Brown: Joining my union was the best decision of my life

Paul Brown, Op-Ed Contributor

The most important thing I’ll do in my graduate school career happened during the fall of my first year: I got involved in my university’s student worker union. I first heard about student worker unions as an undergraduate at Northwestern, and after graduating in 2021, I joined one during my first week working as a doctoral student in Columbia University’s Department of Chemistry.

With the help of a union organizer who visited my lab, my involvement grew from occasional conversations with coworkers about the Student Workers of Columbia to organizing weekly committee meetings. I am proud to say it eventually led to being part of a strike against one of the wealthiest universities in the nation. We striked for ten weeks and won a historic first contract for my union, resulting in significant raises for student workers and improved healthcare benefits for members and dependents. We also won full union membership recognition for all members providing instructional or research labor regardless of any arbitrary position or program title, as well as real third-party recourse for victims of discrimination and harassment.

Now, with Northwestern University Graduate Workers announcing a formal union election with the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America national union, I sincerely hope NU graduate workers can have as transformative of an experience as I have had.

Graduate schools — and doctoral programs, in particular — are a unique form of employment. Through a quirk in student visa laws, graduate workers are technically only considered part-time employees at most U.S. universities. Despite this, we often work upwards of 50 or 60 hours a week in classrooms and labs. We are expected to work more than full time, yet we can only claim part time employment status, with the leftover labor implicitly considered solely for our educational advancement. From this perspective, the long hours we work are simply a symptom of our intense passion for research.

Regardless of the fact that most of us truly are interested in our research, separating our work into labor and education is not as trivial as universities may want us to believe. In most cases, the same research we conduct for our dissertations is used for funding proposals, of which half is taken by the university administration through overhead fees. At NU, these fees are closer to 60% of grant funding for sponsored research, and they bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars of revenue for the university each year. For STEM programs, universities including Columbia and Northwestern generally also have first rights to the intellectual property our research produces.

Graduate workers also form a front line of instructional services, working directly with students, running lab and discussion sections as teaching assistants, or sometimes full courses as instructors. This teaching work is especially relevant, as universities continue to rapidly increase the cost of tuition, bringing in record revenue.

As graduate workers, we earn less than a living wage, while our research and instructional labor nets our employers millions. University administrators, who earn six-to-seven-figure salaries, continue to cast themselves as generous benefactors. Our dissertation supervisors can range from abusive to genuinely supportive, but in all cases have outsized influence on our future job search. Our work makes us over three times more likely than the average American to struggle with mental health disorders, and yet our insurance benefits remain subpar. These realities define part of every graduate worker’s experience, but they are exactly what a union can address.

Through a union, graduate workers can combine their limited individual leverage into real collective power to take on our wealthy, resource-laden university employers. The NU administration says that a union will fundamentally change the relationship between the university and its graduate workers; I say they are absolutely right about that. With a union, graduate workers no longer have to rely on the benevolent whim of the university to get raises to meet the rising cost of living. If NU really prioritized its graduate workers over its own profits, why have real wages decreased by at least 3.3% since 2018 while it ran an average budget surplus of $80 million over each of the last three years?

With a union, graduate workers no longer have to sit idly as their health insurance premiums and copays continue to go up. If NU really prioritized health and wellbeing, why does the cost of covering the premium for one dependent take 17% of a graduate worker’s take-home pay, even as the University’s endowment grew by nearly $3.8 billion in 2021 alone?

With a union, graduate workers no longer have to feel powerless without any form of independent recourse if they are discriminated against or harassed. If NU is so confident in its workplace climate and the fairness of its internal complaint processes, why are they so opposed to neutral third-party review?

Through a union, we can collectively imagine and fight for a better way of life for ourselves as graduate workers. The University has the resources to meet the union’s demands, and the union has the power to compel them to.

Our struggle at Columbia demonstrates that fully, and we won most of every one of our four major demands. While our fight certainly wasn’t easy, my union proved to be a community of care and support that I’d never before experienced on such a scale. We scrambled to raise money for mutual aid, babysat each other’s children, cooked food for one another, and stayed on strike for three extra weeks to make sure the university wouldn’t cut out master’s and undergraduate hourly teaching assistants.

My union has been a space where I have met people ranging from mechanical engineers to musicians and Medieval Jewish historians, and I have made many lasting friendships as a result. On a personal level, I have been forever inspired by being part of something so much greater than any individual person.

This is a historic time for the labor movement, and NUGW is an opportunity to be a part of such a supportive community of solidarity — to build a world for all people rather than just the few at the top. Never forget that we are so much stronger together than we are alone. We have everything to gain, and nothing to lose but our chains.

Paul Brown is a 2021 McCormick alum. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.