NUGW kicks off card-signing campaign, announces affiliation with United Electric Workers

Isabel Funk, Print Managing Editor

After six years of grassroots organizing and building community support, Northwestern University Graduate Workers launched its formal union drive at a Thursday rally. The organization announced that 95% of its members have voted to affiliate with United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America. 

More than 300 NUGW members and supporters filled Deering Meadow for the “Rally for More Pay and More Say,” distributing bright-yellow “NUGW” shirts, raising signs, cheering and joining in chants of “We don’t want your wine and cheese, pay Northwestern employees” and “We are unstoppable, another world is possible.” 

Unions can achieve legal recognition in one of two ways: workers show majority support and win an election conducted by the National Labor Relations Board, or the employers can voluntarily recognize the union. 

“When Northwestern says we are ‘students first and foremost,’ they wash their hands of their responsibility to us as an employer,” fifth-year chemistry Ph.D student and NUGW co-chair Emilie Lozier said. “As a union, we are standing up together to say we deserve better.”

Working toward unionization

NUGW’s Affiliation Committee began researching national affiliation throughout spring and summer. The committee selected UE, which also represents graduate worker unions at universities across the country, including the University of Chicago, where graduate workers announced their campaign for unionization in affiliation with UE last week.

NUGW members began signing union cards — which show a member’s interest in being represented by NUGW-UE and support for an election to make that possible — Wednesday night after the weeklong vote to affiliate with UE. By the end of Thursday, more than 1,300 graduate workers had signed union cards, according to former NUGW co-chair and fifth-year sociology Ph.D. student Rose Werth.

“The things that we are asking for and fighting for, we needed yesterday,” Werth said. “We’ve been doing a lot of work behind the scenes and basically we just realized we’re ready — it was time to bring it public.”

[Read more about the fight for worker’s rights across campus]

Members of NU Library Workers Union and Students Organizing for Labor Rights attended and spoke at the rally to show support and solidarity. UE General President Carl Rosen also spoke to welcome NUGW and congratulate the workers on taking this step.

Prioritizing workers’ needs

At the rally, NUGW listed demands like paid sick days, extra pay for work beyond official responsibilities, clarity on compensation for workplace injuries and coverage of visa renewal costs for international graduate workers.

The organization launched a graduate student needs survey in spring 2022 and received more than 2,000 responses. Lozier said a team of researchers analyzed the responses, and NUGW then used the findings to determine workers’ greatest needs, which became the foundation of its platform.

NUGW’s platform has five pillars: comprehensive health care, support for international students, professional lab and classroom standards, competitive pay through graduation and power and protection in the workplace. 

Fifth-year chemistry Ph.D. student Qining Wang, who is from China, spoke at the rally about the need to hire additional staff who assist international workers with paperwork and greater financial support.

“A round trip to China right now can cost up to two of my paychecks, which I will not be able to afford if there’s ever a family emergency that I must travel back for,” Wang said. “Starting your life in a foreign country is already stressful enough. There shouldn’t be another layer of financial anxiety on top of that.”

Sixth-year learning sciences Ph.D. student Ally Reith, who has been organizing social services graduate workers since 2018, spoke about NUGW’s health care demands. She said the out-of-pocket insurance maximum of her health care has nearly doubled since 2017, and the cost of coverage for dependents — such as children — can amount to about 17% of a graduate worker’s pay.

Dental coverage could not be paid on credit cards last year, Reith added. When she asked the crowd which of them would go another year without visiting the dentist, more than a dozen people raised their hands.

“Our health has an enormous impact on how best we are able to learn, and as a learning scientist, I could certainly back this up with empirical research,” Reith said. “But the truth is, you don’t need to be an expert to know this … We cannot learn if we are sick. We cannot work if we are stressed and burnt out.”

Calling for University change

NUGW co-chair and fourth-year music Ph.D. student Sara Bowden called out the University for its spending decisions.

NU’s minimum annual stipend for Ph.D. students for the 2022-23 academic year is $35,196, which is about a 3% increase from the previous academic year — but annual inflation in the U.S. is currently above 9%. 

“Northwestern will boast this $16.1 billion endowment, and our grad students are doing our research on 10-year-old laptops, broken equipment without secure access to Wi-Fi and no guarantee from Northwestern that we will ever be paid a living wage,” Bowden said.

Lozier said NUGW also spent the summer hosting panels and information sessions to explain its goals and the process of unionization and collective bargaining. NUGW leaders wanted to make sure members fully understood what a vote would mean to encourage members to participate, she added. Lozier said she wants NUGW to remain driven by “rank-and-file” members.

Lozier said she was overjoyed and overwhelmed at the size of the support at the rally. Seeing the momentum and success from graduate workers at universities across the country has encouraged NUGW, she said. 

A unionized graduate student body will ultimately benefit the entire University, Bowden added.

“We (will) show the University that our working conditions are our research conditions. Our working conditions are our students’ learning conditions,” they said. “We are tired of asking nicely.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated Sara Bowden’s pronouns, which are they/them. The Daily regrets the error and is committed to ensuring our reporters ask all sources for their pronouns.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @isabeldfunk

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