A group of doctoral students is exploring the option of forming a union to negotiate better work contracts for graduate students serving as teaching assistants and research assistants after an Aug. 23 ruling by the National Labor Relations Board, which enabled student assistants to unionize and collectively bargain.
The NLRB ruled last month that teaching and research assistants at private universities are employees with the right to unionize. The NLRB ruling did not cover undergraduate TAs and research assistants.
The Georgetown Doctoral Student Coalition — a group advocating for better working and learning conditions for doctoral students — formed a working group earlier this year to investigate the implications of unionizing doctoral students. The working group was formed this summer in anticipation of the NLRB ruling.
Jake Earl (GRD ’17), a member of the working group, said the group has not made a decision on whether to support a move to unionize and is waiting for more student input. The working group also plans to hold a broader dialogue on the issue among both graduate and undergraduate students and other staff members at the university.
“The working group is not committed one way or another about unionization. We think it needs to be a democratic decision among the sort of people who would be represented in a union,” Earl said. “We’re just encouraging open conversation among Ph.D. students, undergraduates, administration and faculty.”
A forum will be held by the DSC in October where students will be able to voice questions and concerns about the possibility of unionization, according to Earl.
Senior Director for Strategic Communications Rachel Pugh said the administration is currently examining the NLRB ruling, but that the university is committed to providing an optimal educational experience for the entire campus community
“Georgetown is reviewing the ruling. Student employment is an important component of our learning and living community,” Pugh wrote in an email to The Hoya. “We continue to seek opportunities to make the experience a positive one for all concerned.”
Compensation for Georgetown doctoral students varies considerably. Science doctoral students have free tuition, but their stipend is usually determined by research grants, their doctoral advisor spends — funding provided by faculty advisors — and time spent teaching classes, according to Evan Gardner (GRD ’20), a doctoral student in the chemistry department.
Gardner said unions could potentially allow doctoral students at Georgetown to obtain better job benefits and healthcare plans not currently covered by Georgetown.
“Unions in some sense — in terms of health care or services — would allow for collectivebargaining for you to maybe get more health care, maybe a dental plan, or maybe a vision plan, which aren’t covered,” Gardner said.
Earl said health insurance is a large issue doctoral students face and sudden health-related emergencies throw students into debt.
“Our health care plan is not very good; given the way that it’s structured, if they have some sort of unexpected medical expense [it could] put them pretty deeply into medical debt,” Earl said.
In addition, Earl said the stipends of many doctoral students cannot sufficiently match the cost of living in the city.
“Cost of living is high in D.C. and especially students in the biomedical programs, their wages just aren’t keeping up with the living wage,” Earl said.
According to Gardner, doctoral and other graduate students are in a limbo in choosing whether they would like to be treated as employees or students of the university.
“You are in purgatory. You are between being a student and a paid employee of a company where you get most of the benefits and all sorts of stuff,” Gardner said. “In some cases people like to define you in the way that benefits them the most.”
The working group examined pre-existing graduate student unions at other colleges and institutions and their contracts and agreements, according to Earl.
“We reached out to graduate students who were trying to unionize at other schools, those who had unionized, so at [New York University] and other places,” Earl said. “I looked pretty extensively at graduate student union contracts to see what’s in the contract, what kind of terms they have.”
Diedre Nelms (GRD ’19), a DSC member, said the unionization of doctoral students at NYU enabled students to make progress in gaining benefits for themselves, including better pay and health care.
“Unionization at NYU has achieved really comprehensive health care benefits,” Nelms said. “NYU’s union has achieved paid dental and comprehensive health care, better mental health care programs and also child care subsidies.”
Gardner said tactics such as strikes typically used by unions to gain benefits would most likely not work for some post-doctoral students.
“For my case if I decided something was unfair to me and I decided to go on strike, it would ultimately hurt me even more, because I still need to push my research forward and I still need to do stuff to benefit my academic career,” Gardner said.
Nelms added that unionization could result in conflicts between doctoral students and the union on respective goals of the collective bargaining.
“Sometimes there can be conflicts between the members of the bargaining unit, like the TAs and the union itself,” Nelms said.
Gardner said teaching and research assistants need to pursue a compromise among their opposing interests, as increasing wages may not always benefit the students when it comes to the sciences. Funding for the sciences is grant-based and increased wages may make it difficult to take on new doctoral students.
“If we demand that our salary doubles then your professors can no longer afford to have as many students,” Gardner said. “That’s not necessarily a great thing. There is always sort of a middle ground that people want to reach.”
Earl said he hopes unions can allow for more balanced standards across the university.
“One of the things that we think a union might be able to do is to create some sort of a consistency in terms of work expectations,” Earl said.