Why WPI Grad Workers Need a Union

  • Reading time:48 mins read

On September 19, with a supermajority of cards signed, the Worcester Polytechnic Institute Graduate Workers’ Union is gathering on campus outside Boynton Hall to inform the WPI administration that they are filing for a union election with the National Labor Relations Board. In August, Shane Levett spoke with two graduate student workers on the WPI GWU organizing committee. Teagan Bate and Guin Gilman discuss how the union drive got started, the impact of the pandemic and rising cost of living, and why, in the face of an administration fixated on money, a union is needed to safeguard workers, the broader WPI community, and the institution’s scientific mission. This interview has been edited for clarity.

WM – Could you introduce yourselves and share what you do at the university?

GUIN – I’m a third-year computer science PhD student. I started by getting my master’s about a year ago, and I’ve continued on with my work here. I specifically work in the Cake Lab, where a lot of people work on things like systems security, but what I do is mostly related to the performance of GPUs on general purpose workloads, things like deep learning, instead of graphics workloads. I mostly work with the system architecture and low-level details, as opposed to deep learning itself, and I’ve kind of been a remote student for the past two years because of everything and also because I live in Rhode Island.

TEAGAN – I’m Teagan. I’m going into the sixth year of my physics PhD. I was a TA, a teaching assistant, for a few years, and a couple years ago, I transitioned into being a full-time research assistant. My research primarily has to do with synthetic biomimetic active matter, constructed from microtubules and kinesin motors, and its behavior.

WM – And could you tell us more about the bargaining unit you’re forming and the workers who make it up?

TEAGAN – There are between 500 and 600 graduate student workers, which includes teaching assistants and research assistants. There is also a smattering of other positions that graduate students could potentially hold that put them within the unit, such as being a grader.

GUIN – I’m a teaching assistant, for instance, and I have been the whole time I’ve been here. People tend to be teaching assistants the first few years they’re here, and it seems like we have a lot of people that are at varying stages of their degree so we have a mix of teaching assistants and research assistants in our group.

TEAGAN – And we can safely say that we have majority support in all departments. We have at least a couple departments where we have effectively 100% support, and the others fall somewhere within that range.

WM – Does the unit include both PhD and master’s student workers?

TEAGAN – Yes, as long as they’re funded through WPI.

WM – What sort of work do the two of you do in a typical week as grad workers in your respective jobs?

GUIN – As a teaching assistant during the school year, what typically happens is you’re expected to spend about 20 hours per week doing the teaching assistant portion of your job, and what that entails pretty heavily depends on the course you’re assigned to. For some courses, it’s a lot of grading that takes up the majority of the 20 hours. For other courses, it’s more about office hours and attending the courses to be there to help, like with larger classes. For most courses, though, it’s a pretty even split between grading and then office hours and interacting with students. And then, for the rest of your weekly hours, for the most part, you’re spending time working on research.

Currently, I’m working on my research qualifier, but even before that, it was a focus on independent studies and things like that to go toward my master’s thesis, which was based on doing original research. Around 20 hours at least are expected for making progress on that, and personally, I meet with my advisor about twice a week to discuss that portion of it. That might be a little more frequent than a lot of people, but that’s what I do. And when I was doing the master’s portion of my studies, I also had to take two or three classes per semester. I finished all the credits I need for classes so I don’t have to do that anymore, but it does make your schedule a lot busier.

TEAGAN – At times in my graduate career, I have worked probably 50 to 60 hours a week, spread out over seven days, but I would say, on average, I’ve now gotten to a point where I typically work about 40 hours a week, over six days, as a research assistant. Typically, I will be spending some of my time prototyping, developing, and doing experiments. A significant responsibility of mine is mentoring undergraduates, high schoolers, and sometimes newer graduate students in our lab. When I’m mentoring graduate students, that might be a bit less experimental stuff and more general lab duties and synthesis-type stuff, the kind of work and skills they need to pick up to be able to maintain the lab materials and environment. Whereas if I’m working with an undergraduate, it might be just a one-off experiment, but usually, I’d have prototyped and refined an experimental method to the point where I’m confident in it. Then I would tutor them in it and guide them in learning how to do it essentially at the same quality level that I can, and then passing those experiments on to them so that I don’t have to do the experiments anymore.

