Op-eds, Opinions

Casey GS, Lake GS, Lomax GS, Thorsness GS: What we stand to lose from SUGSE’s union

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Op-Ed Contributors
Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Dear graduate student workers,

We write in response to the Nov. 5 op-ed “What we stand to gain from unionization,” and to respond more broadly to past claims made by Stand Up for Graduate Student Employees, which misled and divided this community. This is a dissenting opinion of sorts, but let us emphasize from the outset that none of us are against unionization on principle. Rather, we oppose SUGSE’s drive for unionization on campus at this time because of a different set of beliefs: a belief in honesty and personal integrity, a belief that the ends do not justify the means and a belief that those who would abuse their power should never be allowed to wield it.

We have arrived at this opinion through various paths. Some of us were initially supportive of this union, some skeptical, but the behavior of SUGSE has solidified our opinions against it. While the recent false accusation of a conspiracy among administrators to disenfranchise people of color from a vote was the final straw, our aversion to SUGSE has long been building as a result of its persistently aggressive tactics, including angry rhetoric against anyone who disagrees with its cause (ourselves included), and harassing students by turning up at their homes and offices unannounced and calling their private numbers. There has been little public opposition to this unionization vote by graduate students, which gives SUGSE the incorrect impression that it has a mandate to act as it pleases. This letter is intended to address this state of affairs.

Cynicism, Propaganda and Bad Faith

In its attacks on University administrators, SUGSE accuses them of working to undermine the right of graduate student employees to decide whether to unionize. While it may be true that some members of the administration oppose unionization (as we should expect), we have seen no evidence that they have operated to discourage anyone from expressing their opinion. Rather, the administration has allowed SUGSE to move the voting process forward. In particular, the administration and SUGSE worked together to develop the Pre-Election Agreement, which borrows its model from the National Labor Relations Board. Both parties decided not to work with the NLRB directly because it is dominated by President Trump appointees. Instead, they agreed to adopt its previous framework and respect the results of a vote without requiring a (currently unreliable) government agency’s direct involvement. These are not the actions of an administration that seeks to stifle student-employee voices. On the contrary, it is obvious that this administration values student input and respects the right of students to decide on this matter, despite objections its individual members may have.

The claim, often repeated by individual members of SUGSE, that the administration’s manipulation has forced SUGSE’s hand is a weak defense at best. Even if we accept the argument that SUGSE’s behavior is required by circumstance, its willingness to use the disenfranchisement of students of color to discredit the administration is misguided.  A stronger argument for a union should be made on principle alone, without reference to actions of administrators, but the arguments SUGSE prefers invariably cast administrators as villains.

The inclination to perceive every action by authority as motivated by selfishness has a name: cynicism. It should worry all graduate students that those who claim to represent us would so easily succumb to the temptation to see the worst in others. It should be concerning that SUGSE denies any kindness or good intentions in our administrative leaders, yet simultaneously demands a powerful leadership role for itself.

SUGSE’s legitimacy rests on its claim to support all graduate students, but in practice, it only considers the views of those who share its goals. Brown students of color have repeatedly raised issues regarding unions in general, because unions have historically ignored the rights of underrepresented groups. SUGSE showed little concern for these legitimate objections to unionization in town halls and open meetings this semester. Recently, SUGSE changed course dramatically, accusing the administration of actively working to disenfranchise students of color by holding the election in a manner consistent with the Pre-Election Agreement. These students are not convenient bargaining chips to be used as leverage. From the Pre-Election Agreement’s conception, this disenfranchisement was present, but the needs of students from historically underrepresented groups were not considered. When this particular matter was brought to the attention of SUGSE last week, it was mentioned with the intention of shifting SUGSE’s proposed election dates, not to become a talking point. While the concerns of students from historically underrepresented groups have been raised to members of SUGSE, they refuse to reopen negotiations with administration to resolve said issues. Rather, SUGSE has resorted to taking the needs of those students and twisting them for their own purposes.

