Nearly 200 students and local community members gathered on the steps of the Stephen Robert ’62 Campus Center Thursday afternoon for a rally supporting the formation of an undergraduate computer science teaching assistants union.
Members of the union’s organizing committee and invited speakers gave speeches to the crowd, with call-and-response chants interspersed throughout the event. Organizers then led the group to University Hall to deliver a letter to the office of President Christina Paxson P’19 requesting voluntary recognition of the union.
The rally follows the group’s Monday announcement of their plans to form a union, The Herald previously reported. The group has named itself the Teaching Assistant Labor Organization and, if successful, will become part of the existing Graduate Labor Organization that represents graduate students on campus.
“We ask for voluntary recognition (of TALO) with deep respect for and commitment to Brown University and its department of computer science,” the letter to Paxson reads. “We believe that unionizing and moving forward in a constructive relationship through collective bargaining is essential for us to conduct the important work of delivering a world-class education.”
The letter also called for the University to “publicly state … (they) will by no means engage in union-busting” and requested a response from the University by Dec. 15.
The University will review the request, “determine the best next steps and respond directly to the student organizers,” wrote University Spokesperson Brian Clark in an email to The Herald.
At the rally, TALO organizers shared their experiences working as TAs for the CS department. Several speakers recounted working long hours and physical and emotional strain from developing course material and helping struggling students.
Julia McCauley ’23, a member of the organizing committee who spoke at the rally, said that on multiple occasions as a socially responsible teaching assistant last semester, she felt she had to choose between “students’ learning” and her wellbeing.
“I’m standing here today because I believe the union will provide the structural changes and resources necessary to ensure that all TAs have a healthy and supportive work and learning environment,” McCauley added.
“I’m voting ‘yes’ for a union because I’m sick of seeing my peers suffer for the course and students that they love,” said Eva Lau ’23, another TALO organizer. “I’m voting ‘yes’ for a union because I want a voice to hold the (CS) department accountable to providing a world-class education without it being at the cost of its undergraduate workers.”
CS TAs — including members of the organizing committee — described excessive hours, issues with the University's human resources system and a lack of avenues for formal complaints in a department that is struggling to keep up with a rapidly increasing number of undergraduate concentrators, The Herald previously reported. Many members of the organizing group initially engaged with CS faculty last spring to discuss working conditions in the department.
“Brown deeply appreciates the dedication and the important positive contributions of teaching assistants in supporting faculty-led undergraduate education on campus,” Clark wrote. “In the case of undergraduate TAs in Computer Science, department leaders have worked extensively with participants to strengthen and sustain a program structure that enables students to effectively balance their academic studies and other activities with their TA roles.”
Signing a contract with the University would allow CS TAs to formally bargain over issues such as pay and their job responsibilities, Lau said in an interview with The Herald before the announcement of the union. Renewing that contract would require the University to “come to the table and renegotiate,” paving the way for regular conversations between TALO and the University.
According to Lau, unionization would also ensure that the University’s CS education “lives up to its reputation.” In certain courses, TAs are the ones teaching students new material, she said, which is why “improving working conditions for the TAs would also be improving the general education that students are receiving.”
“We love TA-ing. We love CS. And we want to make it better,” said organizer Galen Winsor ’22.5 in an interview before the announcement.
Multiple speakers at the rally emphasized that the unionization of CS TAs will benefit other undergraduate workers employed by the University.
“In forming this union, we are laying the material, organizing and legal groundwork for expanding unionization across all sectors of (student) workers on campus,” said Colton Rusch ’23, a member of the organizing committee, in his speech at the rally. Rusch added that TALO has spoken with other groups of student workers and pledged “to share (their) infrastructure” with groups “who are interested in organizing their workforce.”
At peer institutions like Harvard and Columbia, bargaining units include both graduate students and all undergraduate teaching assistants.
The unionization of CS TAs “paves the way for the University to do better by all its student workers,” said Jada Wooten ’24, co-president of Students for Educational Equity, in a speech at the rally. “As student workers, (TALO) will be uniquely positioned to advocate for students with an understanding of the student perspective.”
GLO President Sherena Razek GS also spoke at the rally, emphasizing that GLO “will fight with (TALO) to ensure that you are heard and have a fair chance to democratically decide how to organize yourselves as workers.”
GLO’s resources, including hired staff organizers, will be available to TALO as they launch their unionization campaign, Razek told The Herald after the rally. Hired organizers were at the event, as were representatives from the Providence Teachers’ Union, the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals and State Rep. David Morales MPA’19, D-Providence.
The Undergraduate Council of Students formally endorsed TALO’s unionization campaign in an email to the student body Wednesday evening. The Student Labor Alliance also expressed their support for TALO in an email to The Herald.
“TALO's fight is our fight too,” wrote Maddie King ‘25, a member of the SLA. “We'll be with them all the way.”
Sam Levine is a University News editor from Brooklyn, New York overseeing the staff and student labor and on-campus activism beats. He is a sophomore concentrating in International and Public Affairs.