The other work I do is reading research papers and staying up to date on the niche. It depends on where I’m at with a project, but a lot of the time I might be at some stage of work on authoring a paper so I might be developing figures for that or writing method sections or working with my PI, principal investigator, on that. And then the other large chunk of my time goes toward data analysis, developing code, working with cluster computing, software systems, dealing with bugs, analyzing stuff, and hearing different analyses. Essentially my time is split between doing experiments, training people to do those experiments, analyzing those experiments, and then writing about them.

WM – How did the union drive start at WPI and how did both of you become involved?

TEAGAN – Two or three years ago, in the spring of 2019 or maybe spring of 2020, Dayna Mercadante, a PhD student in bioinformatics and computational biology, got interested in forming a union. She used to sit in a cubicle right down the hall [gestures], and she has since graduated and moved on. Now, I don’t know if this was the first person at WPI that was ever interested in forming a union, but she got interested and talked with Sabine Hahn, my other cubicle neighbor, who is one of our main leaders now, and got her interested, and I believe the first group they reached out to was a teachers union, and they might have sent some other emails to various groups or people, but the teachers union was like “Heck yeah! About time,” and they got directed to the UAW one way or another.

And then they got in touch with Josh Gilbert, who we’ve now been working with for more than a year, and it started to take off. That’s when I got involved. I was on the Graduate Student Advisory Council to the dean of arts & sciences, and I met Sabine and Dayna through that. They contacted me after meeting there and asked if I’d be interested, and I was pretty gung ho and got on board, but Dayna and Sabine, and maybe some other folks, had done some amount of organizing and been in touch with Josh at that point, and once it got going, I was in on weekly meetings, and we started to organize exponentially from there on out.

Josh has been instrumental in supplying us with information and advice, and we would not be where we are without him and the UAW’s support. So the actual working relationship that we have is like emails and meetings with Josh, and he’s just indispensable in terms of his experience and knowledge and what to expect. We have ended up being able to work with a really great organizer. It’s made a huge difference.

GUIN – It’s hard to remember how I first heard about it. I feel like it was either a cold email or just through the grapevine, but I was really interested in joining as well. When I first heard about it, I was a remote worker and had a lot on my plate at the time, but the beginning of this year is when I started to get really involved because I have plans to be on campus more often now, and my time is more organized at the moment because I finished taking classes.

TEAGAN – Congratulations!

GUIN – Thank you. It’s definitely given me a better handle on my schedule.

WM – You mention having been a remote worker. Is that something that had to do with the pandemic?

GUIN – It started that way. My first year was fall 2019 so I got to spend a semester and a half going to campus every day, which is like a 45-minute commute if traffic is okay, so it was a little bit rough. But with the pandemic, you basically had to be a remote worker, and then when people started coming back to campus, I decided I’d just wait a little bit longer than some people because of how long the commute is, and it was unclear if people were going to get to keep coming into campus.

WM – Were there other ways the pandemic affected your work and work for WPI grad workers generally?

GUIN – I think the biggest effect for me was the fact that I wasn’t physically on campus. One of the things that I really appreciated when I first got to WPI, about my lab specifically, is that we put a lot of effort into having a community of workers that help each other and are there to discuss things or give advice. Like if you’re new, there are more experienced graduate workers there that can help you, and when you’re by yourself at home, not in the lab, you just don’t have as many opportunities for that sort of thing. But then it also put a lot of mental stress on people, including me. In general, it just made it harder to keep yourself organized and make progress. There was a lot of variance in how prepared people were for this situation, and as a TA, when you got asked to help out with certain courses at that time, some of them were far more ready to go online than others. In the end, if the course wasn’t well designed to be given online, it increased your workload a lot more than you would have thought, and that definitely impacted my own workload quite a bit.

TEAGAN – I had a similar experience. At the time I was still a teaching assistant, and I was lined up to be teaching assistant for the most advanced physics lab in the physics department, which usually has a very small number of students. They’re doing technical, involved, lengthy experiments, and they do just a couple of them and then write large reports on them. I remember a big crunch was preparing that to be a fully online course. My PI was the professor for the course so we were able to communicate a lot, or more so than if we didn’t know each other, and I put in a lot of work to help get that course in place. It was a good experience because I felt like I was showing up and being on deck for the physics department and for my students. I mean, it was stressful, but not in a problematic way. So that worked out.