Health and Family Care

Those of us who have been at Brown for many years have experienced the sorts of personal crises that can arise in the course of graduate school, events which inevitably challenge any administration’s ability to support its students. In many real cases, the current administration has fought on our behalf. When one of us faced a life-threatening health condition, the administration sprang into action and actively supported him through his hospitalization and subsequent recovery. This is not an isolated incident. All of us know of situations in which the administration has helped us and our fellow graduate students, asking for nothing in return, but instead encouraging us to continue our studies and assuring that they would support us however they could. The administration is also actively working to improve support for graduate student parents and expand health care coverage.

Indeed, this is what they are supposed to do, and they get no special credit for doing it. But they should not be so readily considered our enemy, even in the battle over unionization. SUGSE’s resolve to attack the administration at every turn demands that we abandon our gratitude toward those who have invested time and money in our success. A call for unionization is reasonable and permissible, but it should not include unjustified attacks on those who have supported us. Even with a union, we will continue to work with the administration as both students and employees of the University. We will continue to believe in Brown as an organization engaged in the pursuit of higher ideals and in ourselves as something more than wage-earning employees.

Pay and Costs

Despite naive claims to the contrary, the formation of a union does not free us from powerful authorities. It replaces one authority with another. The call for a union demands that we trust that SUGSE and the American Federation of Teachers will be better leaders than those we currently have. The evidence demonstrates otherwise. In our collective decades of experience as graduate student employees, the administration has repeatedly proven itself to be a trustworthy support system, while SUGSE’s overt cynicism and dishonesty suggest that it will be anything but. SUGSE members (particularly those who have been at Brown for only a few months) who have failed to realize that they can address their problems to administrators and count on their aid should not attack the open, good-faith relationship that the rest of us already enjoy with the graduate school administration.

Finally, finances matter to graduate students. Students in the bargaining unit will be required to pay union dues. While the specifics will not be decided until after the election, we have been told to expect to pay 1.5 to 2 percent of our annual stipend in dues — probably between $200 and $500, depending on department. That amount is similar to the annual raises Brown has consistently provided to current graduate students. While SUGSE promises that our dues will be offset with a raise, this assertion must be critically examined. The bargaining unit will not have unrestricted access to Brown’s financial books if we unionize, and available University financial reports and the recent accreditation report make it clear that there is not an untapped pot of money available to dramatically increase graduate student stipends or benefits. (Despite what some union supporters claim, Brown’s $3.8 billion endowment cannot simply be drawn from to pay graduate students.) In our view, SUGSE has failed to articulate what cuts the University would realistically make to further enhance graduate student stipends and benefits, and we remain concerned that any benefits of unionization would not offset the costs, or worse, come at the expense of forward progress (e.g. limited recruitment of more underrepresented minority students as mandated by Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan).

You may not have been involved with this process so far, but you soon will be. Choosing not to vote leaves the most ideologically extreme to make this decision for everyone. Voting your conscience will ensure that the opinion of the graduate student body as a whole will determine the outcome. So we implore you, our fellow graduate students, to vote, and to think critically about your vote. Remember that a “no” vote is a vote against SUGSE’s union at this time, not a vote against future unionization at Brown.

Sincerely,

Christian Casey GS, Egyptology

Derek Lake GS, Health Services Research, Policy, and Practice

JJ Lomax GS, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

Rebecca Thorsness GS, Health Services Research, Policy and Practice

Jerson Cochancela GS, Biostatistics

Megan Dempsey GS, Biomedical Engineering

Kira DiClemente GS, Behavioral and Social Sciences

John Krantz GS, Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences

Lacey Loomer GS, Health Services Research, Policy and Practice

E.L. Meszaros GS, History of the Exact Sciences in Antiquity

Zachary Rubin GS, Assyriology

Shane M. Thompson GS, Religious Studies

Jessica Tomkins GS, Egyptology 

Tanner Walker GS, Religious Studies