Members of the Boston College Graduate Employees Union and the Graduate Pride Alliance held a forum this morning with local U.S. Representatives Joe Kennedy III (D – Mass. 4) and Mike Capuano (D – Mass. 7), BC Law ’77. The vote for the Union to receive collective bargaining rights from the National Labor Relations Board is still scheduled for Sept. 12 and 13, despite a challenge from the University.
Attendees of the event also included graduate workers from Boston University, Harvard University, and Brandeis University, where graduate students have also been attempting to unionize.
Capuano spoke about the history of labor unions in the U.S. and their integral role in the establishment of the middle class, when America was largely divided between the rich and the poor. He said the current lack of union movements is one of the biggest problems facing America, and that the future of America’s economy is in jobs that are currently unorganized.
He told the audience multiple times that he would not tell them how to vote, but implored them to vote in their best interest, and to focus on organizing and taking care of each other rather than antagonizing the University. He did say, however, that if he had a vote, then he would vote yes.
“I’m not going to demean or besmirch any employers, including the University,” Capuano said. “So be it. It’s not about them being bad, it’s about you taking care of yourselves. It’s about you taking care of your brothers and sisters.”
Kennedy spoke about the implications of larger economic issues that affect graduate students, such as the high costs of housing, education, and health care in the Greater Boston area.
“The way that you win this fight, is you recognize what is going to drive you, your family, and your future forward, you engage in that discussion with your peers, and you come together as a group, and as a community that is willing to make that stand, willing to invest in each other and your future,” he said.
In an open letter released last month, Provost and Dean of Faculties David Quigley announced that BC had filed a motion to delay the Union’s vote to establish collective bargaining rights. The NLRB had previously ruled in May to allow the Union to hold an election next week. If the NLRB does not address BC’s motion before the election—which it hadn’t as of Tuesday night—then the challenge is moot.
Caliesha Comley, a Union member and sociology Ph.D. student, said there is a lack of administrative and institutional support for graduate students, and, she said, many graduate students are not told what classes they’re teaching or their compensation until right before the semester starts.
“Coming from a working-class family in rural Kentucky, I know how it feels to live with job insecurity and financial instability. And as a graduate worker at BC, my experience is not very different,” she said.
Comley explained that a collectively bargained contract would provide secure wages for graduate students, while also protecting those that belong to marginalized communities.
Julie Kushner, director of the United Auto Workers Region 9A, the organization currently working with the BC Graduate Employees Union, also spoke on the panel. She discussed past unionization efforts at institutions such as New York University and Columbia University, both of which now have graduate student unions recognized by the NLRB.
“It’s really important that Boston College realize that you all, who are going to be voting next week, are really expressing your democratic rights,” she said. “And for the University or a college to stand between you and the opportunity to form a union is a huge mistake. You are going to be not just the next generation of trade unionists, but you are the next generation of voters.”
Many of the issues discussed at the forum related to uncertainty and inadequacy regarding working hours, health care, compensation, and job security for graduate students. Members of graduate student union movements, such as those at Boston-area schools, hope that negotiating employment contracts with their universities will help alleviate some of these issues.
Zachary Coto, a graduate student in the biology department at Boston University, discussed that the absence of a contract between graduate students and his school causes a lack of transparency in regards to qualification assessment and job security.
This also means that graduate students cannot receive worker’s compensation, even though many in STEM fields deal with hazardous chemicals or conduct research in potentially dangerous environments. These students often have to front medical costs themselves, Coto described, because the health care provided by the university is insufficient.
“The university is making profits off of our labor, as STEM people, but they take no responsibility for the damage that we might and do take” he said.
Belle Cheves, a Ph.D. student in the history department at Harvard University, offered another perspective on the importance of graduate students’ being allowed to unionize.
After the instatement of President Donald Trump’s travel ban earlier this year, international graduate students at Harvard mobilized and petitioned the administration to grant additional protections and resources to international students and workers. Such reactive work, she described, would not be necessary if graduate students had collective bargaining rights, as these protections would be included in a contract.
“These universities need to realize they are a part of a larger community, and be held accountable to protect and support the students that sustain them,” Cheves said.
Featured Image by Amelie Trieu / Heights Editor