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Graduate students consider potential unionization

As election continues, students express mixed attitudes toward SUGSE, collective bargaining

Polling stations for the graduate student unionization election opened Wednesday, giving eligible students the chance to decide after years of conversation whether or not to unionize.

Stand Up for Graduate Student Employees has played a key role in these conversations over the past two years, pushing to unionize Brown graduate students since spring 2016, said Hilary Rasch GS, a member of SUGSE. If graduate students vote to unionize, SUGSE will be “the sole collective bargaining agent for graduate-student workers at Brown,” according to SUGSE’s website.

The election for graduate student unionization was set for Nov. 14 to Nov. 19, Provost Richard Locke P’18 wrote in an email to the Brown community Nov. 8.

“After negotiations on a range of matters, I signed on behalf of the University a Memorandum of Understanding with Stand Up for Graduate Student Employees/the American Federation of Teachers on the dates, locations and procedures for an election,” Provost Richard Locke P’18 wrote.

Though SUGSE advocates for a graduate student union, some graduate students voiced reservations. The Herald took a look at SUGSE’s role leading up to the election and at some of the conversations surrounding the question of unionization.

SUGSE’s path to an election

SUGSE began its unionization efforts two years ago, originally under the name SUGS — Stand Up for Graduate Students. SUGS advocated for many of the same issues that SUGSE campaigns for today, such as funding and benefits.

SUGS was founded in spring 2014 by a group of graduate students in the American Studies and History departments in response to “cuts to sixth- and seventh-year funding,” Rasch said. Some 80 graduate students ended up protesting the denial of sixth-year funding in April 2014, The Herald previously reported.

But “SUGS wanted to expand its identity to cover issues beyond just funding,” Rasch said. This led to a “quality of life campaign” that included rallies and protests focused specifically on dental insurance, she added.

The Graduate Student Council also played a role in securing dental insurance, Rasch said.

SUGS viewed itself as an activist group, a sentiment that carried over into SUGSE, Rasch said.

Alastair Tulloch GS, president of the GSC, agreed with Rasch’s characterization of SUGS. “As activists … you protest and you, in a sense, agitate to make your opinion or your point of view known,” Tulloch said. “That’s the essence of grassroots movements, but you also need to complement that with sitting down at the table and doing the negotiating,” he added. In Tulloch’s view, the task of negotiating is the GSC’s responsibility.

In the summer of 2015, SUGS became SUGSE to recognize graduate students as employees and “defined itself … as an anti-racist, feminist, labor organization that advocates for graduate workers’ rights and protection,” Rasch said. Later, in spring 2016, SUGSE started what it has called “organizing conversations,” she added. These conversations are “one-on-one or one-on-two conversations” with graduate students to learn more about their “working conditions,” Rasch explained.

Organizing conversations are meant to be casual conversations, Rasch said. “I talk to people … and I’ll go to each one and knock on their office (door) or I’ll set up a coffee date.”

“We care about those kinds of lunchbox issues like stipends and health care and child care,” Rasch said. She also emphasized SUGSE’s social justice focus, describing how women in STEM and black students are not represented enough in graduate programs.

Other SUGSE members also wish to address these working conditions. Julie Skarha GS, a master’s student at the School of Public Health, hopes a union would provide equal benefits to doctoral and master’s students. Suzy Kim GS, a doctoral student, described her status as an international student as “precarious,” citing worries about higher taxes and the political climate.

In the event of unionization, SUGSE plans to create a “governing structure and bodies” to handle bargaining and negotiations, according to SUGSE’s website.

Reservations about SUGSE’s strategy

SUGSE has received criticism from some graduate students for its campaign strategies. “While I am not anti-union, I am 100 percent anti-SUGSE,” said JJ Lomax GS. While Lomax is a member of the Samuel M. Nabrit Black Graduate Student Association, his views are his own and do not represent those of the group.

“SUGSE is very much about, from my perception, villainizing the admin and trying to make it seem that this very nice set-up we have here at Brown is very fragile and fleeting,” Lomax said. He also described SUGSE’s strategy as “soft intimidation,” adding, “more often than not, people are like ‘well if you don’t sign up with SUGSE, you are screwing over your fellow grad students.’”

Lomax also recounted his own experience with SUGSE and its union affiliate AFT. “Their method of approaching people in lab spaces is something I’ve never been fond of. There’s this kind of bullying when they say, ‘Oh, do you have a second to talk?’ and next thing you know you’re sitting down for an hour and they’re pressuring you to sign this membership card.” Lomax was one of 14 graduate students who signed a Nov. 7 Herald  op-ed titled “What we stand to lose from SUGSE’s union.”

“Some of us were initially supportive of this union, some skeptical, but the behavior of SUGSE has solidified our opinions against it,” the group of graduate students wrote.

Rasch said she’s never pressured students to sign any cards.

