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Boston City Council Holds Hearing on Graduate Student Unionization

The Boston City Council Committee on Jobs, Wages, and Workforce Development questioned graduate students from Boston College, Northeastern University, Boston University, and Harvard University about working conditions and efforts to unionize at a hearing Thursday. 

The Council passed a resolution in April in support of the BC Graduate Employees Union (BCGEU-UAW), titled “A Resolution Affirming the Rights of Graduate Student Workers to Organize For Fair Working Conditions.” Councilor Lydia Edwards sponsored both the resolution, which called on the University to enter into bargaining with the union, and the hearing.

Frank Baker, the Committee chairman, and councilors Althea Garrison, Ed Flynn, and Annissa Essaibi George conducted the hearing alongside Edwards.

“I think that it’s very important that we as the Boston City Council make it very clear that we see graduate student workers as workers and that we value your work, value your rights, and value your voice,” Edwards said in her opening statement.

Although none of the universities sent representatives to the hearing, all four submitted written testimony.

“It’s unfortunate that the universities chose to not come and instead sent letters, and as this conversation continues, we may consider at some point some sort of subpoena power to make sure they come and explain what’s going on and why they aren’t supporting you,” Edwards said. “That said, today is about that story and highlighting it. If they choose not to counter then that is their choice that they made.”

Edwards’ office said that no subpoena has been issued.

In a statement to The Heights, Associate Vice President of University Communications Jack Dunn voiced appreciation for the work of BC’s graduate students but repeated the University’s longstanding reason for opposing unionization efforts.

“Our position, however, is that graduate student unionization in any form would undermine the collegial, mentoring relationship among faculty and students that is a cornerstone of the BC academic experience,” Dunn said. “Boston College is committed to upholding this longstanding relationship, which we believe is in our mutual best interest. In our view, doctoral education is most successful when faculty work directly with graduate students without a third party attempting to define or mediate those relationships.”

The hearing’s first panel featured graduate students from all four universities. Sam Levinson, GMCAS ’22, represented BCGEU-UAW. The representatives outlined the labor that graduate students provide for universities and spoke on a variety of issues, including low compensation, limited health care, and the threat of discrimnation.

In her testimony, Levinson said that BC took over three years to pay for her EpiPen prescription. She explained that the prescription is a work-related medical necessity because of her allergy to betalaktam drugs, such as penicillin, which are often present in her chemical biology lab. It took the threat of a lawsuit for the University to respond, Levinson said, adding that a union contract formalizing the reimbursement process would have prevented the situation entirely.

During questioning, Edwards read excerpts from the University’s statement, submitted by Provost and Dean of Faculties David Quigley, in order to play “devil’s advocate” and “highlight some of the things she thought were necessary. BC graduate students receive tax-free tuition, competitive stipends, health care benefits that the University finances in full, parental leave, and a dental plan,” Quigley’s letter stated.

“In total, first-year doctoral students receive salary and benefits worth at least $40,000,” the statement said.

Levinson challenged the word “competitive,” explaining that some stipends provide as little as $20,000 a year, a mark that falls short of the cost of living in Boston. She also explained that the University only recently moved to standardize a two month parental-leave policy across all schools. 

Later, Abril Harris, SSW ’20 said in her testimony that AHANA graduate students often receive little institutional support in cases of discrimination or in the creation of affinity groups. She said that, without a union, individual AHANA students often feel unable to speak out.

“In addition to all the hardships of being a grad student, these hardships are often amplified and compounded for students of color,” she said. “Upon stepping onto the BC campus there is an immediate feeling of otherness, given looks of surprise or confusion at your presence. I myself was studying in our department space meant for doctoral students and was asked to present my ID to make sure I was a student there.”

Sara Suzuki, a Lynch graduate student in the Class of 2020, spoke on behalf of international graduate students such as herself.

“Our ability to stay in this country is dependent on being in good standing with the University,” she said. “This means that international students are forced to stay silent about issues they face in the workplace.”

Suzuki said that international students on visas are only allowed to work a maximum of 20 hours per week during the school year, blocking them from supplementing their stipends with additional income. She said that with union representation, international students would have an easier time working a second on-campus job to circumvent the visa restrictions.

BC currently refuses to recognize BCGEU-UAW and enter into bargaining. In a May 2017 ruling, the National Labor Relations Board said that BC graduate students could hold an election on unionization. Although the graduate students voted to establish collective bargaining in September 2017, the University appealed the decision before the vote. The group withdrew its petition in March 2018, fearing an unfavorable ruling.

BC’s written testimony emphasized the withdrawal of the NLRB petition, calling it a “false assertion” that “the BCGEU-UAW is a certified union for graduate students which Boston College is refusing to recognize.”

Levinson responded by saying that BCGEU-UAW did not want to jeopardize the contracts of graduate student unions at other schools, should the NLRB have handed down an unfavorable ruling.

“The best way for BC to show gratitude is by voluntarily negotiating with student workers about the terms of their employment,” Edwards said in a statement to The Heights. “During a time when the Trump administration has cast doubt over the future of all workers, it’s important for Boston institutions to show leadership.”

Absent a legal challenge—available only through the NLRB—graduate students have no other recourse unless the University decides to enter into bargaining voluntarily.

“The BC administration continues to refuse to bargain with us and ignore us,” Suzuki said in an interview with The Heights. “We’re now bringing the fight a little more public. We’re connecting with other universities in the city of Boston who have large bodies of graduate student workers, and together we make a workforce of over 10,000 graduate student workers.”

Suzuki said that the strategy to unite was made easier through the United Automobile Workers (UAW), which serves as the umbrella organization for all four graduate student groups. UAW facilitated the connection to Edwards, who was a UAW member through her former work as a legal services attorney.

Suzuki also expressed frustration with the University’s claim of support for unions and appreciation for graduate students.

“The union does not exist just to exist,” she said. “We have many concrete issues that we brought up. We’re not just fighting for the union in the abstract. There are issues that they don’t talk to us about—they categorically don’t address anything.”

Featured Image Courtesy of Daniel Schwen / Wikimedia Commons

June 30, 2019