We’ve formed a union! On September 19th, we filed for an election to certify our union, WPI-GWU, with nearly 75% of graduate student workers support. With a union, we look to bargain over our working conditions such as our pay, our healthcare, our workload, job security and protections from harassment and discrimination. We follow a national trend of student workers organizing around the country at: public institutions like University of Massachusetts, University of California, University of Washington, University of Connecticut, and many more; and private institutions like Harvard, Columbia, Brown, New York University, Tufts, Brandeis, American University, Georgetown, and others.
Since we filed our petition for our union election, faculty all over campus are showing their support for the WPI graduate student workers’ right to organize and showing us their support for our union. The graduate student workers appreciate all the resounding support from all of the WPI community members.
Inevitably, some questions may arise during our election raised by a variety of sources. We have put together a list of common questions that are often raised in union elections. If you do not see a question below that you would like answered, please email us at email@example.com.
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Frequently Asked Questions
What do the increased costs of unionization mean for research budgets? Will we have fewer RAs or teaching fellows?
Research budgets of federal funding agencies account for annual raises and the university, which is why the budgets cover previous raises when they have been given. The only difference with a union contract is that administrators, faculty and students have a clear picture of what to expect for multiple years, rather than one year at a time (often at the last minute). There is no evidence that unionization has hurt enrollment in peer institutions. For example, for the University of California system, where a union has existed since 1998, enrollment has actually increased from 36,740 to 56,275 graduate students.
How will unionization affect student-advisor relationships? Won’t inviting a third-party into this relationship risk the academic sanctity of this relationship?
Currently, graduate workers often have no choice but to come to their advisors to deal with bureaucratic dysfunction and financial insecurity (e.g. “My pay check still hasn’t come. How do I make it happen?”). The clarity and security of a union contract would ensure that student-faculty relationships revolve around academic work. How and when research work needs to be done will remain the prerogative of faculty, postdocs, and graduate student researchers.
How will strikes affect my research lab?
Our goal is to avoid a strike and come to an agreement on a fair union contract. Strikes are extremely rare and are only used as a last resort; less than 1% of all unionized workers in the US went on strike in 2017 (https://www.bls.gov/news.release/wkstp.nr0.htm). Strikes are also the outcome of a democratic process whereby a two-thirds majority must vote to authorize a strike. Even during a strike, however, individual members decide for themselves whether they will join the strike. Our hope is to negotiate an agreement without the need to discuss a strike.
Why are existing methods of representation, like the Graduate Student Government, not sufficient? What can a union do that these channels can’t?
Existing methods of representation, such as the Graduate Student Government can and do advocate for students, but the administration is under no obligation to respond to their requests, and they have no legal authority to negotiate better working conditions. Only a union can secure legally binding contract provisions around issues like health insurance and sexual assault policy and subsequently hold the administration accountable to clear standards. Additionally, the GSG is responsible for a much larger population (they include non-workers among them) and a much broader spectrum (they can advocate around campus life and academic concerns). Both have important roles to play in the future of our university.
How can such a varied bargaining unit adequately represent my department’s students? Our department is different and their concerns will get drowned out.
A union contract is a deeply flexible agreement. Graduate workers can negotiate improvements like pay minimums and or advance notice of work expectations while explicitly respecting and preserving the particular needs of different departments and programs. A contract also lets graduate workers negotiate over university-wide concerns, like health insurance, compensation, protections and parental leave.
The university already faces budget shortfalls which means new spending is already cut. Won’t unionization make the situation worse?
Overhead costs or Indirect Costs are calculated as a fraction of direct research costs, and those fractions are negotiated on a regular basis with granting agencies. Additionally, the administration determines the costs of portions of the grants (rent of space, equipment usage, administrative percentages, etc), and are in control of those costs. They could easily reduce those to make up for increases paid to graduate workers. Because graduate workers would have a union and sit across the table with admins who make those decisions, the administrators would be able to make adjustments to ensure they cover the cost (as has happened at 65+ other universities across the country). If they could not, the union and administrators are not likely to come to an agreement on a union contract that would cause collapse of the system.
Why the UAW? UAW is a political organization with its own agenda. Why does it make sense to involve them in important decisions on our campus?
The UAW is the largest union of student workers in the USA. From lawyers at the ACLU to museum workers at MoMA, professional and service workers have been UAW members for decades. Since the 1990s, at peer institutions like NYU, Columbia, and the University of California, graduate students workers have joined the UAW by the tens of thousands. Unions are democratic institutions, and so graduate students’ interests and visions have shaped the UAW’s priorities at both the local and national levels.
Congratulations, WPI graduate workers, on taking this big step!— Dr. Gillian Smith (@gillianmsmith) September 20, 2022
Like all UC graduate students, I was in a union at UCSC. I think, in many ways that weren’t fully clear to me back then, being in a union as a TA/RA positively shaped my career. https://t.co/ZvDvymOyod