BU Graduate Workers Build Momentum on Union Drive

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By Eli Gerzon

Boston – Last week, a lively crowd of a few hundred rallied on Marsh Plaza at Boston University in support of Boston University Graduate Workers United (BUGWU). The union went public this month and is now building up support in the lead-up to eventually filing for a vote to unionize.

Speakers talked about how vital graduate student workers are for the basic functioning of the university through teaching classes and conducting research.

“I try not to use the word ‘student’ that much because we actually are workers,” said Katie Myer, a third-year doctoral student of special education.

Long Hours, Low Pay

Officially graduate workers at BU are supposed to work 20 hours a week, but every grad worker who spoke with Working Mass testified to working far more than that. Alex Lion, a fifth-year grad worker in the biology department, said she averages 10 hours a day or 50 hours a week. But Lion said it can be even more than that: “I had a week where, fairly recently actually, where I worked 14 hours for four days. And that hurt.”

Grad workers are paid between $25,000 and $45,000 per year. BUGWU is demanding every grad worker receive a living wage which, according to MIT’s Living Wage Calculator, is $46,918 in the Boston area.

Wages are so low multiple people talked about grad workers struggling to pay rent and get food. People in the school of social work have started a food pantry for BU grad workers and some students help each other get on the government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP or “food stamps”). The wages paid by BU are so unsustainable that they need to be subsidized by public tax dollars.

Additionally, many BU grad workers don’t receive a paycheck in the summer for a few weeks or even a few months at a time, and some are not allowed to work at other jobs while they are part of the BU grad program.

Some years Lion ate so little she actually lost weight: “I think the worst one was 15 pounds… I frequently would go down to one meal a day. Yeah, it was a lot of splitting meals up into multiple smaller meals, so I could make it last longer.”

Why are grad workers skipping meals when BU recently bragged about the growth of their  “roughly $3 billion” endowment under the leadership of BU president Robert A. Brown?

Fighting Back on Low Wages and Injustice

The union effort goes beyond the need for a living wage. Nairan Wu from the BU linguistics department said at the rally, “We don’t just want higher wages, we want control of how we work and what we research. We don’t just want a piece of the pie, we want the whole bakery!”

After the rally, Working Mass spoke with Greer Hamilton, a doctoral candidate of social work. She said she’s “fortunate” because BU recently increased her salary from $27,000 to $29,000, and she’s been “privileged” to be able to work multiple jobs. “So I can piece together my income. But for many students, that’s not a possibility.”

Hamilton joined the union effort this past spring and has been active in the union’s caucuses. “I’m part of the Black grad workers caucus. And we have a larger monthly meeting of all the caucuses.”

Hamilton shared how the union campaign is an opportunity to overcome the isolation she feels as a Black worker. “There’s not many Black students across campus. I’m fortunate where there’s three of us in my program. So I have community. But I didn’t know that there was Joshua [Lawrence Lazard], I met him today, for example. There’s no real way to form communities. So I think for us right now, we’re focusing on that. And then thinking about: how do we tie what we want to the larger union projects?”

On the BUGWU website they list their primary issues as a living wage, comprehensive health care coverage, international student rights, workload protections, and housing justice.

A few speakers at the rally spoke about the unique challenges and fears faced by international students, with some noting fears that being involved in the union could lead to deportation. “Then I realized: that’s why I need to join the union. We will be stronger and safer together!”

Administration Launches ‘Union-Avoidance’ Campaign

A few days after the rally, on Friday, September 23, BU went on the offensive, explaining why they “oppose a graduate student union at Boston University.” A copy of that email can be read here.

Knowing that their efforts would face resistance, weeks before the email was sent out, BUGWU created a BINGO card predicting some of the union-busting talking points that the BU administration might use.

Just over an hour after the email was sent out, BUGWU sent a tweet declaring, “We got BINGO!” By their count, the administration had already used 10 of the 24 talking points they had predicted.

The comparisons below between BUGWU’s BINGO card and the administration’s union-busting efforts show the impressive ability of BUGWU to predict administration tactics. Undoubtedly, the BU graduate campaign has learned lessons from the other graduate campaigns that have unfolded across Boston and the country, empowering them to get ahead of the administration’s messaging.

BINGO PREDICTION: “The union is an outside organization.”

ACTUAL EMAIL: “I truly believe that representation by an outside, non-academic third party in our University community would change the fundamental relationship that currently benefits our students.”

BINGO PREDICTION: “One contract can’t cover everyone.”

ACTUAL EMAIL: “A one-size-fits-all union model is fundamentally incompatible with an intellectually diverse and academically complex university.”

BINGO PREDICTION: “Things could get worse!”

ACTUAL EMAIL: “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.”

On Thursday, September 29, BUGWU tweeted out an account of PhD students having their instruction time disrupted by an hour-long lecture on “why they as graduate workers did not deserve a living wage. This has never before been a standard part of the syllabus in this class.”

Solidarity From Graduate Workers Across Boston

Other grad workers in the Boston area have dealt with similar rhetoric and won unions and contracts quite recently.

Christian Cmehil-Warn is on the bargaining committee for the MIT Graduate Student Union (MIT GSU) and held a banner for his union at the BU rally. Cmehil-Warn said he was excited to be there to support BU grad workers and had some encouraging news from MIT: “So our election was in April and we started bargaining [for a contract] yesterday… There is hope! We got there. And it went pretty well, I would say.”

Going from a union vote to contract negotiations in five months is indeed hopeful. By contrast, over 200 Starbucks stores in the United States have voted to unionize, and none of them have started formal negotiations with Starbucks almost a year later for some of those stores.

Marisa Borreggine from Harvard Graduate Students Union (HGSU) was at the rally along with others from Harvard. HGSU recently won their second contract after first voting to unionize in 2018. With HGSU’s union efforts further along than the BU campaign, Borreggine offered advice based on their experiences.

“You have to be willing to put up a unified front and know that the end goal [is] having a strong contract that has protections against harassment and discrimination, has fair wages and has anything that the workers put as their top priority,” Borreggine shared. “We should not let the university divide us right now.”

Protection from sexual harassment and other misconduct is an underappreciated reason to join a union. Amulya Mandava, vice president of HGSU, is one of three women who sued Harvard in February 2022 over accusations the university for years ignored sexual harassment of students by John Comaroff, an anthropology professor.

Mandava spoke at the rally about being “threatened with career-ending retaliation by a professor who was engaging in sexual misconduct. Finally, I was able to speak up with others he sexually harassed and retaliated against with the help of our union. Unions help us have a safer place to work.”

Many professors at BU support the unionization effort. Raul Fernandez, a senior lecturer in the Higher Education Administration program at BU and former candidate for state representative, spoke at the rally. Fernandez said he is a proud union member and knows that the decision to join a union is not taken lightly: “We don’t join unions because we want to, we join unions because we need to!”

Most people who spoke with Working Mass had joined the unionization effort in the last few months or sometime last year. Zach Coto has been part of the unionization effort since its beginnings in 2016. Coto does research on ants and social behavior in the biology department at BU. He talked about the importance of all workers supporting each other, and how he and other BU grad workers supported Starbucks workers on strike nearby at 874 Commonwealth Avenue.

“That’s how everyone in Boston, all workers, are gonna get ahead. If you’re a worker: be in solidarity with your fellow workers and everyone else as well. It’s so important. So important.”

Eli Gerzon is a freelance writer, social media consultant, gardener, and Tarot card reader. They are an active member of Boston DSA and Jewish Voice for Peace – Boston.

Featured image: BU grad workers and supporters rally outside BU’s Marsh Chapel on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston. Shane Levett/Working Mass

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