BUGWU Grads Hold May Day Rally as Bargaining Continues

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By Vanessa Bartlett

On Wednesday, an estimated 2000 people participated in a May Day rally with the Boston University Graduate Workers Union (BUGWU) to demand that the university provide serious responses to their contract proposals. But in a bargaining session the following day, the university continued to stall, despite some progress in the previous session.

Rally participants begin marching from Marsh Plaza towards Bay State Road

As the spring semester winds down, the university has been flailing to make up for the absence of grad students in classrooms. In an email sent to undergraduates on April 29, interim Provost Kenneth Lutchen assured students that the school remains “focused on supporting students affected by the strike.”

Joe Guidry, a third-year PhD student in the Astronomy department and member of BUGWU’s bargaining committee, took issue with the idea that keeping grad workers out of the classroom is in the best interest of undergraduate students. 

“It’s clear that this university is run by and for the admins and the donors. There is no sense of faculty governance, there’s certainly no sense of democratic agency for the grad workers, or even the undergrads for that matter,” Guidry said. 21,000 undergrads enrolled at BU have had their education disrupted by the strike this semester, and the university is unwilling to meet even basic demands of the graduate workers, leaving no room for the possibility of the union returning to work in their critical capacities as researchers and teachers. 

At the May Day rally, speakers from BUGWU made it clear that they believe their fight is an existential one, which goes beyond pay and benefits, and cuts to the heart of the type of institution BU could be.

“Our strike is working because it is revealing that BU is run by admins like a real estate company that owns a diploma mill, churning out expensive degrees by any means necessary,” Jaira Koh, a BUGWU member, said to the crowd at Marsh Plaza. 

Koh continued, “Every single experience that we’ve had at BU of an actual educational and research institution is the result of brave, caring people outright defying the vision of the administration, and instead carving out small pockets of what the university could be. I’m talking about us. Grads, undergrads, staff and faculty. We are the only reason that this place still feels like it might be worth fighting for.”

This graph from the union shows the stark difference in bargaining participation between BUGWU and the university. 

Guidry explained, “It’s about building a better BU. It’s about making this our university, run by us and for us, run for the people of this university in education, over profit and prestige.”

In his email to undergraduate students, interim provost Freeman boasted about a recent bargaining session where the University and BUGWU reached tentative agreements on six articles. However, Guidry said that in their most recent bargaining session, the university came to the table unprepared and unwilling to TA any more proposals. 

“I believe this is a calculated response,” Guidry confided. “The university does not want to show signs of panic. After the incredible show of force that grad workers, undergrads, faculty and staff demonstrated at our May Day Rally yesterday, I think the university is putting on a brave face and trying to pretend that they are not worried about the looming disruption that will happen over the final grading period.”

“I think it’s very clear our strike is working. And I think it’s manifest in how management is behaving. Both at the bargaining table and their correspondence,” said Guidry.

“On strike: until we WIN!” and “BU works: because WE DO” were some of the chants that rang out across campus on May Day.

In his email to undergraduates, Lutchen attempted to thread a narrative of division between undergraduates whose educational experience was interrupted by grad strikes, and BU faculty who were put under pressure to find alternative ways of teaching without aid of graduate students.

“We want to address head-on BUGWU’s allegations that we are not providing an appropriate and robust educational experience to our students during this time. In the early period of the strike, many faculty and staff went above and beyond to pivot in record time to provide a quality educational experience to the students who were affected by BUGWU’s job action,” Lutchen wrote. 

Apart from calling a five-week-long strike a “job action,” terminology so vague and sanitized as to be completely misleading, and referring to BUGWU’s pointed and justified criticisms of the university’s bargaining strategy as “misinformation” in other parts of the email, Lutchen’s implication of the unpopularity of BUGWU’s position was severely undercut by the massive outpouring of support received by graduate workers at Wednesday’s rally.

Dhruv Kapadia, BU’s undergraduate student body president, spoke at the rally about the importance of solidarity across the BU community. “Undergraduates, graduate students, staff, faculty and alumni are all connected by one shared BU identity,” said Kapadia. “Without solidarity, we are nothing.” 

A statue of BU’s mascot, Rhett the Boston Terrier, watched as the crowd marched past towards One Silber Way

BUGWU and Palestine

The BUGWU strike is happening concurrently with a wave of repression of student expression at universities across the country and in Boston, where over 200 students and community members have been arrested at university encampments. Students who speak up for the rights of Palestinians who have been subject to displacement and genocide at the hands of the U.S.-backed Israeli occupation, are in turn facing increasing police repression and violence, sanctioned by their own universities. 

These students peacefully demand that their universities disclose their financial ties to the Israeli apartheid government and divest from them, and are met with police in riot gear. In much the same way, unions within higher education institutions find themselves on the front lines of a class struggle, between the ruling elites who govern universities and the working-class people responsible for the day-to-day operations of those schools. 

Guidry added, “Our struggle for control over this university can be seen across the country… our struggles as grad workers are not equal to the Palestinians who await imminent invasion and Rafah and elsewhere in the occupied Gaza Strip, but they clearly are interconnected. And that is why we put out our statement of solidarity [with Palestine].”

Ruofei, an undergraduate in the Anthropology department at BU and longtime leader in BU’s Students for Justice in Palestine group, spoke at the rally as well. “Our struggle is rooted in Gaza, where the Zionist entity is still massacring families and starving a besieged population.”

“The experience of suppression of our voices and disregard of our rights to free speech is a struggle that we share with the graduate workers of BU. Graduate workers have been silenced and intimidated by the administration at BU,” said Ruofei.

Ready for the long haul

BUGWU’s May Day rally was confirmation that the union is dedicated to the long-term struggle, and determined to win no matter how long it takes. According to the union, 93% of BUGWU members are rent-burdened. Many utilize food pantries and other services just to be able to eat. Parents are left to figure out for themselves how to pay for childcare. 

Confronted with the seriousness of these concerns, BU has tried to project an image of strength and disinterest for months. However, undergraduates and faculty continue to vocally support graduate workers through their contract fight. That unwavering community support was on display Wednesday, when five weeks into their strike, BUGWU held their biggest rally yet. 

“This is really a tug of war. It is a class struggle. And we’re seeing that with our strike, we are tugging harder than them. Our strike is working. We are strong. They are the ones who can make this tug of war end sooner. We are resolved around our demands, and we have the power to win them,” said Guidry.

Grads march past a banner on Bay State Road which reads, “We are the ones we have been waiting for.

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