Since August 2016, when the National Labor Relations Board ruled that graduate students can be considered statutory employees, the University has remained neutral on the question of graduate student unionization, said Provost Richard Locke. As Stand Up for Graduate Student Employees continues its push for unionization following the graduate student body’s selection of the American Federation of Teachers as a union affiliate, the administration aims to create a “climate that is well-informed and fair and free of all intimidation,” so graduate students can independently decide whether or not to unionize, he added.
Yet, some graduate students feel that despite the University’s official stance, a current of discouragement toward unionization underlies its communication with them, said Lubabah Chowdhury GS, a member of SUGSE.
As the University tries to determine its role in the unionization process, a disconnect has emerged between administrators and SUGSE over the organization’s role and identity.
“Prior to the unionization movement, SUGSE was very active in grad student rights,” said Ian Harding GS, a member of SUGSE. In February 2015, under the name Stand Up for Graduate Students, SUGSE rallied for dental insurance, post-fifth-year funding and other healthcare concerns.
As unionization became an option, a group of SUGSE members started to conduct research and hold discussions to select its options for union affiliation — United Automobile Workers and the AFT, Chowdhury said. SUGSE independently organized the affiliation vote, she added.
SUGSE also launched a canvassing campaign asking graduate students what they sought from a union and explaining the benefits of unionization, Harding said. SUGSE members also attended departmental graduate student meetings and hosted events such as an affiliation information session, Chowdhury said.
During his time as provost, Locke has exchanged emails with SUGSE, he said. However, while he has met with the Coalition of Concerned Graduate Students of Color and Allies and hosts monthly meetings with the leadership of the Graduate Student Council, Locke has never met in-person with a group formally identifying itself as SUGSE, he added. Though he has told members of SUGSE in emails that he would be interested in meeting to discuss graduate student concerns, including unionization, the organization has never scheduled a meeting with him, Locke said.
The administration doesn’t “even really know what SUGSE is. … We thought it was an amorphous, anonymous group of students,” said Kevin McLaughlin, dean of the faculty. “The group of students involved there don’t seem to coordinate; they don’t seem to agree on things collectively and then make their positions known,” he added.
SUGSE is horizontally organized, and individual members determine their own level of involvement in the group, Chowdhury said. Speaking as an individual rather than as a representative of SUGSE, Chowdhury added that this horizontal structure means that SUGSE members are often also involved in other student organizations. This might account for the perceived lack of contact between SUGSE and the administration.
“I could show up to a meeting on the Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan and identify myself as a member of Concerned Graduate Students of Color and not necessarily identify myself as a member of SUGSE,” Chowdhury said.
In a March 21 response to SUGSE’s Report on Graduate Student Union Affiliation Options at Brown, Locke contested claims that “many of the recent enhancements to graduate student stipends, benefits and quality-of-life support were the result of SUGSE pressure and advocacy” and that SUGSE has “taken a leading role in the development of the University’s Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan.”
Though members of SUGSE may have been involved in formulating the DIAP, the organization never identified itself in “any of the scores of meetings I had with students” about the plan, Locke said. SUGSE also did not lobby Locke directly for graduate student benefits like dental insurance and sixth-year funding, he added.
The Office of the Provost’s response was not intended to minimize or discount the work that various student groups, including SUGSE, have done to help with the development of the DIAP and to advocate for graduate student benefits, Locke said. Rather, the letter aimed to show that efforts have also been made by others, including members of the administration, to work toward these same goals, he added.