Clark University Grad Students Seek to Form a Union

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WORCESTER — On February 9, graduate student workers at Clark University in Worcester formally announced their intent to unionize with Teamsters Local 170.

Clark University Graduate Workers United (CUGWU) said that a supermajority across all departments have signed union authorization cards. They are seeking voluntary recognition but have also filed for a union election with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). They are petitioning for a bargaining unit consisting of 144 student workers. The news from Clark comes one week after the MIT Graduate Student Union filed for the biggest NLRB election so far this year.

As to their inspiration, CUGWU points to “a growing national movement” of grad student unionization and specifically at MIT, Harvard, UMass, Tufts, and Brown. They also cite their push for pandemic protections at the start of this semester and another struggle over healthcare costs last year, where they “learned more about the diverse and intersecting labor issues affecting doctoral student workers and master’s student workers alike.”

At the start of the pandemic, Clark University had raised their insurance premiums by nearly 20%, and in response, graduate students formed Clark Grads Demand Healthcare. In March 2021, they delivered to university leaders a petition signed by 107 PhD student workers — more than half of all PhD students — demanding that the premium hike be rescinded.

After a decade of rising healthcare costs, two months of collective action and pressure forced the university to agree to subsidize 50% of graduate workers’ healthcare costs for that year. The administration also claims an intention to boost this support to 100% of healthcare costs for the 2022-23 academic year, “pending budgetary approval.”

So far the university has not detailed how they will live up to this commitment, and the university does not cover dental, vision, or dependents either. Some student workers also do not receive subsidies at all. Among those excluded are student workers at the Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies and those who have alternative funding sources.

Clark Grads Demand Healthcare evolved into CUGWU, and by collectively bargaining for a binding contract, they believe they can go beyond what can be achieved by the Graduate Student Council. CUGWU aims to “extend the health insurance benefits won by PhD student workers to master’s students and all grad workers,” hold Clark to its commitment to cover 100% of healthcare costs, and expand dental and vision coverage. The grad students also plan to fight to “raise stipends, guarantee summer funding, improve workplace safety in laboratories, create a formal process for addressing sexual harassment, and generally strengthen [their] voices with the university administration.”

Teamsters Local 170 is headquartered in Worcester. They represent techs and therapists at St. Vincent Hospital, Worcester Department of Public Works clerks, ABF freight workers, and other workers.

If Clark University does not voluntarily recognize CUGWU, an NLRB election can be scheduled this semester.

Shane Levett is a Clark alumnus and former undergraduate peer learning assistant, on the Steering Committee of Worcester DSA, an editor at Working Mass, and a member of National DSA’s Democratic Socialist Labor Commission.

Featured image credit: CUGWU-Teamsters

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