Union Drive Accelerates among University’s Graduate Students Seeking Better Pay, Benefits
Advocates seek better pay and benefits, but University says a union isn’t in their best interest
Union Drive Accelerates among BU Graduate Students
Advocates seek better pay and benefits, but University says a union isn’t in their best interest
Legally speaking, right now graduate students are considered “employees” by the National Labor Relations Board, which means they are allowed to form a union. But inside of an education environment, where they must spend long hours pursuing their PhD studies while earning a stipend, does forming a union make sense for them? This question is the crux of the debate that’s heating up at Boston University this fall as BU graduate students, joining a nationwide movement, move toward a vote on whether they should unionize.
The efforts at BU are part of a broader trend. In Massachusetts, graduate students at Brandeis, Tufts, Harvard, and MIT are among those who have unionized in recent years, in addition to Indiana University, the University of New Mexico, and others. It’s an issue with deep roots—the first teaching assistants’ union formed in 1969 at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, yet today, according to the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions, there are only 42 graduate student unions nationwide, meaning about four out of every five grad students are not unionized.
The yearslong drive at BU gained renewed steam recently, with advocates rallying at Marsh Chapel September 20. University leaders have pointed to a number of changes to BU’s graduate program that they believe support students, and they say that they believe a union could be counterproductive, because the life of a graduate student immersed in research and studies should be nothing like the life of a full-time employee.
The Boston University Graduate Workers Union (BUGWU) organized the rally and is pushing for a vote on whether they should join Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 509. BUGWU says the union would cover 3,000 BU grad students. At least 30 percent of graduate students must sign a petition or cards in favor of a union for the National Labor Relations Board to conduct an election.
Supporters of the union drive say inadequate pay and excessive workloads for graduate students justify the move. The University argues that a union would lack the direct access to BU leadership that graduate students now have to voice their concerns and could lead to the redistribution of some funds now spent on graduate education.
“It’s really too early for us to know when we’ll schedule [a vote],” says Jordan Pickard (GRS’25), a PhD student in English who teaches introductory writing to undergraduates in the College of Arts & Sciences Writing Program. “There are a lot of graduate students on campus, so we have to have a lot of conversations with each other.… It’s a process, and we’ve been working really hard at it.”
BU pays doctoral students stipends to be PhD students, with teaching and research a part of their educational experience. The University set a minimum rate that all programs must at least pay, and also covers their full tuition and student service fees and provides health coverage through the Student Health Insurance Plan, although that doesn’t cover dental or vision benefits, something union advocates support and say a union could help negotiate. (They can receive discounted dental care through the BU Dental Health Center on Comm Ave.)
Pickard says the University pays her a stipend of about $29,000 for 10 months’ work, which, she says, isn’t a living wage in greater Boston, according to a calculator developed by MIT. The calculator pegs a living wage at almost $47,000.
She supplements her stipend with working five hours a week managing social media and as an English department research assistant. “I hear from a lot of other graduate students that they do have to work multiple jobs,” she says, “especially in the summer months, when many of us don’t receive a paycheck for four consecutive months.” She lives in the MBTA Commuter Rail’s Zone 4, a distance from Boston that allows her to find a more reasonable rent.
Workloads are another concern of graduate students. University policy caps teaching duties at 20 hours a week (managing those hours is the responsibility of the departments and teaching supervisors). Pickard says she must squeeze class prep time, classroom time, grading, and office hours in that time frame, and this semester she has 18 students to manage.
“Some weeks, I might put in more like 40 hours of work. Some weeks, maybe a little less than that. But it’s generally pretty difficult to actually keep it to 20 hours a week,” she says. Plus, she has to work on her dissertation. “[That] can easily be a full 40 hours itself in a week,” she says. “We’re juggling a lot.”
Katie Meyer (Wheelock’24) says that “there is not a single day or week where I have been able to just work 20 hours.… Yesterday alone, I worked 13 hours,” and six-day workweeks are common. Meyer earns about $38,000 in stipends for 12 months’ work as a research assistant, teaching assistant, instructor this spring, and for her doctoral research. Her spouse earns a higher salary, a “point of privilege that I recognize, but not all of my colleagues have [that].”
