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With New Ruling, Graduate Employees Aim to Form a Union

Over a year ago, working graduate students formed the Boston College Graduate Employee Union – United Automobile Workers (BCGEU-UAW), an organization aimed at building power, creating a democratic workplace, and negotiating to improve and secure working conditions in a binding contract with the University.

On Aug. 24, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the federal body that oversees labor law in the United States, ruled that graduate students at private universities are considered employees under the National Labor Relations Act.

This decision overturns a 2004 ruling when members of the NLRB stripped the rights of graduate workers at private universities to unionize, saying that these working graduate students were students first. With the formation of a union, graduate students hope to increase their negotiating power as employees.

“The grad student body right now has no negotiating power, we can only make requests and hope that BC administration agrees with us,” David Sessions, an organizer of BCGEU-UAW and GMCAS ’22, said.

Now, BCGEU-UAW must get a majority of graduate employees to sign authorization cards in favor of an on-campus union.

So far, they’ve had hundreds of graduate workers sign the cards.

If they get the majority, the group can petition the NLRB to hold elections on campus. If the majority votes in favor of forming a union at the election, the union will be certified.

But there’s another option. If the majority of graduate workers signs the authorization cards, BC can choose to recognize the union without bringing the NLRB to campus for an election. In Dec. 2013, New York University became the only private university to independently recognize a graduate worker union.

“Boston College is studying the NLRB ruling,” Jack Dunn, University spokesman, said in an email. “We have not heard from our graduate students regarding their intentions, so we will wait to see if they choose to petition the NLRB for recognition.”

If a union is established on BC’s campus, graduate workers will have the right to collective bargaining. BCGEU-UAW would have more power to negotiate with the administration than the Graduate Student Association (GSA). While the administration is under no obligation to act on GSA’s recommendations, they would have to listen to the union’s requests.

“It’s so obvious to us that that’s work like any other kind and that’s what the decision recognized, so that’s why we’re so excited about it.”

—Nate Nesbitt, an organizer of BCGEU-AUW and MGCAS ’19

“We have very little democratic representation,” Sessions said.

The graduate workers joined with UAW, which began as an auto-workers’ union in the 1930s but now represents over 50,000 academic workers across the United States, to join hundreds of thousands of other members across the country and get access to more resources and opportunities, including professional training.

Several other working graduate students at other private universities are also preparing to unionize. According to ABC News, working graduate students at Yale University sent a request Monday to the NLRB hold an election on its campus.

One of the key issues the union hopes to address is health insurance. The University revoked some master students’ health insurance a year and a half ago, which, Sessions believes, has affected the quality of BC’s graduate students.

“It doesn’t mean that our benefits are on average bad, it just means that there’s always room for improvement,” Sessions said.

While the new health insurance policies are of concern, BCGEU-UAW does recognize that there are a lot of positive aspects of being a working graduate student at BC.

“Part of the reason we’re doing it isn’t negative things,” Sessions said. “It’s not because we’re unhappy. It’s because we, by working together, realize that together we can have leverage to make sure that even where things are good that people have contracts and those things don’t change.”

Sessions believes that if they are able to make changes, such as improving the health insurance policy for working graduate students, there will be a ripple effect, with other graduate students and undergraduates experiencing similar improvements.

BCGEU-AUW also hopes that in forming a union, the graduate students will receive more recognition for all of the work they do for the University.

“The core thing for us and for everyone else that’s doing it is having what we do recognized as work,” Sessions said. “A lot of grad students are coming out of careers, many are highly educated and trained professionals already, and what we do here is an enormous part of making the university work.”

For example, Sessions works as a teaching assistant in the history department and Nate Nesbitt, an organizer of BCGEU-AUW and MGCAS ’19, gets external science funding for the University.

“It’s so obvious to us that that’s work like any other kind and that’s what the decision recognized, so that’s why we’re so excited about it,” Nesbitt said.

This article has been updated.

Featured Image by Savanna Kiefer / Heights Editor

September 1, 2016