Graduate students who work for Georgetown University in the essential roles of teaching and research are all too familiar with the way administrators unilaterally change the terms of our work — even when our livelihood, well-being and health are at stake.
In order to have a formal voice at the bargaining table in the terms and conditions that determine our livelihoods, graduate workers organized and, through a supermajority vote in fall 2018, formed our graduate union, the Georgetown Alliance of Graduate Employees. Our right to have our collective voice heard at the bargaining table has assumed even deeper importance as the university’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has changed conditions for all workers at Georgetown, including graduate workers. Unfortunately, the administration has failed to honor GAGE’s right to bargain a COVID-19 agreement, and we must pursue arbitration to reaffirm our right.
GAGE seeks a COVID-19 agreement because graduate workers need a binding document that sets transparent and equitable terms of their work for the duration of the pandemic. Public health experts have cautioned that social distancing and closures of high-risk settings should remain in place until an effective vaccine is widely available. The administration nonetheless has only announced its specific policies on graduate work for fall 2020 and explicitly stated graduate workers should plan to work on campus in spring 2021 or risk losing their income. The administration’s last-minute planning and refusal to prepare beyond this semester are irresponsible and unacceptable, further intensifying the uncertainty countless graduate workers are already experiencing.
GAGE’s right to bargain over impacts and unanticipated issues is unambiguously enshrined in Article III, Section 9 of our 2020 Collective Bargaining Agreement. Nonetheless, the administration claims all our concerns are addressed by the collective bargaining agreement we signed May 1. Let us be clear: This claim is a disingenuous and cynical stance that willfully ignores the impact of dramatic policy changes instituted by the administration during the summer. It purposefully disregards our new understanding of the severe health risks of the coronavirus, which are developing even now, seven months after the initial national emergency declaration, and were not as apparent when we negotiated our contract with the university. We also know full well that the administration claims to work with GAGE “in good faith” to discuss our concerns. Ultimately, however, the administration’s unilateral policy changes are not the same as a bargained agreement.
When we, as GAGE’s representatives, sent our demand for impact bargaining in mid-July, we believed it would be a swift process to improve policies and formalize them in an agreement. Further, in line with the values espoused in Georgetown’s Just Employment Policy, we expected the administration would want to meet and work with us toward an agreement that would protect the health and safety of graduate workers. Instead, we find ourselves, over two months later, preparing for arbitration in response to the university’s disrespect of our rights as a union.
By taking our dispute with the Georgetown administration to arbitration, GAGE is upholding its commitment to fighting for the strongest possible protections for graduate workers during this crisis. It seems to us that by refusing to bargain and taking this dispute to arbitration, Georgetown administrators are most invested in upholding their unilateral power over the lives of graduate workers. We are disappointed the administration would rather spend funds on arbitration, a tactic to delay addressing our concerns, than provide graduate workers transparency, accountability and certainty over our terms of work during an unprecedented public health and economic crisis.
Our demand of the administration is simple: Honor our right to bargain over the terms and conditions of our employment, and reach a COVID-19 agreement with GAGE that protects the health and guarantees the job security of graduate workers. Let us teach and conduct research while determining for ourselves whether we feel comfortable shouldering the health risks of working on campus. We all face risks of COVID-19 exposure in conducting our work as Georgetown employees or students, and how we confront those risks should be our choice.
As the Georgetown community navigates the challenges of a pandemic and an uncertain future, it is essential the administration bargains with the intent to reach a COVID-19 agreement with GAGE.
Jewel Tomasula is a fourth year in the biology doctoral program. Daniel Solomon is a third year in the government doctoral program. Arianna Janoff is a fourth year in the linguistics doctoral program. Jeffrey Tsoi is a second year in the philosophy doctoral and law degree program. Zachory Park is a fourth year in the biology doctoral program.