But in terms of my research, we’re an experimental lab so we were very big on being able to get in the building and continue to do our hands-on work, which you cannot do remotely and need to do as soon as possible. I think we only lost a couple weeks, or at most a month, where we were totally locked out of the building and couldn’t come in, and we got back in as soon as we possibly could. Because of that difference between my work and folks in, for example, computer science, who can do more remotely if you have to, I was back to my regular, in-the-lab, walking-around, doing-things-type work much faster than a lot of other people.

WM – What were the major driving factors for people wanting to unionize and was there a point where the union drive really got underway in getting card signers?

TEAGAN – I think as organizers and doing walkthroughs and working on the social media team and getting involved, I think Guin could agree that it generally seems to fall under a few categories: money, treatment, and healthcare. And they’re interlinked, but for a lot of folks, unnecessary distress comes from a lack of money, not getting paid enough, and things related to that, like conference expenses being withheld or all kinds of issues with payment, money, and things surrounding money in graduate student life. That’s probably number one, though I don’t know if they’re necessarily rankable. Number two is treatment, so that could be treatment by the administration, like maybe you have a pay issue, and you email the Bursar’s Office, do they give you a big stink about it? Do they make it very difficult? Are they responsive? Or maybe, unfortunately, you have an abusive PI who doesn’t handle emotions well and doesn’t treat you in an upright fashion and pushes you too hard or some other sort of PI abuse. But I would say, for me personally, and I think to some degree generally, a lot of the treatment issues are actually not usually with PIs but with the administration, in terms of how they email us, how they announce things, and how they make changes. Do they ask us before doing something with policy? Those kinds of things. And then I mentioned healthcare. We want full, good healthcare coverage and for it to not be taken out of our salary, and that’s been a real struggle to have that happen.

GUIN – And I do think a lot of how the organizing has picked up so much is at least partially related to the circumstances lately. Things like the pandemic and inflation put a lot of graduate workers in positions where they realized that they were being asked to do more than they could handle or that they were struggling more and not receiving support from the administration when they could be. So it made it more obvious that there are a lot of things that we could benefit from if we organized.

TEAGAN – Yeah, I’d say that the momentum corresponded to our level of organization, and it’s a positive feedback loop.

GUIN – Yeah.

TEAGAN – You get another person willing to be a leader and to go do a walkthrough or to put up a poster or to reach out and talk to a friend, and then they add another person, and it’s a spreading network. That’s why it can be exciting to be an organizer because you’ve experienced exponential growth. Now, there are lulls and there are slow points and disappointments at times, but I would generally say we’ve only brought in more people, more interest, and more energy to continue to bring in more people. I think a real high point for us was establishing leaders in every department, which took a lot of walkthroughs and a lot of emails. That was a big moment. And then, once we had done that, that’s when we decided to drop cards, and that first week of signing cards and those couple weeks, where we were signing cards and we just had this flood of cards coming in and we just saw our numbers going up across all departments and it was going really, really fast, that was probably the most exciting point. Our organizing committee meetings those weeks were full of people, and everybody was really high energy so that was a really awesome time.

WM – You mentioned earlier having been on the Graduate Student Advisory Council, and I’m curious to know what you might make of those who argue that there are these existing structures like that, which are supposedly meant to give you a voice?

TEAGAN – Well, I think as someone who’s going into their sixth year, who has exchanged a lot of emails with the administration, has been to a lot of those meetings and talked with a lot of people on these various boards and things, it would be my tendency to get a bit cynical about it. But I’ll try to divorce myself from that cynicism. I think that those groups are important and play a role in opening a lane of communication and organizing community events. With that said, ultimately, I do not feel that those organizations have fundamental power to advocate for the student body in a way that brings results, and that’s where collective bargaining comes in. That’s the real difference with the union. The buck stops somewhere, and we actually need to sit down and negotiate at the table and work on a contract, and there’s real power behind that negotiation. Because with those other organizations, if it comes down to an uncomfortable decision, it’s not up to the students. And especially in terms of those university announcements and the communications that I’ve had and all the little squabbles I’ve gone through with the administration regarding registering for credits or getting paid right or on time or dealing with conference reimbursements, things often come back to money. And I think the thing that has frustrated a lot of us is that when it really comes down to any decision, when money is on the line, the administration seems to make a decision to make more money. Period. And that hierarchy of decision making filters out into many, many, many subtle places. So in those other groups, if there’s something that comes down to real money, like getting health insurance for everybody or raising pay, they’re going to make the decision that makes them more money and that doesn’t involve giving more money to graduate students.

