year funding extension for all students. Despite pandemic-related delays to research, The Graduate School has only granted a blanket extension on degree deadlines.

Maia Pandey, Assistant Campus Editor

Every morning, Ph.D. student Rose Werth wakes up unsure whether she will feel “paralyzed and overwhelmed” because of the responsibilities that come with her education. 

A third-year graduate student, Werth is taking a full course load while also participating in a research assistantship. However, she only has two more years of guaranteed funding from Northwestern — even though the average student in her field takes seven years to complete a doctoral degree. Funding has always been a stressor, Werth said, but pandemic-related delays have compounded her anxiety over the last year.

Despite these delays to research, NU has yet to issue any blanket funding extensions — which has placed many graduate students in an emotionally and financially precarious situation.

“It felt like (NU) was gaslighting us,” Werth said. “I know we were all hoping that the pandemic would only last two weeks and then a month, but then as things got worse, they just seemed to be very unwilling to admit that this huge disruption to our work was happening.”

Northwestern University Graduate Workers, a student-led group pushing for the unionization of graduate students, has been a crucial emotional support system this past year for Werth, who organizes with the group.

Last March, NUGW released a statement petitioning administrators to issue a universal, one-year funding extension, among other protections for graduate students. Since then, The Graduate School has only granted students a yearlong extension on their degree deadlines with any additional funding issued on a case-by-case basis.

In a pandemic that has disproportionately affected marginalized groups, this case-by-case system only exacerbates existing inequities, Ph.D. candidate and NUGW co-chair Zorimar Rivera Montes said. 

“Students with the most access to resources and privilege might have an easier time than students that are more marginalized and in more precarious positions,” Rivera Montes said.

As a part of organizing efforts a year into the pandemic, NUGW recently published a survey of graduate students’ mental health and working conditions. The group also invited students to share their experiences online under the hashtag #OneYearOut and held a weeklong series titled Who’s Got Your Back? to recruit new members.

The events addressed a wide range of topics, including the ways a union contract would allow for expanded healthcare coverage for graduate workers and the reasons NU’s claim of a competitive stipend compared to other universities is misleading, Rivera Montes said.

“Considering the amount of work we have to put in, the amount of hours that we do (and) the amount of money that the University has, the narrative of, ‘We are well-paid, so we shouldn’t be asking for more’ is false,” she said. “We are expected to work long hours without any boundaries between work and personal lives.”

Pandemic expectations were especially unreasonable for students who conduct lab research, Ph.D. student and NUGW unity committee chair and former co-chair Andrew Hull said. In the early months of the pandemic, STEM graduate workers were still expected to work in labs and risk contracting COVID-19, he said.

Hull said the pandemic has exasperated working conditions for all graduate students, prompting NUGW to see significant growth in its membership. Notably, the organization has seen more STEM students among its ranks the past year, he added.

“They were being pressured to actually risk their health and possibly lives,” Hull said. “The terms that the university sees (STEM students) in has now been spelled out for them very clearly.”

The expansion of NUGW this academic year has also included a concerted effort to support other activist groups on campus, Hull added. In his position, Hull works to facilitate cross-campus solidarity between NUGW and groups like Students Organizing for Labor Rights and NU Community Not Cops.

NUGW’s current platform includes a call to abolish University Police and meet the demands of CoalitionNU, a group of graduate students of marginalized identities. Hull said wage employees on campus are vulnerable not just because of their work status, but also because of systemic discrimination based on race or gender.

“If we are fighting for the welfare of workers at Northwestern, we have to fight for that welfare in multiple respects,” Hull said. 

Aside from the deadline extension issued last summer, administrators have not made moves to improve working conditions for graduate students, Hull said. While he understands the University’s Board of Trustees makes most funding decisions, he said administrators who cannot take direct action themselves have the power to pressure those on the Board who can.

A universal, one-year funding extension is the most immediately helpful action the University can take, Hull said. Even as the University transitions back to in-person programming, he said graduate students will continue to feel the effects of the pandemic.

“A number of grad workers will be able to maybe get back into the archives, maybe be able to get back into labs, but it remains the case that their research was disrupted for at least a year,” he said. “Their entire trajectory career-wise, in fact, is disrupted at this point.”

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Twitter: @maiapandey

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