BU Commencement Picketed for Labor and Palestine

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By Vanessa Bartlett

Graduate workers from BUGWU, Residence Life workers, and graduates from the class of 2024 picketed BU’s commencement ceremony on Sunday.

Boston University’s 151st all-school commencement ceremony was disrupted by a walkout and picket organized in concert by both the Boston University Graduate Workers Union (BUGWU, SEIU-509) and the BU chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (BU SJP). 

The class of 2024 has been through their fair share of trials. In 2020, they came into college during the height of COVID-19 pandemic precautions. This year, they were affected by (and participated in) the wave of pro-Palestine actions at universities across the country. And at BU, they navigated their last semester without the help of graduate workers who typically grade and teach their classes.

This semester, BU administrators blustered through dealing with both issues. Ahead of the commencement protest, BU announced in a mass email that students were not allowed to bring “Placards, banners, bullhorns, noise makers…and full-sized flags.” The email also instructed students to “Refrain from disruptive behavior so all attendees can enjoy the festivities as they are entitled. Persistent heckling, shouting or other interference with an invited speaker is not permissible. Individuals who do not comply with this request will be subject to removal from the field.”

Throughout the spring semester, the university sent mass emails to undergraduate students regarding disruptions to classes caused by the grad union strike, intended to chill student sentiment towards striking workers. These emails did not deter BU community members from continuing to vocally support the grad workers

This email about commencement decorum was just as ineffective at deterring students from protesting for Palestine. Ultimately, about 100 students participated in a walkout following the end of the commencement speech by David Grann, author of Killers of the Flower Moon

“I reject the idea that the administration should have some sort of monopoly over the proceedings of the commencement. If this is supposed to be the day for the graduating seniors, then we should have some say over how it goes,” said Michael Walsh, a graduating senior who participated in the walkout. 

Ruofei Shang, a third-year Anthropology undergrad and member of BU SJP said that the prevailing feeling among graduates ahead of their walkout was anxiety. “It was definitely pretty nerve wracking. But once it got started, and people started moving, and people started chanting and dropping the banners, the energy was definitely really high,” said Shang. 

As the newly graduated students walked out of Nickerson and towards the picket line waving flags, wearing keffiyehs and carrying banners, cheers erupted from those waiting on the picket line. Shang said that many parents and families passing by shared words of encouragement and support for the students who walked out. 

Second-year English PhD student Meiya Sparks Lin said the mood on the picket line was “celebratory.” 

“We’re all incredibly proud of our students, and, you know, are proud of them, not only for graduating, but also for graduating during a semester when many of their courses were interrupted by our strike,” Lin said. 

When will BU learn to listen?

One year ago, writers from WGA East collaborated with BU students and union members to picket and disrupt the commencement ceremony for BU’s class of 2023. The commencement speaker, CEO of Warner Bros-Discovery David Zaslav, was interrupted by constant booing and chanting from students.

This year, another class of BU graduates had to come to terms with their relationship with the university they leave behind. For nine months, the university stonewalled the BUGWU bargaining team, and kept workers on the picket line through the end of the spring semester.

This university has also never addressed BU SJP’s demands, which include disclosure and divestment from investments in Israel, an end to campus-sponsored trips to Israel, and for the university to call for a permanent, unconditional ceasefire.

Graduating senior Walsh said BU should know that these protests and issues are inextricably linked.  “Students do not want their tuition money invested in genocide, instead they would like it to fund the workers and facilities of the university… The grad workers protest and the Palestine protest are really part of that same idea, that we as students and as workers should have a seat at the table when it comes to how the university functions.”

BUGWU Stays On the Picket Line

According to Lin, BUGWU actually offered a solution to BU’s worries about disruptions to graduation: if BU had agreed to give graduate workers a living wage tied to the cost of living in Boston, the ceremony would go on without a picket line outside. 

“BU showed no interest in bargaining over that before commencement. So we went through with it, but you know… this picket line was a celebration of the fact that many students have graduated despite BU, not because of it,” said Lin. 

Looking ahead to the summer, Lin said that BUGWU will continue to strike, but things will look a little different. Rather than daily picketing, the union will focus on fundraising to support members who have lost pay, and hosting community building events. 

“We’re working on throwing sort of like good vibes events for the summer where anyone can stop by, eat food, and just really have an atmosphere of support and community while making sure that we’re organizing and ready for the fall,” Lin said. 

With regard to BU’s continued heel-dragging and consistently poor labor relations, Lin said there’s clearly a pattern. “BU cares much more about profit than about its workers and about workers in general.”

“The way it interacts with, you know, labor unions more broadly. We see that across campus, we’ve got the staff, union ResLife workers, the lecturers union, all fighting for a living wage, and BU has repeatedly failed all of its workers on campus,” said Lin. “The bottom line is that we are prepared to go through the summer, we’re prepared to go through the fall, we are going to strike as long as it takes to make enough to live in the city where we work.”

BUGWU is continuing to raise funds for grad workers on strike experiencing hardship. Of the $155k raised so far, $140k has been disbursed to members who need help paying rent and buying groceries. BUGWU asks that community supporters continue to share their stories and donate to their fund here: givebutter.com/bugwufund

Vanessa Bartlett is a staff organizer for UAW, an editor of Working Mass, and a member of Boston DSA. She has a background in print and radio journalism, but please don’t hold that against her.

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