GUIN – And I think the fact there’s so much enthusiasm and support for organizing a union among the graduate worker population demonstrates that a lot of people feel the same way, that we need another avenue to…

TEAGAN –  Advocate.

GUIN – Advocate, that’s the word I’m looking for. Yes, we need another avenue to advocate for ourselves because the ones that we have currently aren’t sufficient.

WM – One of the grad workers I previously spoke with from the organizing committee at Clark University, a PhD grad worker in their geography department, said that he was paid $19,220 a year in gross pay for a nine-month appointment. Could you share some numbers on what grad worker pay looks like across departments at WPI?

TEAGAN – Well, that’s exactly it, it will change between departments. Generally, I think teaching assistants make around $24,000 over nine months, and research assistants make around $30,000 over 12 months.

GUIN – That’s basically the same experience that I have.

TEAGAN – -ish.

GUIN – Yeah, it’s around that amount.

TEAGAN – I’m not quoting you an exact number because like I said there’s a range, and I don’t know if that’s the exact median but that’s about what I’ve seen.

WM – And I know summer funding is an issue for the grad workers at Clark University too. Could you talk more about how that plays out at WPI right now and what people would like to see change?

GUIN – On the topic of summer funding, and funding in general, the biggest thing that I’ve heard is it pretty much depends on your PI how secure you feel in being funded for the entirety of your time here. For instance, some people aren’t worried about being funded during the summer because their PI will help to make sure that happens, but other people are always worried that they can’t be sure they’ll secure a source of funding. What I think people want is for there to be a consistent, across-the-board ability to be sure that you can be funded for the entire time that you’re here. And I think that’s a pretty reasonable position to take, that it should be more consistent and not anxiety-inducing for so many people.

WM – Could I also ask you both how the rising cost of living is affecting you?

TEAGAN – I haven’t felt it as much myself because I’ve been lucky to have a landlord who has been willing to keep my rent pretty steady for quite a few years, three or four now. That’s had a large impact on my financial situation, and I can say that if that wasn’t the case, I can’t possibly see how I could survive. If my landlord raised my rent by $200, which would make it a pretty reasonable rent actually for the type of place I’m living in, I would be really pinched.

GUIN – It’s definitely affected my situation. I live in Providence, and it’s a pretty high cost of living. I’m also coming to campus more, and that requires a pretty long commute, and gas prices are getting expensive so…

TEAGAN – Gas has been one thing that’s hurt.

GUIN – That’s one of the reasons I haven’t been coming in as much as I planned to this summer! It’s literally just too expensive to do it as often as I want. I was planning on gradually increasing the amount of time I come into campus over the summer until I’m here consistently a few days a week, but I don’t make enough money to do that. And my rent has gone up basically every year I’ve lived here, and I room with three other people. I mean, that’s half the reason I live in Providence, most of the reason I live in Providence — because my roommates are here. If I didn’t room with three other people, there’s no way I could live here, and even then the only reason why I’ve been able to deal with our rent going up every year is because my roommates get raises! We split the cost of rent based on the income we make so when it goes up, I pay more but not as much more as my friends that all get raises.

So the fact that our incomes essentially haven’t changed, even though gas prices are up, inflation is happening, everyone’s rent is going up, I don’t see how any of us could deal with that if we didn’t have situations like these, which shouldn’t be necessary. We should have the ability to deal with the situation based on what’s provided to us, not just these external support systems.

TEAGAN – The university did announce a 2% raise, and that happened to coincide right when we officially announced so… [shrugs shoulders and laughs]

GUIN – Yeah.

TEAGAN – Yeah, we were expecting that, although we weren’t expecting it to be quite so low. When unions announce majority support publicly, we’ve seen other universities then offer a 3% or 4% raise to try to head off the steam. So when we heard it was going to be 2% we were like, wow, OK. I mean, that almost helps us. Often, when 3% or 4% raises are announced, units might lose a couple percentage points of support off of that, but I think we only saw numbers keep going up. I mean, it’s hard to measure that kind of thing, but yeah, 2% is not enough. [laughs] It’s just not.

