The Doctoral Students Coalition advocated the benefits of unionization during a town hall on Wednesday evening with over 50 doctoral candidates as part of an ongoing campaign to raise awareness about labor concerns for research and teaching assistants at Georgetown.
Led by the DSC, a student organization focused on doctoral student issues, the meeting featured recommendations from the DSC’s working group for unionization. The working group began to consider unionization following the National Labor Relations Board ruling this summer that all graduate students working as research and teaching assistants in private universities are school employees with the right to unionize legitimately.
The coalition’s next immediate steps in the process include starting a campaign and affiliating with an international union.
The group hopes to identify interested sectors of the graduate student population, including master’s students, through outreach and surveys. This will allow them to define the level of interest, according to working group member and philosophy department doctoral candidate Deidre Nelms (GRD ’19).
After examining the results of collective bargaining in more than 30 public and private universities, the working group concluded that in all instances, renegotiated contracts included an increase in stipends along with improvements in access to health care, child care, summer funding and comprehensive work schedules.
DSC members said these outcomes are relevant given the current financial and health benefits afforded to doctoral students by the university. Georgetown’s current wages for TAs fall short of the living wage of $16.45 per hour, as stipulated in Georgetown’s Just Employment Policy. According to the group’s research, Georgetown is the only top university that paid less than the living wage to graduate students.
Nelms said doctoral students have different needs than undergraduate students.
“We are absolutely overdue for a new plan,” Nelms said. “We have the same health insurance as the undergraduate students that we teach for, which is ridiculous, because we are employees. We are adults, some of us have children, dependents and we are more likely to have medical issues than undergraduates.”
Unionizing would ensure a cohesive bargaining structure and build positive relationships with administrators, according to members.
Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor Program Coordinator Nick Wertsch (COL ’09, LAW ’18) said the prospects for a graduate student union at Georgetown are positive due to the existence of the Just Employment Policy adopted in 2005, which ensures a right to unionize and a minimum compensation for all employees.
“No other university has something quite like [the Just Employment Policy],” Wertsch said. “What’s unique about Georgetown is that they’ve institutionally committed to this policy for the last 11 years.”
The group also analyzed potential options as part of its summer research and determined that the American Federation of Teachers union possessed the most desirable credentials.
“We were looking for specific qualities in a union. Experience — we want a union that has experience on academic campuses — and local autonomy. If we were to form a union, we want it to be as democratic as possible,” Nelms said.
Besides its experience with graduate students, AFT offered the working group the possibility of having its own local, independent access to membership data and physical presence in the bargaining process.
“Should we go forward, it is probably in our best interest to affiliate with AFT,” Nelms said.
Once the process begins advancing, union leaders will come to the university to speak to interested students, who will then vote on whether or not they want to unionize.
Nabina Liebow (GRD ’13, GRD ’17), a doctoral candidate in the philosophy department, said the meeting clarified her doubts about unionization and led her to realize its benefits.
“I think the event definitely gave me more information so I can be more aware about what the pros and cons are,” Liebow said. “I think I am definitely more positively pro-unionization than I was before the meeting.”
Meredith Denning (GRD ’16), a doctoral candidate in transregional history, said the benefits of unionization became clear during her time at the University of Waterloo, and said graduates would benefit from engaging in this venture, especially for the purposes of securing better health care benefits.
“It is almost impossible to have children and be a graduate student. Ph.D. students are frequently older than 25, and that’s the time people want to get married, have children, and live a normal adult life, and at the moment that is simply not possible. And it’s not just the working hours, it’s that there is zero institutional support for graduate students with children,” Denning said.
Jake Earl (GRD ’12, GRD ’17), a doctoral candidate in philosophy and member of the working group, said he was initially skeptical about unions but later realized their importance in a graduate student context.
“When I joined the working group, I was skeptical. I don’t think unions are a good thing in every industry, I think that unions sometimes waste the dues that they are paid, that they are sometimes coercive,” Earl said. “But when we dug into graduate student unions, I didn’t see any of these downsides. Universities that have unions thrive, students thrive.”
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