Graduate research assistants publicize unionization decision
Due to limited support from the University, graduate student advocates are taking matters into their own hands.
After years of organizing efforts to garner support, assess interest, and increase union card signing, on Sept. 11, Brandeis University Research Assistants announced they have filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board for a formal union election, according to a press release from the the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 509.
In July 2018, Brandeis University and Service Employee International Union Local 509 agreed on a collective bargaining agreement for PhD students who work as teaching assistants or teaching fellows during their academic time at Brandeis. Benefits of the current agreement include the following: a raise in graduate assistants’ pay, set limits to their work hours, supplies and textbooks provided for TAs and TFs, and opportunities to attend professional development workshops free of charge.
Despite what were seen as wins in the collective bargaining agreement between TAs and the University, members of the union continue to find themselves with financial concerns. Last May, the Justice investigated the food, housing, and transportation insecurity faced by many graduate TAs and TFs. The article highlights the inadequate financial compensation that graduate TAs and TFs face in proportion to the cost of living in the greater Boston area. Students are struggling with staggering debt and are often choosing between rent, food for the month, medical treatments and bills, expenses for an unforeseen circumstance, and the quality of their teaching.
Olivia Leland, a physics Ph.D. student and graduate department representative, recounted a time of “complete nervous breakdown” in an April 27 email to the Justice, when an emergency with her cat left her having to decide whether the $150 left in her bank was going to feed herself or her cat.
The harsh physical, emotional, and mental realities that TAs and TFs face as a result of inadequate support from the University are not isolated. Like graduate TAs, graduate research assistants are University employees who play an integral role in conducting and furthering research.
Currently, research assistants are not represented by the union and do not receive the aforementioned benefits and conditions that graduate TAs and TFs are entitled to. If the outcome of a formal union election with the National Labor Relations Board is in favor of the graduate research assistants, “approximately 250 PhD graduate research assistants would join nearly 200 TAs who are already unionized with SEIU Local 509, expanding the union’s presence and creating a pathway toward bargaining with the University over key issues,” according to the Sept. 11 press release from SEIU Local 509.
The initiative to include research assistants in the union started in 2020. Since the unionizing efforts in 2018 only included TAs and TFs, there was a lack of support, organization, and representation for student research workers. Lauren Crosser, a PhD candidate in sociology and union organizer, explained that she, along with other graduate workers in the social sciences and humanities, initiated the process as they suspected RAs shared the same need to have a union as TAs.
“We began talking to some STEM graduate workers about their working conditions at Brandeis,” Crosser wrote in a Sept. 15 email to the Justice. “I met with graduate workers for coffee or called them on the phone, and tried to engage them as much as I could.”
After some discussions, the initial organizers found some research workers interested in taking the lead. The SEIU eventually agreed to help with the organizing committee, and the graduate research assistants took over, spearheading the campaign.
“This really is graduate students trying to advocate for what is good for them and getting the benefits and the secure work conditions that we deserve as workers at this university,” said Zach Curtis, a fourth-year physics PhD candidate and effort organizer, during a Sept. 11 phone interview with the Justice. “This is our real push that will make us happier, more secure, and more productive workers.”
In the process of garnering more support for forming a union, organizers saw that graduate students had a shared understanding and feeling about their working conditions but did not necessarily see the potential impact that a union can have.
“We are not just creating another vague organization that is making decisions without us," said Jamie Stonemetz, a third-year Ph.D. candidate in the neuroscience program and graduate workers union steward, during an in-person interview with the Justice on Sept. 8. “We are the union.”
As more workers become aware of the purpose, collaborativeness, and potential that the union has, the more people become receptive to the effort.
“I couldn't be happier with the move to include research assistants as part of our current union,” a third year Ph.D. candidate in psychology, who wishes to remain anonymous, wrote in an email to the Justice on Sept. 14. “...[A]s a Ph.D. student, my stipend is so low that I cannot save anything, and when I was faced with an emergency situation during COVID, I couldn't afford to pay my rent that month.” The student goes into detail, explaining that during their time as a full-time Master's student at Brandeis, working as a part-time research assistant and TA, while holding off-campus jobs, they still had $10,000 in debt and were not adequately nourished. “So much that an old professor of mine asked if I was sick,” they explained.
Members of the organizing committee conveyed that their goals of joining SEIU Local 509 were to include increasing stipends to meet the living wages required of the Boston area, fully funded dental insurance, subsidized transportation cost, and additional support for international students.
Unionization efforts happen for a number of reasons, but often, workers initiate the process to fight for a better working environment and increase wages.
“Getting stipend increases and some pay parity [...] is really, really important,” said Stonemetz. “Not just for us graduate students, but for the health of the field. You can’t do good research if you worry about coupon cutting.”
Even if stipends were to be increased, a graduate researcher's total income may not be sufficient to live in the Boston metropolitan area. Based on department websites, graduate student stipends may range from $21,000 for the Heller School of Social Policy and Management to $38,496 for departments like the Molecular and Cell Biology program and the Neuroscience program, as of July 1.