WM – There’s a similar thing that’s happened with Massachusetts state legislative staff, who are trying to organize two bargaining units, one on the Senate side and one on the House side. The Senate staffers reached a majority of cards signed and asked for recognition, and part of the Senate President’s initial response was to give them a 10% raise. [laughs]

TEAGAN – Yeah, exactly. I mean, if our unit got hit with a 10% raise, that’d be a totally different story, but a 2% raise for me is like $22 per paycheck.

GUIN – Yeah, for a lot of people this won’t even cover a tank of gas to get to work so… [sighs]

WM – And even a 10% raise just barely covers inflation.

TEAGAN – Yes, and our pay has not gone up significantly in the last seven or eight years. It’s jumbled around a bit, and the university administrators sent out a semantic email about that when we were dumping on them for that, but our income has not changed significantly in seven or eight years. And inflation has gone up about 25% in Worcester across everything so…

GUIN – Yeah, people definitely think that their income hasn’t gone up at all, even if you could say it has by, I don’t know, say $20, because it feels to them with inflation and the increasing cost of living like their money is not going as far. I’ve only been here three years, and basically, all raises stopped when the pandemic happened so I’m not sure that I’ve even experienced one, and there are a lot of people here that are in the same boat as well.

WM – I know another big issue for grad workers at some other universities has been harassment issues and grievance procedures. Would you say that there’s dissatisfaction right now with whatever sort of structures or processes WPI has in place, and is this an area where workers want to see changes?

TEAGAN – Yes, it’s absolutely a big deal, graduate student-PI relationships. I would say that a decent majority, 80-90% of PIs that I know about, are at least reasonable or supported by their graduate students, and then there’s some small percentage who are kind of in a gray area, and then there’s a small percentage, less than 5%, that really should not be in the position they’re in and are really, really problematic. But that small percentage leaves behind a wake of people whose careers and mental health have been destroyed and who have lived a lot of suffering because of that. And, as of now, with sexual harassment cases or cases of advisor abuse, in terms of overwork or inappropriate treatment, ultimately, the final decision is up to the department or the university administration. Often they will side with the professor because it’s the easier thing to do, and it’s often the financially incentivized thing to do. There needs to be an objective process for dealing with these cases, and what other units at other universities have looked for in their contracts is to enshrine an impartial third-party negotiator, not aligned with either side, that makes the final decisions. And I think that would be a helpful step toward protecting students and also ensuring justice.

WM – Besides remote work, were there other obstacles to the union drive? I know at Clark University, there are a lot of international students, and one of their tasks was educating them about their rights. Any challenges like that?

TEAGAN – I’m glad you brought up international students. They have been a focus of the organizing committee and a focus of the social media team. We’ve seen that international students are often hesitant to join the cause vocally and publicly, and we see a lot of fear of reprisal. They’re worried that if their PI finds out about this that it’s going to be nasty. They feel like if the university finds out, it could be really nasty, but also, depending on where they’re from, they’re often worried that their country is going to find out about it, and they have concerns about visa officers making decisions about this. There are also concerns that if more and more international students coming to the United States start to unionize, will this affect their home country’s perception and result in a nationally lower visa issuance? With all of this fear, I think the way to deal with it is to educate and inform. People just need information, answers to specific questions, and the answers are usually, “Yes, there is some risk, but it’s less than you think it is, and you’re more protected than you think you are, and if you join in, you protect other people like you.” And that’s the message we want to send to people who might fear retaliation and might feel vulnerable — we’re here to support and protect you, and when we join together, we can protect all of us mutually.

GUIN – Yeah, I do think that the biggest obstacle, so to speak, in cases like that is that the risks are far more well known than the benefits so it’s really just a matter of getting that information out there to the people that aren’t aware of it. I think retaliation is a good example because it’s a pretty common misconception that you should be afraid of retaliation, even though you’d actually be protected from that if you created a union. So yes, I really do think it’s just a matter of getting the information out there to the people that need to hear it.

