Members of Georgetown University’s graduate student union ratified the union’s first contract with the university May 8 after months of negotiations, renewed strike efforts and an extensive online campaign.
The agreement includes pay raises, expanded health benefits and improved mental health services. The Georgetown Alliance of Graduate Employees reached a tentative agreement with the university May 1. GAGE started weekly bargaining sessions with the university in January. After these negotiations reached a standstill, union members revitalized strike efforts March 3 with a sit-in held in the Intercultural Center to commemorate the first anniversary of contract negotiations with the university.
The contract marks a significant milestone in GAGE’s fight for improved conditions for graduate workers, according to Jeremy Canfield, a GAGE activist and first-year candidate for a doctoral degree in physics.
“We have held strong and fought for the dignity and rights of all of our members, and held the university accountable to its Jesuit Values, and this tentative agreement is a huge win in that struggle,” Canfield wrote in a message to The Hoya. “I, personally, find myself reflecting with gratitude on those who came before me, the grad workers who fought to get GAGE where we are today, only to graduate and move on before getting the contract.”
As a result of the contract, graduate workers on nine-month contracts will receive a 12% pay boost to $32,500, and those workers on 12-month contracts will see a 15% pay increase to $35,500. Hourly wages, previously set at the Washington, D.C. minimum wage of $14 an hour, will increase to $19.50. The new contract also offers doctoral students full dental insurance and grants them flexible parental leave and six weeks of paid sick leave.
The university administration previously set graduate student stipends and benefits in concert with the Executive Committee of the Graduate School, a body of deans and faculty responsible for formulating graduate student policy. For the 2019-20 academic year, main campus doctoral students received an annual stipend of $29,000.
The contract also lowers the maximum out-of-pocket fees graduate workers and their families must pay to cover medical fees, according to GAGE bargaining committee member Jewel Tomasula. In addition, the university agreed to increase the capacity and diversity of Georgetown’s Counseling and Psychiatric Services.
The university is satisfied with the union contract, a university spokesperson wrote in an email to The Hoya.
“We are pleased to have reached this tentative agreement with GAGE/AFT and look forward to the result of their ratification process,” a university spokesperson wrote before the contract’s ratification. “We are grateful for the leadership and collaboration shown by both parties in order to reach an agreement in these challenging times.”
After March 16, the union engaged in virtual bargaining sessions with university officials through Zoom after being forced to shift their lobbying efforts online because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Union members have also phoned the Office of the President, circulated online petitions and shared their stories through social media to maintain pressure on the university.
Graduate students voted to unionize in November 2018 following a yearlong effort to receive official recognition from the university. In February 2019, the group elected 14 members to a bargaining committee to negotiate contract terms with the university.
Though the contract is a momentous achievement, the fight for graduate workers’ rights will continue, according to Canfield.
“This is a big win and the fight does not end here,” Canfield wrote. “I, along with all of GAGE, am committed to continue to advocate and fight for justice for graduate workers, at Georgetown, and in the larger community.”