“Our graduate students will need to decide if unionization is right for them,” says Daniel Kleinman, BU’s associate provost for graduate affairs. “I’m focused on leading efforts to make graduate education at BU more student-centered and equitable.”
[We’re] just trying to figure out how to pay our rent and how to make sure that we’re able to find our next meal.”
Kleinman, a CAS professor of sociology, says those efforts in recent years include a vacation policy and a sick leave policy for PhD students. “We recognize that our PhD students will follow multiple career paths—not merely academic career paths—and consequently, we have developed a large set of professionalization opportunities for PhD students,” he says.
Additionally, he cites a recent 4 percent increase in stipend levels for PhD students, a child-care stipend, summer internships, and more holistic admissions training. BU also removed from its application a question about applicants’ criminal records.
Judi Burgess, BU’s senior director of labor relations and ad interim executive director of talent management, says BU is fully committed and currently continues to work closely and directly with its graduate student organizations to advance graduate student interests without a union. She also questions whose interest is served when students are being asked to pay for something that they currently enjoy for free.
“While the University is proud of its work with its employee labor unions, graduate students are uniquely different from traditional employees,” Burgess says. “It gets tough when there is the actual reality that student unionization may often hamper progress because of the very nature of elections and labor negotiations.”
Bargaining for a new contract, she says, is typically a slow and arduous process under the best of circumstances. “When you are talking about thousands of graduate students with various interests, programs, and concerns, it may be years before agreement is reached, as new contracts can take anywhere from one to two years or longer, if agreement is ever even reached,” Burgess says. Another factor to be considered, she adds, is that students would have to pay union dues, which are typically 2 percent of stipends or pay. (For a graduate student earning $30,000, that would be $600 a year.)
In an email to the students last month, Jean Morrison, BU provost and chief academic officer, said that a union would be a poor match for students, “whose teaching and research activities (often supported by stipends as part of funding packages) are integrally related to their scholarly and professional development and whose life and experience at the University is, and should be, very different from an employee in a typical workplace.”
She went further, adding: “The organization that seeks to motivate graduate students to unionize treats ‘labor’ in a generic way and will not provide the same kind of relationship that you have with faculty in the academic graduate learning environment…. Furthermore, unionization at BU may necessitate changes to how the University distributes the funds that are available for graduate education in ways that could negatively impact some of our graduate student cohorts. This would be unfortunate, as we have worked hard to maximize support for our programs and have enjoyed partnering with our current graduate students toward this goal.
“I believe that you deserve more than a one-size-fits-all approach to supporting your academic experience and success.… Right now, you have your own voice and agency,” Morrison wrote.
A similar union drive three years ago at the University ran aground when the National Labor Relations Board, comprising then president Donald Trump’s appointees, appeared poised to thwart graduate student unionization. But a proposed rule to that effect was set aside.
SEIU 509’s membership includes 20,000 Massachusetts educators and human service workers. Its parent, SEIU, has 2.1 million members nationally and is the country’s largest union for healthcare and property services workers.
The conversation around unionization at BU has arisen at the same time as a new, completely separate effort, the Task Force on the Future of PhD Education at BU, was commissioned by Morrison in the spring. Its purpose is to examine what is and is not working for BU’s doctoral students, from their career prospects to how their stipends are structured to how they are supervised. The task force hopes to recommend changes to the provost next spring or summer and is planning student listening sessions for PhD students.
Thank you for covering this.
One perspective that I find is missing here is that Master’s students do not have their tuition waived, yet still must pay rent, transportation, and other expenses while studying and working at BU. A Teaching Assistant stipend (about $6,000/semester) is less than 10% of the current cost of full-time tuition. I am working three jobs and studying part-time just to stay at the University.
Thank you to the representatives of BUGWU who spoke for this story!
I misspoke; two semesters of TAing would be less than 1/5 of full-time tuition.
There has been a union effort ongoing for years. Any recent actions taken by admin in the interest of PhD students is reactionary, and to some extent anticipatory, knowing that eventually students would finally get their act together and organize in a more cohesive way. Looks like that day has finally arrived.