“I’ve personally held a lot of organizing conversations with grads. I’ve never (been) anywhere (where) I would have wanted a grad student to sign something if they didn’t want to,” Rasch said. “The organizers have practices that aim to be very respectful of grad students’ time and … if anyone asks us to leave or said that they didn’t want us there we certainly would (leave).”

“SUGSE has been quite strategic to ensure that the way that they are going around and talking about unionization doesn’t spur an anti-union movement,” Tulloch said.

An AFT representative was removed from campus in response to reports of violations of the pre-election agreement, Locke wrote in his Nov. 8 email.

SUGSE and AFT agreed “to remove from campus AFT representative Leah Fishbein through the duration of the election process — a step that the University called for given numerous reports that she had violated the conduct standards outlined in the Pre-Election Agreement,” Locke wrote in the email.

Locke declined to comment on the number of these reports, but described “a series of complaints” from the online reporting form the University created.

Conversations on unionization

Beyond any conflicting views of SUGSE, graduate students have also discussed how unionizing would affect their lives as students.

On its website, SUGSE lists changes that can take place under a union, including improvements to teaching assistant compensation, graduate student funding, grievance procedures, and the diversity of the graduate student body.

Some students hope a union would address how the University responds to rising living costs.

“When the rent rises in Providence, then (the University) should proportionally raise the stipend, which doesn’t happen,” Kim said. “Let me tell you, rent has risen so much—so much—in the past two and a half years,” she added.

“Since stipends are part of the University’s financial support package, it is unclear whether they would be subject to bargaining,” according to the University’s “Be Informed” website.

The Graduate School “considers market forces that include general needs for cost of living adjustments and the need to remain competitive with” peer institutions for stipend increases, wrote Dean of the Graduate School Andrew Campbell in an email to The Herald.

“The Brown graduate student stipend is very competitive when compared to our peers,” Campbell wrote. “When adjusted for cost of living, the 12-month stipend ranks third among peers in the humanities and fourth among peers in STEM fields.”

While “doctoral students receive health- and dental-insurance subsidies” according to the Graduate School website, these same benefits do not extend to master’s students at the University, Skarha said. At the University of Massachusetts Amherst, which has a graduate student union, “if you work as an RA or TA, regardless of whether you’re a PhD student or a master’s, you get the same benefits,” Skarha said. “In my program, that’s not true.”

Currently, “graduate students are represented by the Graduate Student Council and are engaged in decision-making through a system of shared governance … that has led to continuous improvements to stipends, benefits and to overall community enhancements,” according to the University’s “Be Informed” website.

In a Nov. 11 Herald op-ed, President Christina Paxson P’ 19 wrote that “in three of the past five years, the (University Resources Committee) unanimously recommended percent increases in graduate student stipends that exceeded increases in the salary pools for faculty and staff.”

“Brown is not yet able to determine the effect of possible union representation on current student benefits,” according to the University’s “Be Informed” website.

While a union could help bargain for increased stipends and more benefits, some graduate students are concerned about how a union would affect diversity and inclusion.

D’Ondre Swails GS is worried that black graduate students might lose the right to “advocate for oneself,” he said. “The ability to go and have certain things discussed and changed in a relatively short period of time changes” under a union because graduate students would not be able to discuss labor issues directly with the University, Swails said. Direct conversations with administrators have been productive in the past, Swails added, citing the new transitional stipend to help students offset moving costs as an example of an issue that was directly addressed by the University. Concerns about covering transition costs were brought through GSC meetings, Associate Dean of Diversity Initiatives at the Graduate School Marlina Duncan’s student advisory board and other student groups, The Herald previously reported.

“We’ve always had to fight for ourselves anyway, so whether black students have a union or don’t have a union — that doesn’t seem to impact black students’ ability to advocate for themselves,” Swails said.

The GSC would not be able to advocate for benefits among other labor issues under a union, Tulloch said. Instead, it would advocate for academic issues such as advising.

Skarha said forming a union would not prevent other groups from advocating for their needs.

“We’re all grad students. We all have a say,” Skarha said. “There’s not two groups of grad students and one is going to be heard and one’s not.”

Rasch made the case that a union would better sustain student activism. “It takes a lot of work and energy to organize over issues. …When a particular issue, say dental, gets resolved, then that energy fizzles out and it has to be rebuilt the next time there’s an issue that needs to be addressed,” Rasch said. “That is not the case if there’s a union. Then, there’s an institutional structure in place for dealing with issues.”

In a Nov. 5 Herald op-ed, Katherine Preston GS and Siraj Sindhu GS explained that a union could provide “a seat at the table with decision makers … (and) a means of galvanizing hundreds of graduate students” in order to address student concerns.

All eligible graduate students — doctoral or master’s students who are or were TAs, RAs or proctors in fall 2018, spring 2018 and fall 2017 — have until Monday 6 p.m. to cast their vote for or against unionization.


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