Updated at Dec. 5, 7:09 p.m.
A group of undergraduate computer science teaching assistants have announced their intentions to form a union, according to a press release from an organizing committee shared with The Herald Monday morning.
In an Instagram post, the organizers called upon the Brown community to join them at a public rally Thursday at noon on the Main Green. Organizers told The Herald that they will then present the University with a letter asking them to voluntarily recognize the union.
In an interview with The Herald, the group’s organizers said that forming a union will enable them to negotiate directly with the University on issues such as pay, CS TA responsibilities and working conditions in the department. Currently, CS TAs raise concerns related to their employment with faculty in the CS department, said Colton Rusch ’23, a member of the organizing committee. But the committee believes the department has limited capacity to effectively address concerns raised by TAs, he added.
“There's only so much that (department administrators) can do as one person in that role, and it's a lot to expect them to teach and to advise and to take care of the (CS) TA program,” Rusch said. “The union can be a way for us to actually negotiate with (the University’s) administration, rather than having to put all of this onto one department administrator.”
Tom Doeppner, director of undergraduate studies for the CS department, declined to comment on the unionization.
The group has named their organizing effort the Teaching Assistant Labor Organization — if successfully formed, it will become a new part of the Graduate Labor Organization, which represents graduate students employed by Brown. GLO is an affiliate of the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals, the American Federation of Teachers and the AFL-CIO, according to TALO materials reviewed by The Herald.
“GLO stands in solidarity with the undergrad workers' incredible efforts to organize their workplace and demand better. We are proud to welcome them to the union,” wrote GLO President Sherena Razek in a message to The Herald. “We believe, like all workers at Brown and beyond, that they deserve a say in their working conditions and we will do whatever we can to support them in this organizing drive they are leading.”
TALO will follow a similar model to unions at peer institutions such as Harvard and Columbia, where graduate students and undergraduate TAs are members of the same bargaining units. TALO, however, will only include TAs in the CS department.
More details about the proposed structure of TALO and the timeline for its formation will be shared in the coming weeks, organizers told The Herald.
The unionization effort is being spearheaded by a committee of approximately 40 current CS head teaching assistants, undergraduate teaching assistants and socially responsible computing teaching assistants. The group has met weekly this semester in preparation for Monday’s announcement, said Rusch, Eva Lau ’23 and Galen Winsor ’22.5, all members of the organizing committee.
Since early September, members of the organizing committee have been holding one-on-one conversations with TAs in the department to share the union’s mission statement. By mid-October, they began inviting TAs to sign authorization cards, which give unions the authority to bargain on workers’ behalf, according to Rusch, Lau and Winsor.
As of Sunday night, the committee had spoken with 297 of the roughly 400 TAs in the department. 277 had signed the mission statement and 265 had signed authorization cards, Rusch said. The authorization cards will be delivered to the National Labor Relations Board and used to begin the process of formalizing the union, they added.
If the University does not voluntarily recognize TALO, the National Labor Relations Board will process the authorization cards and schedule a workplace election to confirm that the majority of CS TAs support the formation of the union, organizers said.
University Spokesperson Brian Clark wrote in an email to The Herald that the organizers have not yet directly communicated their plans to unionize to the University and that it is therefore "premature for Brown to comment."
The decision to unionize grew out of conversations between a group of eight CS TAs who assembled early last semester to discuss working conditions, responsibilities and pay for HTAs and UTAs. The group met with faculty in the CS department three times over the course of last semester and once over the summer, Lau said — as a result, they were able to secure a pay raise for all TAs as well as edits to the TA missive, a document which outlines job responsibilities for undergraduate teaching positions.
But despite these achievements, many of the issues that the TAs raised with the department have not been addressed, Lau said. Toward the end of the spring semester, the group came to the conclusion that these issues “will continue to happen in the future unless there is some sort of systemic change,” Lau said.
According to Lau, the group also started engaging GLO in conversations last spring, and the organization helped them decide that unionization was the best way to pursue these changes.
“Systemic (issues) are what take more effort to change, and collective action is the way to … (get) those larger changes through,” Rusch said.
The organizers also believe that the union will help build community among TAs. “Unions create community and solidarity in the workforce where it didn't really exist before,” Winsor said. Forming a union “will have a lot of benefits for the culture of working as a TA.”
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 junior concentrating in International and Public Affairs.