Graduate workers of BU: Sign your union card at our website: https://www.bugradworkers.org
The university says we can speak to them directly, but they often brush us off when we do or get so bogged down in bureaucracy that it any movement forward just dies.
“we gave you a 4% stipend increase” – sure, but inflation was 9% so we have far less spending power and most of our rents went up more than 4% so we are giving much more to rent and food. You can’t say that giving a 4% stipend increase was listening to us. It was not.
“we gave a child care stipend” – year, for $600 when the cost of having a single child in the on campus childcare is over $1,000/month. If the stipend for childcare isn’t even the cost of one month of childcare per year then the university isn’t listening.
Plus, let none of us forget that several years ago the university send a memo to all department chairs that recognized that PhD students were facing food insecurity and don’t get paid enough to live in Boston and the GRS solution was to have the professors feed us out of their own salary. The university doesn’t listen to us. https://theprofessorisin.com/2019/12/11/boston-u-dean-to-grad-students-go-to-the-food-pantry-guest-post/
The university prevents us from working outside jobs – prevents us from making any more than they are willing to give us – that means the university is taking responsibility for our financial well-being and the evidence shows they are not living up to that responsibility.
My favorite part of this is the deliberate omission of all of material benefits grad worker unions have won as further justification for their unionization. To name a few, visa fee reimbursements for international grad workers (Harvard GSU), a total extra $100,000 for childcare reimbursements (UMass Amherst GEO), pay parity across departments (Columbia Student Workers), spousal and child health insurance coverage (Brown Graduate Labor Organization), a 38% increase in wages since the first contract in 2002 (NYU GSOC), and an essay’s worth list of other material improvements. Struggling to see how unionization is not in the interest of BU grad workers.
What percentage of undergraduate credits are graduate (PhD and Masters) students responsible for teaching? Would love to know.
The University categorizes grad students as “employees” but doesn’t want them to have the same protections as employees. Their arguments against unionizing sound disingenuous and bottom-line driven, like everything else at BU.
Does anyone else hear the Provost’s comment that “unionization at BU may necessitate changes to how the University distributes the funds that are available for graduate education in ways that could negatively impact some of our graduate student cohorts” as a threat of adverse consequences and thus a violation of NLRB Section 8(a)(1) ?
Absolutely. And it’s even followed by “This would be unfortunate…”
Sounds like your classic mobster threat — “Gee, it’d be an awful shame if some unpleasant mishap were to befall this nice shop you have here.”
BU PhD students, who are typically in their late 20s, 30s, and 40s, do not have vision insurance and the “discount” they’re highlighting is 10%. Dental costs, if not covered on a regular basis, can skyrocket very fast, especially in an emergency. And if you’re an 8-month stipend student making $25K trying to pay rent and then for a dental problem, you’re having to make decisions to pay rent and stay in pain or stretch funds in other ways.
Every time my PhD cohort asked for 12-month funding or a summer stipend, we were continually told no. We found out that BU refuses to fund many of the humanities PhD students in the summer and departments have to take out of their own student funding to pay PhD students in the summer. And if that department has already maxed out their budget? PhD students have to scramble to find work for the summer and over the winter break, usually in a field that has nothing to do with our studies while we are expected to continue our preparation for exams or dissertations on our own dime. Spare me on the admin’s rhetoric that they’re listening. They’ve got PhD students going hungry, living on the brink of freezing, all while their endowment keeps growing and Silber Way admins are making seven figures.
Also, important context? The provost’s annual cost-of-living increases alone are typically more than a PhD student makes in a full year.
BU admins claim over and over again that grad workers can work with them directly to address the issues they face. This is almost never the case: if you talk to any grad worker (or any non-admin person in fact), you will quickly learn that BU admins do not care about your needs, and instead they will ignore you when they do not have to answer.
For example, over 600 PhDs and several hundred community members over the summer have signed a petition that asks the BU admins to provide the same MBTA subsidy that is available for faculty and staff workers on campus. The petition was initially sent to the admins through an email, which had been ignored for almost 2 months even after 2 follow-up emails.