TEAGAN – Yes, the social media team on our Instagram and Facebook, we’ve been focusing on international students for this month so all of our posts are related to this kind of information. We’ve also been getting testimonials from international students regarding issues that they experience, and I think, ultimately, international students are more vulnerable and therefore stand to benefit the most from a union and the power of collective bargaining.

WM – Given the drop in union density over the past several decades, there are many people today who don’t have the experience of ever having been in a union or maybe even knowing someone who is. Have either of you had any sort of past connection in your life with the labor movement? And when you’re having organizing conversations with other grad workers, what is typically their first reaction to the idea of a union?

GUIN – My dad actually works for a union, like as a union representative, so I’ve always had a pretty positive perception of unions. I think that, in general, what causes the perception of unions to be negative when you talk to someone for the first time is mostly misinformation or lack of exposure. Most people I’ve talked to about it on campus are positive, and I think that’s reflected in how much support there is, but when it comes to people that aren’t positive when you first talk to them about it, it’s mostly just misconceptions. Growing up with my dad, I had the advantage of not being exposed to that as frequently, but really what matters is giving people a real example of the things that they’re misinformed about, and that’s why it’s important to be going around and talking to people face to face and talking about what their concerns are.

TEAGAN – I don’t really have any experiences with unions in my past. And I would say, actually, on my walkthroughs, often when I say “Do you know what a union is?” people pause for a while, and they say “Well, you know, uhhh…” They have a vague idea, but a lot of people certainly do not know the technical details of a grad worker union so on a lot of my walkthroughs I just explain what a union does for folks. Again, information is a big part of this campaign. Now, like I said, I don’t have any other experience with unions, but my perception is that the graduate worker unions in this country have their own sort of distinct aesthetic compared to other unions. I figure they might tend to be a little idealistic, in a good way, and a lot of our unit is young. I think our average age would be lower than most other unions in the country.

Graduate students also tend to be willing to stop and think and ask careful questions, and that’s one thing I’ve noticed a lot as I’ve been speaking with other graduate students face to face about this. Once I explain what a union is, I then suddenly get a very perceptive, specific question. And I do get people who are like, “Yep, sounds great; you don’t need to tell me anything more,” but a lot of people want to have some sort of extended discussion and get into the details.

WM – Sometimes the employer, or even other workers, will make an argument that “Well, maybe you’re not treated the best and maybe you’re not paid all that well, but you’re not going to spend your whole life here. This is like a rite of passage. You’re going to move on to bigger and better things eventually so why can’t you just deal with it?” What would your response be to that perspective?

GUIN – I would have two things to say in response to that, and one would be that a major benefit of organizing into a union is that you’re helping create a structure that can help the people that come after you. It’s a long-lasting thing that can support the rest of the graduate workers that will be here after we’re gone. It’s not even just for our benefit as current graduate student workers, it’s to make something that will last even after we graduate, and I think that’s important and that we shouldn’t just have to bear with it and neither should the students that come after us have to just bear with it. And a good reason why, as you can see from the example of successful graduate worker unions at other institutions, is that they don’t have to bear with it. They unionized and saw the benefits of that and have better working conditions. And I don’t see why we can’t also. What is preventing us from getting the same thing? Or why should we uniquely have to bear with it? I really don’t see that as a compelling argument just because it’s so clear that we don’t have to.

TEAGAN – Yeah, I can add that as an advanced-stage graduate student, I got involved with the movement at the end of my fourth year. And I knew that it was a couple people, a few people, a handful of people at the time when I joined, and I had a vague idea of the timeline, and I was aware that timeline might mean that I was not going to see a contract in my career here at WPI. And the timeline has only solidified more as I’ve continued working with the movement, and it’s always been clear that if I do see a contract, it would be very close to the end of my degree because I plan to graduate in May. So all my energy has been with that in the background. I’m doing this out of frustration but also out of hope. And for the undergraduate students that I work with and mentor. It just feels like the right thing to do. And I think I speak for many other people on the organizing committee and leaders across departments. We have leaders at all different stages of their degree. We have leaders who are involved and are just starting their first year, and we have leaders like me who are going into their sixth. But there are quite a few of us that are in the later stages and, in fact, it’s a pretty even distribution. I think we are a counter to that argument.

WM – Other than that very small raise, how has WPI responded so far? And how do you expect they’ll respond when you seek recognition?

