Georgetown University’s nearly 1,100 graduate student assistants are set to vote on whether or not to unionize, after a two-yearlong effort by the Georgetown Alliance of Graduate Employees for university recognition of a graduate teaching assistant labor union.
The election, to be held between Nov. 5 and Nov. 8, is being moderated by the American Arbitration Association, a neutral third party.
Eligible students will be able to vote at Lauinger Library, the Intercultural Center, Regents Hall or the Preclinical Science Building between 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. each day of the election.
The ballots are secret, and graduate students eligible to vote include doctoral, graduate or student research assistants; doctoral, graduate or student teaching assistants; and doctoral teaching associates.
Graduate student assistants, as they are called collectively, must either currently be holding one of these positions or have held one within the past two semesters to participate in the vote.
If GAGE wins the election, the organization will gain collective bargaining rights on stipend amounts, wage rates, benefits, hours and similar matters, according to the April 2 election agreement between the GAGE and the university. GAGE would not gain bargaining rights on academic issues like tuition rates or degree requirements.
Graduate student workers are not currently represented by a union and are paid at varying rates.
“We value our graduate students, who are an important part of our academic community,” Provost Robert Groves and Executive Vice President for Health Sciences Edward Healton wrote in an Oct. 22 universitywide email. “Georgetown is committed to continuing to enhance the resources provided to graduate students.”
Chad Frazier, a seventh-year doctoral student and former member of the GAGE Election Negotiation Committee, said holding the election is a key marker in the push to unionize.
“I think that the coming election will represent a major turning point for graduate student-workers at Georgetown,” Frazier wrote in an email to The Hoya. “Since GAGE first began to organize a union in January 2017, we’ve had thousands of conversations with graduate student-workers across campus about the issues that matter to them: stipends and hourly wages, health insurance, sexual harassment, transparency with job postings, parental and family leave, and much more!”
Douglas McRae, a graduate worker and fifth-year doctoral candidate in the department of history, said that the election will allow graduate students’ voices to be heard.
“This election is important for graduate workers because it is our chance to bring our collective voice to bear on our working conditions,” McRae wrote in an email to The Hoya. “We provide value to the ununiversity through our teaching and research, and the recognition of GAGE will allow us to improve the conditions in which we provide that value, as well as affirm Georgetown’s commitment to social justice in the workplace.”
GAGE is affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers, a nationwide union representing over 1.7 million members. The vote presents two options, to unionize or to not, and if a majority vote in favor of unionization, GAGE and AFT will become the collective bargaining agent for all graduate student assistants, according to Georgetown University.
“I hope, of course, that we win our election, and by a large margin,” McRae said. “I hope not just that we win, but also that the administration recognizes those results and duly bargains with us as employees of Georgetown.”
GAGE filed to hold an election this semester on Oct. 8, putting the actual election almost a month after the initial filing. The election filing came nearly a year after GAGE first demanded university recognition and the start of contract negotiations Nov. 1, 2017.
Frazier, who worked on GAGE negotiations with the university, said conversations with graduate student workers demonstrated the importance of unionizing.
“These conversations have all underscored the need for an organization that can bargain with the administration on more or less equal footing,” Frazier wrote.
Following GAGE’s November 2017 letter asking for recognition, the university initially declined to recognize the organization Dec. 4, 2017. GAGE continued to negotiate with the university, and on April 2, 2018, announced an agreement to hold an election during the fall semester.
Over six months later, the upcoming election will determine the next steps for GAGE and graduate student assistants.
“Organizing is a way to connect workers and teachers across departments and make it easier for us to support each other,” Deidre Nelms, a teaching associate and fourth year doctoral candidate in the department of philosophy, said in an email to The Hoya. “When hundreds of us are united in a recognized union, we’ll be able to bargain with the university for an improved, stable contract.”
The university maintains that it is remaining neutral during the election, encouraging graduate students to learn more about unionization and to vote.
Graduate student teaching assistants are considered university employees under the regulations of the National Labor Relations Board since an August 2016 ruling. However, this ruling could be challenged in the future. A third-party organization administering the election ensures the result if the ruling is ever reversed and that the university cannot legally challenge the election outcome.
Graduate students at Harvard University held a similar election in November 2017 under the NLRB, and the students elected to form a union, according to The Washington Post. The university challenged the election, but the NLRB rejected the appeal in July 2017 and mandated that another election be held. The students voted again in April 2018 to form a union, according to The Washington Post.
Should Georgetown graduate students elect not to form a union in November, the university will continue to improve student worker conditions, according to Groves and Healton.
“Georgetown will continue its efforts to improve conditions for graduate students if a union is not elected and will bargain in good faith if one is elected,” Groves and Healton said.
This post has been updated at 12:10 a.m. on Oct. 29 to reflect the National Labor Relations Board’s classification of graduate student teaching assistants as employees.