So over 30 grad worker petitioners had to come together to deliver the petition to President Brown’s office in-person and forced the admins to react. And of course, the admins finally came out and said no to the petition: they are not sure if providing MBTA subsidies is the best way to help grad workers when over 600 of us are saying that it would. This just shows you how “working with the admins directly” will never work because they don’t have to work with you, and collective action seems the only way to force the admins to even acknowledge your problems.
Maybe grad student workers should be treated differently from an employee in a typical workplace because their “teaching and research activities (often supported by stipends as part of funding packages) are integrally related to their scholarly and professional development”. But it certainly does not feel that way when folks are forced to take on 12hr workdays, performing teaching or research duties that are similar to those done by faculty, while receiving a wage that is just simply not enough to live on. BU uses their grads as workers when it benefits them but insists that they are only students when it is convenient for them.
So stop with the condescension like this article because everyone knows the admins do not care about us. They only boast about caring to stop your complaints. They have made it clear here that they dread the formation of a grad workers union, and that alone should tell you unionizing works and it is the only way for grad workers to improve their working conditions.
Some truly reprehensible comments from the administration.
“‘While the University is proud of its work with its employee labor unions, graduate students are uniquely different from traditional employees,’ Burgess says. ‘It gets tough when there is the actual reality that student unionization may often hamper progress because of the very nature of elections and labor negotiations.'” The ACTUAL reality is that student workers are struggling, so this comes from a willingness to WANT to negotiate. Of course it’s a long process! Labor struggles have always been for the main reason that employers often would prefer to quash unionization efforts than to give employees a higher wage.
“’When you are talking about thousands of graduate students with various interests, programs, and concerns, it may be years before agreement is reached, as new contracts can take anywhere from one to two years or longer, if agreement is ever even reached,’ Burgess says.” Not necessarily, hence the safe “‘may'” statement. Sounds more like an excuse than a reason. But this why the union is being called in–to represent and hopefully arrive at a quick solution.
“‘Jean Morrison, BU provost and chief academic officer, said that a union would be a poor match for students, ‘whose teaching and research activities (often supported by stipends as part of funding packages) are integrally related to their scholarly and professional development and whose life and experience at the University is, and should be, very different from an employee in a typical workplace.'” And also, “‘The organization that seeks to motivate graduate students to unionize treats ‘labor’ in a generic way and will not provide the same kind of relationship that you have with faculty in the academic graduate learning environment.'” Completely misses the point! The striking students are saying their their activities aren’t able to fully fund their needs. It also presumes that unions aren’t adaptable enough (they are!) to the needs of graduate students. Unions are a collective organizational structure, not a football team.
“‘I believe that you deserve more than a one-size-fits-all approach to supporting your academic experience and success.… Right now, you have your own voice and agency,’ Morrison wrote.” This is the most egregious comment of them all. It’s the most tone-deaf. This IS the graduate students’ using their own voice and agency. If Morrison truly believes that the students deserve more than a one-size-fits-all approach, then why are students struggling to fund their studies through stipends alone? Furthermore, then why not stop assuming that the union is not part of that approach? If it works for students, then what’s the problem? That’s why there are union elections–the workers get to decide.
Truly disappointed at the university…
Thank you for covering this story. I walked out of it thinking that the university administration is a bunch of finger-wagging, “uh-dults in the room” types that are refusing to meet the graduate students at negotiation table. Frankly, it is disgusting that a well-funded university would leave the graduate students to dry like this rather than listen to their concerns. Instead, they took the approach to dissuade them from organizing. For why? No comprehensible reason given. Listen, if you can afford to build a new data science building, you can afford to pay your graduate students a living wage.
If BU acts like a corporation, structured like a corporation, treats people like a corporation, have massive corporate profits, pays directors and officers massive salaries, why shouldn’t students organize for protections?
Or, can somebody tell me why a giant corporate university, with billions of funding, shouldn’t have its power tempered by student organizing?
Without student organizing, what actual forms of relief do students have? Individual students lack the resources to affect change, and the university doesn’t care about individual student outcomes, just raw statistical analysis to submit to USNWR.
