Northeastern Disorientation

Graduate Student-Workers Need A Union

 · 4 mins read

Contributed by Graduate Employees of Northeastern University - UAW

It is your first day of class of your first day of college. You enter a huge lecture hall in Snell and find yourself surrounded by what seems like hundreds of other students. The professor at the head of the class is doing their best to speak loud enough for the entire lecture hall to hear today’s lesson. You can barely pay attention, as your laptop feeds you new emails and messages.

Fast forward a week later. You walk into a smaller classroom with around twenty other students. The instructor is trying to learn everyone’s names and where they are from. The topic of the day is literally any question that students may have of the previous lecture material.

This is your liaison. This is your guide. This is your Teaching Assistant (TA).

Maybe you are in a STEM field, and have heard about the impressive research that comes out of Northeastern, from finding next-generation antibiotics to designing artificial intelligence networks.

Research Assistants (RAs) are the ones making these discoveries.

They are typically the students that you never see -- always in their lab or office, writing a new paper or crunching some raw data. They are also the ones who help pull in millions of dollars of grant money that sustain the university.

What do these two roles have in common? They are titles of graduate students who are paid by the University. And they sure as hell seem like actual jobs. Sometimes, grad students even do both of these jobs at the same time on top of their own coursework or research.

Since summer 2016, graduate students who work as TAs and RAs have been organizing to form a union in order to win things like a liveable wage in the high-rent city of Boston, guarantees of job security, protections for international graduate workers, grievance procedure in case supervisors are abusive, and a voice at the table in our working conditions.

Northeastern’s campaign follows the lead of graduate students across the country who have been organizing and winning unions, from large public schools like University of Wisconsin to small private universities like Brandeis. Locally, Harvard has been involved in a contentious battle with administration for the right to unionize, while Boston College has recently just filed for a union election.

Northeastern administrators have sent anti-union emails, threatening to replace us with strikebreakers and threatening our access to hold union informational sessions, while holding “townhalls” with administrators give anti-union arguments.

The negative response makes sense, as the university has a lot at stake if we unionize. Accounting for raising minimum salaries, increased benefits (such as childcare), and legal support to our international coworkers amount to serious financial commitment from the administration. This is not to mention the weeks dedicated to contract negotiation and grievance procedures. However, we are human. We need to live full and healthy lives. If the university needs to pay a little more from our massive endowment to meet these needs, then so be it.

We are apart of a national movement to redefine what it means to be an academic, pushing back against our work as disposable, but as a vital part of the hugely profitable university system. For many years, we have been told by people in power that what we do is 100% educational- that we are fully students that do not contribute “work” to our university. We hope that you agree that we provide a tremendous service towards bettering the quality of Northeastern.

So what can you do to help this struggle? A few concrete things, but many smaller acts of support.

  1. If you or someone you know is paid by the university under a TA agreement (typically as a grader or academic lab assistant), THIS IS YOUR UNION, TOO! Please get in touch with us!
  2. Support your TA/RAs during times of difficulty during our campaign. Show up to rallies! Talk to classmates about the unionization effort! Get involved with labor groups on campus, such as HOWL or COMBAT! Undergrads have a lot of power if they’re active!
  3. Be kind to your local graduate worker. We are balancing many elements of our education within a very stressful framework. We do what we do because we love working with undergrads in the quest for higher education.