Boston University Grad Workers Call for Voluntary Recognition

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By Henry De Groot and Shane Levett

BOSTON — On October 11, the Boston University Graduate Workers Union (BUGWU) called on BU president Robert Brown to voluntarily recognize their union, indicating in a letter that a “growing majority” of BU’s over 3,000 graduate student workers have signed authorization cards. BUGWU is affiliated with SEIU Local 509.

The union called on the BU administration to negotiate “not as adversaires, but as allies in the pursuit of knowledge and to address the issues we face as a community,” highlighting how graduate workers keep the university running. Low pay, housing, and healthcare are some of the key issues the union is organizing to address.

The union drive at BU has been building momentum since graduate workers went public with their renewed campaign on September 2. But as support for the union has grown, so too has administration pushback. The indication that BUGWU has already achieved a majority of their cards after only 6 weeks of public organizing is a credit both to the BUGWU organizers and SEIU 509 staff.

An employer may elect to voluntarily recognize a union if the union can demonstrate that a majority of the workers have signed cards authorizing the union to bargain on their behalf. Voluntary recognition is most common at employers which are sensitive to public criticism; administrations at New York University, Brown, and Georgetown all took the path of voluntary recognition, although it seems unlikely BU’s administration will do so as well.

Boston University was among a number of universities that filed legal briefs with the National Labor Relations Board in 2000, unsuccessfully urging the then-Democratic majority on the board not to allow graduate worker unionization for the first time. The board reversed its position four years later, turning against graduate worker unionization, before another Democratic-controlled NLRB again ruled graduate workers had collective bargaining rights in 2016.

BU opposed a union drive that took off in the wake of that decision, laying out its opposition in a December 2016 letter from Provost Jean Morrison, who was once a union graduate worker at a public university. That previous drive stalled during the Trump administration, when Trump’s appointees on the NLRB made moves in 2019 to block grad worker unionization, and unions withdrew representation petitions to prevent Republicans on the board from setting new precedent.

In the wake of the re-launch of grad worker organizing this fall, the university issued a new letter from Morrison on September 23 outlining why they “continue to oppose a graduate student union at Boston University.”

If an employer refuses to voluntarily recognize the union, then the union cards are submitted to the NLRB, which then oversees a union election. BUGWU has indicated that they plan to file with the NLRB on October 18 if administration does not choose the path of voluntary recognition.

Although the administration has employed “union avoidance” tactics, it is possible that they see the writing on the wall. Over the last few years, the union movement among graduate workers at private schools has grown tremendously, including hard-fought victories at Clark University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology earlier this year and new organizing underway at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

If voluntary recognition is denied, DSA members and labor supporters will be ready to assist BUGWU in their NLRB election campaign, and Working Mass will continue to cover the struggle.

But even as one fight concludes, the next begins, and it will take even more organizing to win a strong first contract for BU graduate workers. If BUGWU continues building a strong organizing committee which energetically engages the larger bargaining unit, confronts and ridicules union-busting tactics, draws on community solidarity, and relies on the strength of the organized workers themselves, they will be well-positioned to win.

Henry De Groot is the Managing Editor of Working Mass, a former graduate student at UMass Amherst, and a member of Boston DSA

Shane Levett is a member of the Steering Committee of Worcester DSA, a correspondent for Working Mass, and a member of the Massachusetts DSA Labor Committee and DSA’s National Labor Commission.

Featured image credit: Shane Levett/Working Mass

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