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Graduate Union Interrupts Parents’ Weekend Event, Pickets Pops on the Heights

About 30 members of the Boston College Graduate Employees Union (BCGEU-UAW) first walked out of the annual President’s Address in Robsham Theater before carrying out a planned picket outside Pops on the Heights Friday night.

The group announced its intention earlier this week to protest outside the gala, a major fundraising opportunity attended by many of BC’s largest donors, as well as parents of current students.

Last year, the event brought in $14 million for scholarships, and this year it raised $13 million.

Both actions followed a back-and-forth between the administration and the union this week, including a letter to the Board of Trustees from Beverly Brakeman, director of United Auto Workers (UAW) Region 9A.

As University President Rev. William P. Leahy, S.J., was speaking at the annual address in Robsham, members of the union, who had spread throughout the audience at the start of the event, waited approximately 15 minutes before standing up, according to multiple members. At the time, Leahy was discussing the various on-campus construction projects.

“Jesuit values are workers’ rights. Bargain now with the graduate employees union,” they said, according to a video posted on the union’s Facebook page.

“Please leave. You have no right to be here,” Leahy said. “And I’ll explain what they were about in a moment.”

At that point, the grad students left Robsham as Leahy continued on with his previous point.

Several parents who witnessed the event firsthand confirmed to The Heights that following the protestors’ exit, Leahy briefly explained the dynamic between the University and BCGEU-UAW and, repeating BC’s main argument against recognizing the union, argued that the mentor-student dynamic would be harmed if it were to struggle against the employer-employee one.

In a follow-up email, Brakeman said that the union protested in order to show parents the role graduate student works have on campus. She revealed that she spoke to Leahy, but that his position and the University’s remained unchanged—BC does not consider its graduate students workers. Brakeman said she expressed the UAW’s willingness to work with any employer “to find creative ways to bargain contracts and win rights for workers in ways that respect both the workers’ and their employers’ unique needs.”

Members of the union stationed themselves outside of Robsham in order to hand out fliers to parents as they exited the building. The flier cited a Pope John Paul II quote in support of unions to offer evidence of Catholic support of unionization.

“We are a union, but the administration is refusing to recognize is or meet with us,” one of the union members said to a group of parents. “We think it is antithetical to the social justice teachings of Boston College. Especially because they have a lot of power and we are the weakest of us.”

Shortly afterward, three members of the BC Police Department (BCPD) asked the protesters for their student IDs—in order to prove that they were students. At first, the union members refused, citing their fear that the officer in question would take photos. The officer relented and simply checked each protestor’s identity without pictures.

Once the crowd around Robsham had dispersed, the protestors regrouped to Higgins Hall. BCPD followed them, and Dean of Students Tom Mogan and two BCPD officers had a conversation with the union members about the situation at that point. The administrators did not impede their procession to Conte Forum shortly before 5:45 p.m.

Roughly 35 protestors arranged themselves outside of Conte Forum, with most of the group holding signs and fliers, in a spot where they could not block foot traffic into the stadium. A member of BCPD, who was quickly joined by a fellow officer, walked up to speak to them. In a later conversation with The Heights, Michael Bailey, GMCAS ’24, explained that they were discussing how far the protestors would be allowed to stray from their current position.

Eventually, three leaders of the protest spoke with BCPD Deputy Chief Tom Atkinson about the flier distribution. Atkinson said that the whole group would be moved away if they continued to stray outside the already designated area. In response, the union members cited the National Labor Relations act, arguing that they are workers, not students, echoing the overarching conflict of the night.

“You are students and must obey student policies,” said Mogan, who had been watching the meeting but not participating until that point.

Mogan was likely referencing section 4.6.9 in the student code of conduct, which states that students must register demonstrations with the Dean of Students before a demonstration can take place. The University reserves the right, in that section, to condition the time, place, and manner of the demonstration, or to outright reject demonstrations organized “by or on behalf of persons or organizations that are not affiliated with” BC. The University can also reject demonstrations “which are intended or deemed likely to disrupt or interfere with University operations.”

Bailey said that they did not apply for permission, again pointing to the National Labor Relations act and saying that it protects their right as workers to assemble, protest, and distribute fliers in their workplace.

In a later, similar, meeting, Atkinson emphasized that it is not his job to comment on the debate between the student and employee roles before reiterating that the protest would have to be confined to the space near the entrance and no farther.

The protestors met right after this conversation and voted to comply. Following the vote they only passed out fliers to nearby attendees.

These fliers included an affirmation that BCGEU-UAW supported the purpose of Pops on the Heights and did not want to interfere with it, before describing the union’s own history and goals. Like the flier handed out at Robsham, this one emphasized the connection between Jesuit social justice teachings and workers’ rights.

The union demonstration lasted approximately 90 minutes, beginning at approximately 5:45 p.m. and concluding around 7:15 p.m.

“We agree completely with the goal of this evening, which is to fundraise for fantastic scholarships,” said Ethan Farber, GMCAS ’22. “What we do want to do is to make sure our voices are heard by the broader BC community. We are protesting for better working conditions, and these are important for the entire community because our working conditions are undergraduate learning conditions.”

The Heights reached out to BCPD and Mogan, and union representatives, but none had responded to requests for further comment at press time.

This story is being updated. It originally stated that the union regrouped to Merkert Chemistry Center, when the group had actually regrouped to Higgins Hall.

Featured Image by Jack Miller / Heights Editor

September 29, 2018