Georgetown University’s graduate student union reached a series of agreements with the university regarding COVID-19-pandemic-related rights and protections March 25.
Following nearly a year of negotiations, the Protections and Benefits for Graduate Student Assistants during the COVID-19 pandemic, a series of agreements established between the Georgetown Alliance of Graduate Employees and the university, outline rights for union members and graduate students amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The agreements will remain in effect until the summer term.
For graduate student workers who have experienced uncertainty surrounding their working conditions throughout the past year of bargaining, the agreement has provided relief and a sense of accomplishment, according to Jewel Tomasula (GRD ’22), president of GAGE.
“We are proud that we held our ground and stood up for our rights,” Tomasula wrote in an email to The Hoya. “We’ve proven to University administrators and the broader higher education community that impact bargaining is in fact an appropriate forum for addressing major changes to graduate working conditions.”
The agreements include increased university-provided technology support for teaching assistants and instructors of record to purchase new equipment needed for virtual course instruction. The policies also guarantee greater university transparency and rights for instructors assigned to in-person teaching, access to emergency isolation housing and free parking for graduate research assistants who are currently working on campus.
Throughout the negotiation process, the university pushed back on many of the bargaining team’s proposals with financial concerns on specific topics such as isolation housing and technology reimbursement, according to Jeffrey Tsoi (LAW ’23, GRD ’26), a member of the GAGE bargaining team.
Both parties have reached agreements on all issues because of a shared commitment to prioritize health and safety concerns amid the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a university spokesperson.
“We appreciate the collaborative relationship with GAGE-AFT, and we look forward to continuing our work and building upon the progress already made,” a university spokesperson wrote in an email to The Hoya. “We are grateful for the dedicated work of graduate student assistants in supporting our educational and research mission during these challenging times.”
GAGE ratified its first contract with the university in May 2020 following months of negotiations, online campaigns and a series of strike efforts. The Collective Bargaining Agreement established GAGE as a union and outlined its contractual provisions, such as establishing grievance procedures, expanding medical and parental leave policies and increasing minimums for stipends and wages. After this agreement, the union submitted two demands to the university regarding concerns that graduate workers would be at risk of contracting COVID-19 should they need to return to campus for work in person.
In private bargaining sessions between GAGE and the university during summer 2020, the union submitted a series of six proposals about health protections and wage security for graduate workers and expressed its desire to reach a written letter of agreement on these topics. These proposals led to disagreements between the university and GAGE, despite the union’s growing call for increased COVID-19 protections.
In the fall, the union submitted an official grievance motion that alleged the university breached its contract by failing to negotiate graduate COVID-19 related protections to the chairperson of the Union Grievance Committee, which the university denied. The dispute culminated in an independent arbitrator’s ruling in January that the university originally did not bargain in good faith with GAGE over specific policies related to the COVID-19 pandemic and mandating that the parties return to negotiations on a variety of issues, such as subscriptions to health services and COVID-19 vaccinations.
The established agreement highlights GAGE’s rights to bargain through arbitration, according to Tsoi.
“We are glad to see that the University has honored its contractual obligation and look forward to the continued collaboration in faithfully executing our collective bargaining agreement,” Tsoi wrote in an email to The Hoya.
The union is now meeting with graduate student workers one-on-one to discuss the newly established rights and protections as well as to gather feedback about how graduate students’ work is currently going, according to Tomasula.
“As we look ahead to the summer sessions and the fall semester, we will be organizing to make sure everyone feels comfortable with their working conditions and has their rights respected,” Tomasula wrote.
GAGE is also working with students’ departments to help union members obtain the technology necessary to continue remote learning and reinforcing its mutual aid efforts to best support members facing financial barriers because of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Tomasula.
GAGE hopes the university will continue to include the union in discussions about policies that directly affect graduate student workers, according to Daniel Solomon (SFS ’13, GRD ’23), vice president of GAGE.
“We also hope that these agreements establish new rights and benefits that will improve graduate working conditions long after the pandemic subsides,” Solomon wrote in an email to The Hoya.
Graduate students and the university will have to continue working together to ensure that their agreements are upheld, but the success of the COVID-19 pandemic negotiations indicates positive progress in the parties’ relationship, according to Zachary Park (GRD ’22), an officer on the GAGE executive council.
“At the end of the day, the fight for labor justice here at GU and beyond has and will continue to be a long one, but arbitration and now these side agreements has been a victory on that front and I have faith there are more to come,” Park wrote in an email to The Hoya.