As graduate students at private institutions across the country have begun pushing for recognized unions, the Georgetown Graduate Student Organization, which primarily concerns itself with community-building, has chosen to forgo unionization.

In November, the Graduate Student Organizing Committee under the United Automobile Workers labor union at New York University became the first graduate union to earn formal recognition from a private university.

In spite of the National Labor Relations Boards’ 2004 Brown University ruling that defined graduates as students —not workers with the ability to legitimately unionize — NYU students pressured the administration into formal recognition of the union through massive organization and petitioning, backed by local politicians, including then-City Council Speaker Christine Quinn.

Matt Canfield, a fifth-year NYU anthropology graduate student and member of GSOC-UAW, cited cuts to healthcare benefits and collective organizing energy as the catalysts for the upsurge in union support.

“For a long time there was a lot of pushback from the administration. They thought that those issues could be dealt with between graduate workers and the faculty and that there was really no reason for graduate employees to be organized. And eventually, I think they reached out to the university when there was significant unrest on campus,” Canfield said. Graduate employees won the vote with a 620 to 10 margin, signifying support for the union and encouraging university recognition of collective rights.

Graduate workers who unionize are often galvanized by stagnant teaching wages, rising healthcare costs and scholastic work that often outlasts granted stipends, saddling the students with debt.

“A lot of us, first of all, take more than five years, and that’s not because we’re lazing around, but also because the expectations we have from our faculty in producing quality work do require us to be here longer,” Molly Cunningham, a fifth-year University of Chicago anthropology graduate student, who is a member of her university’s unrecognized graduate union, said.

She described the mounting burdens of the longer timeframe, including high healthcare costs and billed advances on tuition for those unable to teach.

“So this is kind of a double bind when you’re being told by your faculty advisors that you need to take longer, but the university is telling you if you take any longer you’re going to have to start taking out loans in order to finish,” Cunningham said.

The union has been successful in addressing more urgent concerns on a smaller scale, causing the students in the University of Chicago’s graduate student union to choose to not seek formal recognition from the university. For example, the graduate students’ childcare campaign, an issue the students have been discussing with the university for years, has seen recent success in the creation of a scholarship program for childcare assistance for doctoral candidates, and an ongoing discussion of teaching wages.

“Those wages, they actually look good when you’re sort of still on your stipend, but once you’ve contributed to this university for five, six, seven years, and become an increasingly skilled and experienced teacher, then it sort of stops cutting it,” Cunningham said. “So that’s one thing we’re sort of developing a campaign around that we think that we could be pretty effective advocates to the administration even without formal recognition.”

Georgetown GSO primarily concerns itself with advocacy, graduate student groups and student programming, and works with an increasingly supportive administration, especially Provost Robert Groves, to reform the image of Georgetown’s graduate program and organize GSO internally.

Samuel Osea (COL ’12, GRD ’14), GSO president, agreed that graduate students often face undue challenges due to workload and low wages, but are, by contrast, supported by the university administration. He said that problems develop when administrators fail to realistically assess their graduate students’ situations, an issue Osea said does not exist at Georgetown.

“The graduate school has a great staff who has, again, been very supportive. Student affairs has been very supportive from the engagement perspective, so I don’t see us unionizing,” Osea said.

Graduate students across the school, whether they are intent on unionizing or not, agree that their voices are indispensible to the university system at Georgetown.

“When you’re looking at schools, one thing you look for is research support. Is it the type of environment where you can succeed and turn out a dissertation or thesis in the amount of time required or in the amount of time they give you?” Osea said. “I think that by having a resource such as GSO for both academic and non-academic support, I think it’s vital.”

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