Maybe the real issue is with USNWR? Not entirely, but part of the issue.
Great to see BU grad workers organizing to improve their wages, benefits, and working conditions. As someone who was an active member of the Teaching Assistants Association of UW-Madison during my time as a graduate student worker, these anti-union talking points and scare tactics from BU administrators sure do sound familiar. (I wonder how much BU is spending on anti-union “labor relations” consultants/lawyers instead of just paying grad workers a living wage?)
A few thoughts from my experience with a grad workers’ union:
1. A number of years before I started at UW-Madison, the union won graduate workers the same employee health insurance package that faculty and staff in the University of Wisconsin system get. (And yes, that includes vision and dental.) It’s hard to overstate what a difference that makes.
2. A “raise” that’s less than inflation is a pay cut. We got raises above cost-of-living increase every year I was there–yes, even if you subtract union dues–and some years well above that. No way that would’ve happened without the union.
3. The union is its membership. Beyond the material benefits, it’s a really empowering experience to organize with your fellow workers to improve your working conditions. Graduate school can be very isolating sometimes, but there’s a real sense of connection and solidarity in getting together with folks from across departments, sharing your experiences and struggles, and then deciding as a union what to do about it.
One of the most laughable ideas in this article is the idea that a 10% discount for dental coverage at the dentistry school is a benefit. Am I supposed to be grateful that I need to PAY to be a test subject- a test subject who receives sharp objects in their mouth, no less?
BU talks a big game about caring about structural inequality in Boston and the US at large, but at the end of the day it is all too happy to regurgitate the same anti-union rhetoric that has exacerbated economic inequality in this country over the past half century. Every single union busting boss has the same lines, about how “union dues are so expensive” and “you don’t want this to get in the way of our current wonderful relationship” and “I’m not saying this could harm you, but I’m also totally saying that.” It’s patronizing and insulting, and we can see right through it.
Also, the 4% increase in stipends (half the rate of inflation, fyi) was only achieved after hundreds of us organized and demanded parity with faculty in MBTA discounts. It’s not like BU decided on their own to be “generous” to us! How laughable that they think they can take something that was the result of collective action and claim that’s evidence that we don’t need collective action.
Only when we unite together and force them to hear us do we achieve anything. Admin likes the current system because it benefits THEM. Only as a collective organized entity can we achieve actual benefits.
The Unionization of Boston University Graduate Students has been an effort pushed by the graduate student population for several years and for several reasons. The pushback BU administrators have shown is quite frankly appalling. So many professors at BU completely rely on the labor of graduate students, as they are the ones reinforcing the information taught in lectures, meeting with the students on their own time, grade assignments, and so much more. TAs and TFs are horrifically underpaid and undervalued, as shown by the article and several of the comments detailing personal experiences. The fact that graduate students are contractually unable to have another job at BU while being paid around half of Boston’s living wage is seriously wrong. These students are not only studying hard for their Master’s Degree or PhD but are also working such important jobs. These TAs and TFs are the ones interacting with the students most. They are the ones grading the student’s assignments. They are the ones giving up so much of their free time to hold extra study sessions and extra office hours on top of the time they already set aside for the class. They are leading discussion sections and labs to help the undergraduate students better understand concepts in the class. And they are the ones who are not given any credit. Even though these graduate students are the ones doing so much of the work for a class, they are not nearly acknowledged enough in general, let alone are they given fair wages, working conditions, and benefits. The hours that these students work is utterly ridiculous and the school acting oblivious to how much time is required of them makes it even worse. With no real way to cap how many hours a graduate student works a week, they are bound to be exploited and overworked. BU must do better to increase their wages firstly, to a living wage, and secondly, to one that reflects the true amount of work these graduate students are doing. The exploitation of these students and scare tactics used by BU administrators is horrific. The intimidating emails and public statements made to instill fear in graduate students and make them doubt just how much unionizing could benefit them is just plain awful. These graduate students work way too hard to be treated with no fair pay, decent benefits, or respect. Now that the graduate student workers have won the election to unionize, I hope they are able to get the treatment they deserve.