As found in the research conducted by the Justice last May, to live in Middlesex County, Massachusetts, while meeting basic needs, it is required to have an income of at least $48,776 a year, before taxes. Based on the Living Wage Calculator, developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, of the required $48,776, $4,559 is estimated to be required for food and $20,920 for housing yearly. The rent and grocery for an employee in the Social Policy department is going to be the same for a neuroscience student, so organizers are pushing to eliminate the pay gap and increase stipends to ensure graduate researchers can afford the bare minimum. Even at the higher end of the stipend range, Brandeis graduate research assistants make well below the estimated annual income for the greater Boston area.
The lack of dental and vision insurance creates another barrier to graduate researcher’s quality of life.
“Our health insurance is being covered by our program, which is awesome,” Stonemetz said. “Unfortunately, we also have teeth, and we have to go to the dentist.”
Currently, Brandeis graduates receive health insurance with their stipend package when they are accepted into their programs; however, additional health care packages like dental and vision are not included. Graduate research assistants may choose to opt into the University Health Plan’s dental and vision insurance, which can start at $281.00 and $183.00, respectively. This additional expense coming directly from the student workers’ pockets is often a deterring factor to opt in, as they are required to pay upfront, but receive their stipends in increments.
“If there is some sort of emergency, have fun with your new credit card debt,” Stonemetz said sarcastically. Union stewards have heard workers running into problems of needing to get dental work, but without the insurance. This kind of financial dilemma, along with other barriers like transportation and parking finances, often leads to undue stress.
Similarly, limited support from institutions exacerbate the challenges that international students face. Organizers clarified that “housing and fee reimbursements are some concerns for international students.” This was similar to what the Justice found in the investigation last May, when international graduate student TAs were falling victim to housing scams and additional financial burden from having higher tax withholdings then domestic students.
The goals and demands of the graduate research workers goes beyond addressing their financial concerns. As part of a union, research assistants would have the legal leverage to seek accountability and transparency, and representation during and after the contract negotiations process.
In the years leading up the unionization efforts, Brandeis Graduate Department Representatives, the Brandeis Graduate Student Association, and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences have collected data and surveys to better understand the needs and concerns of the graduate student population. The results of the surveys were formerly unreleased to the public, but the Justice was able to obtain a copy. For example, the GSA collected data from 363 graduate students in the fall of 2022. Of those surveyed, 80% shared their total income, with the median yearly income being $24,500. Additionally, 290 graduate students expressed that they were somewhat or extremely dissatisfied by the cost of housing, pointing at the financial struggles of student workers. An open response survey was also sent to the GSA faculty in 2021, and the top areas most written about were the following: funding graduate student stipends to a livable wage; finding more fellowship money for the graduate students at all levels; increasing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion among the faculty, staff, and student body; and the need for material support, such as scholarships and fellowships.
Unionization allows the graduate research assistants to be at the discussion table and be taken seriously. Should they be dismissed by the administration, there is a legal responsibility of the University to be transparent with their decisions.
Meanwhile, past advocates for unionization were dismissed and told to address their concerns to their individual department heads. When they did this, the department heads told them to address their concerns with the administration, creating a never ending cycle of rerouting and an extreme lack of University accountability, according to Curtis and Stonemetz .
“When it's individual actions, there is no legal pressure or requirement for anyone to be transparent, or anybody to fully disclose finances and what is going on with how they run the various departments,” Curtis explained. “Through unionization and the legal processes that go to contract negotiation, there is a level of accountability there, that [the University] have to prove what they are saying.”
Additionally, being a union creates other options of settling workplace complaints. Currently, student workers can file complaints directly to their supervisors, their respective department chairs, the Office of Equal Opportunity, Ombuds, and the Prevention, Advocacy and Resource Center. Some have found these resources unsuitable due to conflict of interest, while others notice that there is no guarantee anything will come of the complaint.
“Having a union opens the grievance process,” said Stonemetz. “If there is a breach in contract [...], the workers then are able to file a grievance through the union. Brandeis has to take that seriously, because that is a legal thing.”
If research assistants are approved to join the collective bargaining agreement process, next year when the TAs’ current collective bargaining agreements are up, it would give research assistants additional resources to solve problems with their working conditions.
The Justice reached out to the Brandeis Communications Department requesting for an in-person interview, but was informed in a Sept. 13 email from Senior Content and Marketing Specialist, Jarret Benck, that “An in-person interview is unlikely on this topic.” The Justice reached back out via email with questions regarding the matter, but has not heard back as of publishing time.
In a Sept. 14 email to the Justice, Interim Senior Vice President of Communications Julie Jette provided the University’s comment on the unionization effort. The University acknowledged that the current Graduate Student Union only represents TAs and TFs, and that on Sept. 11, it received a representation petition from the SEIU Local 509 for the union bargaining unit to also include graduate research positions.
“We believe employees have the right to decide for themselves whether they wish to be represented by a union, and we look forward to working through the process as set forth by the National Labor Relations Board,” the University statement included. “We are hopeful for a strong election turnout and that our PhD candidates who are eligible to vote gather as much information as possible in order to determine if union representation is right for them.”
Now that the organizers have formally filed a petition with the NLRB, graduate researchers are waiting to hear back from the University. Deliberation on who exactly will be covered will occur, and a formal election will take place with the NLRB to determine if graduate research positions should be part of the bargaining unit. Currently, the timeline of the process is unclear, but if the election is ruled in favor of research assistants, organizers hope it's in time to join TAs in the collective bargaining agreement process. Their agreement with the University is up in 2024.