TEAGAN – We’ve seen surprisingly little, especially when we announced a majority. I think we were expecting some sort of more direct response, but we really haven’t seen much, only these kinds of glancing blows like the raise and arguments in little semantic emails. Now, given what we’ve seen with other universities, we do expect an anti-union campaign to start to emerge. Usually, those are in the form of emails from PIs, from administrators, from various people. The emails usually tend to nitpick the campaign’s points and try to undermine faith. They try to sow fear and doubt. But given all our information on previous anti campaigns that other units have shared with us, we think we know what to expect to a large degree, and we’re fairly prepared for that in terms of how we’re going to respond on the ground and through social media and through email. We’ll expect that to ramp up probably once we’ve actually sent our cards to the NLRB and have asked for a vote, and when that vote is actually coming up is probably when we’ll start to see it, when they’re sure that a vote is coming.

WM – Last year, members of the Massachusetts Nurses Association went on strike at St. Vincent Hospital, and in the course of that struggle, one of the things the employer tried to do was claim that patients and doctors had no common interest in the nurses’ demand for safe staffing and that worker action to win this demand was somehow at odds with patients’ interests. Do you see undergrads and your PIs as having a common interest in grad workers not living in precarity?

GUIN – I definitely think there’s a common interest within the broader community. Just as an example, it can be really hard to maintain the research you’re doing and put out quality work if you’re constantly stressed about paying your bills or when you can’t come in based on how much gas costs and things like that. And it’s also relevant, for instance, for the undergraduate students as well because the amount of time that you can dedicate to supporting them and helping them and teaching them can vary drastically if you’re constantly worried about other things, are overworked, or are not being given the support that you need. That can affect the quality of the experience that you’re able to give to the undergraduate students, and that’s something that they would have an interest in. But a lot of the undergraduate students that I’ve talked to about this also have positive feelings toward it because they believe that it’s only fair that graduate students are treated fairly. They’re interested in it because they see us as a part of their community as well, and they want to see us get fair treatment. So I think it’s both. It would benefit them, and they also support it because they really do want to see graduate workers receive fair treatment.

TEAGAN – One of the arguments along the same lines that we’ll expect to hear in the anti campaign is the sort of slice-of-the-pie argument of “Oh, well, if we’re going to give more money to you, we have to get it from somewhere so we’re going to remove undergraduate housing or we’re going to remove graduate housing or we’re going to fire professors or there’s going to be less graduate students.” And when we form a unit, and we’re a cohesive community that can leverage our collective bargaining power, we will leverage that toward contract items, and some of those contract items could potentially apply to those issues. But when we come together as a community and unify our voice and give ourselves a platform, we can use that voice to protect not only ourselves but those around us in our community. Our professors are core to our happiness and ability to do our work as graduate students, the undergraduates are a core part of our community, our facilities are a core part, and the housing is a core part. So if the administration is threatening to take those things away in order to meet our needs while large funds are going into administrative fees and administrative salaries and the endowment, we can say that that’s unacceptable. and that’s not part of our values, and we can advocate for all of those issues. So, in other words, when we come together, we can use our advocacy to protect the entire community and all its values, not just these specific things for our graduate students.

Now, with that said, I also believe that a union is in the best interest of the scientific mission of WPI. That’s because, just like at any company in the nation, the best working conditions attract the best talent, and in order to be the most productive university that puts out the best science, has more graduate students of higher talent levels, and obtains the best grants and is the most competitive in obtaining those grants and funding, we need great working conditions. So improving our working conditions and advocating for the values of our community will only enhance our long-term scientific mission.

WM – And since you bring up mission, universities put a lot of resources into trying to brand themselves and project a certain image, and I’m interested to know if you think there is a gap between the values WPI proclaims and how without a union you feel you have actually been valued as grad workers.

