NUGW and GLAC continue to push for rights and benefits


Daily file illustration by Meher Yeda

NUGW and GLAC are continuing to push for graduate worker rights.

Jack Austin, Reporter

While Northwestern graduate programs often come with health benefits, some programs leave student workers without dental or vision coverage, and many are left without retirement benefits. Emergency medical expenses can be economically crippling on a graduate stipend, and for those with families, paying child support can prove difficult. 

For graduate students, the lack of adequate health insurance coverage is one of the most pressing issues at NU.

Several groups on campus are pushing for better working conditions and rights, most prominently Northwestern University Graduate Workers and Graduate Leadership and Advocacy Council. NUGW, an acting union not recognized by the University, aims to bargain directly with the University to improve conditions, while GLAC fosters an advocacy approach. 

NUGW Co-Chair Julie Ming Liang said she was disappointed to see that a wealthy private university like NU does not have the same benefits as her alma mater, UC Berkeley, a public institution with a graduate union. 

Fellow Co-Chair Rose Werth, a fourth-year sociology Ph.D. student, said she feels like there’s an assumption that all students at NU come from affluent backgrounds and can afford to live on a stipends as low as about $35,000 per year. In reality, she said students from lower socio-economic backgrounds find it difficult to do so.

“We are not destitute, but if you have a medical emergency, you’re not going to have enough money to pay for that medical emergency,” Werth said. “Emergency funds really hit you hard as a graduate student. We don’t really have funds for those.” 

GLAC President Jacob Kupferberg said NUGW and his organization are fighting for the same rights. Kupferberg added working together in coalitions can help graduate students gain benefits. One example was a GLAC campaign for parking and transportation subsidies based on an NUGW-conducted economic analysis of the University.

University spokesperson Jon Yates said NU has always regarded its graduate students as students first. Yates added the graduate school is advocating for their needs and looking for ways to address concerns during a difficult time.  

One of the fundamental issues for graduate students, Kupferberg said, is the power dynamics between professors and students that leave graduate students in positions with little protection. He said students hold demanding jobs for little pay to attain a degree. 

Kupferberg added he sees unions playing a vital role in negotiating better conditions, following the lead of other graduate unions at universities across the country. 

In terms of policy priorities, Liang said she wants to push for NU support of students with disabilities and funding for mental health services. She added NUGW also wants to standardize benefits across departments and programs. 

NU has not recognized NUGW as a formal contract union. Werth said she speculates the University wants to keep graduate students in a non-negotiative, administration-controlled advocacy model that retains most of the bargaining power. 

“The issue we have is we don’t have avenues where students can have a say in the workplace conditions that (are) effective and leading to change,” Liang said. 

Werth said NUGW underwent significant growth during the pandemic, and she is excited about the grassroots nature of their push for better working rights.

Kupferberg said the efficacy of GLAC over the years largely depends on whether the dean is willing to listen to the group’s concerns. 

Though noting NU graduate students still need improvements in health insurance and other benefits, Kupferberg said he is grateful for the work of previous graduate students, allowing them to have insurance, higher stipends and U-Passes for public transportation.

“There has been a lot of effort on the backs of prior graduate students to make our situation much better than it used to be,” Kupferberg said. “There’s always bargaining to be done with health insurance and funding.” 

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Twitter: @JackAustin10

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