Northwestern Graduate Workers continue pushing for unionization, form group for disabled students


Illustration by Meher Yeda

While Northwestern has returned to in-person operations, NUGW’s co-chairs said their demands made at the beginning of the pandemic remain urgent.

Maia Pandey, Development and Recruitment Editor

Last month, Columbia University’s graduate student union voted to authorize a strike. Mere weeks later, graduate students at Harvard University went on a three-day strike.

There is a “real movement” happening with labor unions across the country, Northwestern University Graduate Workers Co-Chair Rose Werth said, and NUGW is hoping to capitalize on the momentum.

Like its peers at other universities, Werth said NUGW hopes to continue growing its numbers so graduate workers have legal negotiating power. NUGW saw its membership expand during the pandemic, but the union’s demands of the University and The Graduate School have been consistent for years, she said.

“My analysis of the current situation with graduate students is that there are opportunities for advocacy with the administration,” Werth said. “But there’s no power to actually make the administration listen to the requests that graduate students make.”

Though TGS issued a one-year extension on milestone deadlines last summer, graduate students have continued advocating for a guaranteed sixth year of funding. NUGW demanded the funding extension in a March 2020 statement petitioning specifically for pandemic protections, but Werth said these demands remain urgent as the University returns to in-person operations.

Various departments have handled the milestone extensions internally, but Werth said some students reported to NUGW that individual departments have not been following these guidelines.

“The reality of the funding situation — which departments are aware of — means that because funding hasn’t been extended, departments are still feeling the pressure to get students out and graduated on time,” Werth said.

In an online campaign last month, NUGW polled graduate workers on how they spent the $2,000 federal aid recently distributed by NU and shared the answers anonymously.

Students reported using their federal aid for dental and eye insurance, emergency health care charges, family support and bill payments. Werth said the responses shed light on how the struggles graduate students face with funding are pressing.

“A lot of what people used them for wasn’t even necessarily specifically related to COVID,” Werth said. “Graduate students have these expenses on a consistent ongoing basis … we desperately need improvements to our insurance, and additional money in our monthly stipends to pay for unexpected costs.”

Increasing graduate workers’ stipends and guaranteeing health insurance are also goals for NUGW’s newly formed working group for students who identify as disabled or chronically ill. 

Fourth-year graduate student Alexandra Berl, a member of the working group, said its top priority is ensuring all graduate workers receive health insurance from the University without paying premiums out-of-pocket. NU currently caps the payment at $2,000, but Berl said paying this cost with students’ relatively low stipends is difficult for them — particularly those with chronic health issues.

“Though we do generally get health insurance and (NU) health insurance is pretty good, our low stipends really make it so the cost of living tends to force a lot of people into taking second jobs or dropping out of graduate school,” Berl said. 

Returning to in-person operations has also been uniquely difficult for disabled or chronically ill students, she said. Berl, who studies chemistry, said she returned to in-person work in June 2020. 

While her supervisors have been accommodating, Berl said some of her classmates have had mixed experiences over the past year.

“Even if you formally could stay home, you couldn’t really stay home because there was always the pressure to apply for that grant or get that paper out by this time, which typically can’t be done from home,” Berl said.

Some students have said their classes this quarter do not have a remote option except in the case of a positive COVID-19 result. Especially for people with autism and similar conditions, Berl said coordinating a changing work schedule around a consistent care schedule can be difficult.

Showing solidarity with other workers on campus has also been a priority for NUGW, Co-Chair Julie Ming Liang said. The group held an action earlier this year to support campus service workers, and hopes to work in coalition with library workers who are currently attempting to unionize, she said.

As NU has not recognized or formally met with members of NUGW, Liang said the group’s primary focus is building solidarity among graduate students.

Still, Liang added, the group is open to speaking with administrators. 

“I think the Northwestern administration wants to pit the unionization effort as something against them,” Liang said, “but it’s actually something to better our working conditions at Northwestern. So we welcome having open conversations with administration, if they would like to meet with us.”


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Twitter: @maiapandey

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