TEAGAN – Like any American university, there’s a sort of boilerplate that comes along with that, and I understand that. But personally, I’d say that I don’t think there’s a huge discrepancy between the university’s public face and its internal treatment. I would say it’s a subtle thing and that the feeling does grow over the years that you work here. I mentioned all the little scrambles I’ve had with the administration. That’s just like I don’t get reimbursed on a conference expense, and then I have to email the payroll office, and they’re like “Ope, nope; you gotta do this thing. You’re out of luck,” and then I email my department head, and then my department head is like “Oh, that’s happening to you?” and then he reaches out to them, and then he straightens it out for me. It’s just like… And in that way, yes, I think there’s a discrepancy there between showing themselves as a great research environment when at least in terms of the emails that I exchanged and my interactions with the administration, it seems to be more about expenses and fees and percentages of grants and things like that. In summary, yes, the university puts out a boilerplate of happy, smiling faces and lots of science and great things, and in reality, it’s a business, and there are hard limits to things. But I don’t think it’s outsized.

GUIN – Yeah, I think that the main thing that makes me glad that I came to WPI and makes it a great place to work and do research is based on a lot of the individuals that I’ve met here and interacted with, and I feel like unionizing is one way to guarantee that everyone gets a good experience, and I think that’s important, that everyone should be able to feel like they have the opportunity to meet the messaging that WPI puts out about that.

WM – And in the past year or so, there have been large new units of grad workers who have successfully unionized at MIT and the University of California and existing ones which have gone on strike at Harvard and Columbia. To what extent have you all been following this wave of organization among other grad workers and have you been in contact at all with grad worker unions elsewhere?

GUIN – We do follow that pretty closely. As a member of the social media team, a lot of time we make posts about this stuff going on at other universities and how it can serve as a guideline for things that we might do here or examples of what unions can accomplish for graduate workers in similar situations. We’ve also been reaching out to some of the other unions, and we’ve received quite a bit of support. I think it can only help us and make the graduate worker community stronger, beyond just WPI, if we connect in that way and work together so that is part of our goal as well.

TEAGAN – We’ve paid a fair amount of attention to MIT and Harvard especially. I think we look east to those universities in a couple different ways, and I think they’ve been to a large part an inspiration in terms of founding a unit and moving the movement forward, but like Guin said, yeah, there’s a lot of other units in the country and they’re all doing stuff and so we’ve been tapping into that and sharing that information with our own unit, which I think is an important part of our campaign. One of our main sort of strategies is to show that everybody’s doing it, and I think that’s a powerful message.

WM – In addition to last year’s St. Vincent nurses strike, next year the Teamsters have their large UPS contract that’s going to come up August 1, and right now, all across the country as well, there are baristas unionizing Starbucks. There’s one right here in Worcester on E Central Street, which is actually on strike right now [at the time of the interview], and so I’m wondering, how do you see yourselves, as WPI grad workers, within the broader labor movement and this labor upsurge?

GUIN – Admittedly, we’re still organizing so the extent to which we’ve gotten involved in those things is not as big as we plan, but we all agree that it’s important that we continue to be members of the community of workers in Worcester because I think that we do share a lot of common interests, and as a unit, we can lend a lot of power if we work together like that.

TEAGAN – One thing the organizing committee has been discussing, earlier this summer and ongoing, is exactly what Guin is talking about, is seeking out community involvement. We haven’t just been waiting for people to reach out to us; we’ve been reaching out to see where we can lend a hand and chip in. And this goes along with what I was saying about my own commitment to the union that I don’t really expect to be on contract for any significant amount of time and that I’m doing it for future student workers. I think everyone on the organizing committee feels that this is not just about increasing our paycheck; this is about establishing a broader community and voice and power. And if something happens with Amazon workers or something like that comes up, we feel that we’re tied to that. And so when things come up in our community in terms of protection of workers and workers’ rights, that absolutely feels like something that we care about, that we will post about on social media, and that we will step out the door and bring a sign to.

The day after this interview, WPI grad workers, including Sabine Hahn (right), joined the picket line at the striking Starbucks on E Central St. WPI GWU

WM – Do you have anything that you’d want to say to grad workers elsewhere who may not yet have a union or have started organizing?

TEAGAN – I would say that you’re not alone, that everyone’s doing it, and that democracy is power.

GUIN – We’re stronger together.

Teagan Bate and Guin Gilman are PhD student workers at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

Shane Levett is on the Steering Committee of Worcester DSA and is a member of DSA’s National Labor Commission.

Thank you to the Massachusetts Nurses Association for allowing use of their Region 2 office for this interview.

Featured image credit: Kenneth C. Zirkel, Boynton Hall, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, CC BY-SA 4.0

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