A group of Emory Laney Graduate School (LGS) students are attempting to form a graduate student union to provide stronger and more formalized representation for graduate students in negotiations with the University.
The union would bargain for higher stipends and more medical benefits for graduate students, as well as address concerns such as declaring the University as a “sanctuary campus.”
The organizing committee, composed of about 40 LGS students, began working with labor union Service Employees International Union (SEIU) at the start of the 2016-17 academic year to organize a local SEIU chapter that would represent LGS students, according to LGS student Jonathan Basile. The group collected about 225 of the necessary 450 signatures for authorization cards that would allow SEIU to submit a formal proposal to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and form a local chapter. If the signatures are verified, the University will hold a vote between LGS students to determine whether SEIU can bargain on behalf of all Emory graduate students.
Basile said the graduate organizing committee started the signature collection in response to an August 2016 NLRB ruling which determined that graduate students at private universities who work as teaching and research assistants are employees, and are therefore subject to federal labor laws and have the right to unionize.
“At present, [graduate students] have very little voice in the conditions of our employment,” Basile said. “Our stipends don’t amount to a living wage; our benefits don’t include basic necessities like dental care or vision. They’re very insufficient benefits for anyone who has a family or tries to start a family while they’re a grad student [at Emory].”
The group hopes to file for a vote before the end of the school year, but said it is likely LGS will place “legal obstacles” in the way of unionizing. Basile pointed to Columbia University, which filed a challenge with the NLRB on the grounds of voter coercion after students at the Columbia Graduate School of Arts and Sciences voting overwhelmingly in favor of unionization, according to The New York Times. In Basile’s ideal scenario, a graduate student union would be established at Emory by the start of the 2017-18 academic year.
LGS Dean Lisa Tedesco declined to interview, but wrote in an email to the Wheel that “Emory’s position is that LGS students teach and do research as part of their graduate education – it is part of their professional development.” Tedesco’s statement serves as the University’s official response, according to Nancy Seideman, associate vice president for media relations.
The graduate organizing committee launched a website to inform people about the benefits of a graduate student union and to address concerns such as potential backlash from professors over unionizing.
Under Georgia’s “right to work” law, graduate students would not be required to join the union or pay union dues. Dues are estimated to be 1 to 2 percent of a member’s annual salary, and the union aims to negotiate salary increases that would exceed the prospective union dues, according to the website. Benefits would go to all LGS students — 1,839 enrolled students as of Fall 2015 — regardless of their membership in the union.
Associate Professor of Interdisciplinary Humanities Angelika Bammer, who signed the petition, said she believes unionization would improve Emory’s community overall by bettering relations between students and faculty. Bammer was a member of a graduate student union at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.
“I have always had the [belief] that if a particular group of people in an institution … [is] able to have some degree of agency or control, or some say in their working conditions, then [they perform better work and it] affects all of us in the community,” Bammer said.
Other institutions, such as Cornell University (N.Y.), offer higher wages than Emory, considering cost of living, and therefore attract more potential graduate students, according to Bammer. The LGS 2017-18 standard salary stipend for Ph.D. students is approximately $24,000 and includes the Emory/Aetna student health insurance plan, according to the LGS website.
Graduate students in Emory’s professional schools, including Emory’s School of Medicine, School of Law and Goizueta Business School, are ineligible to join the union because they do not receive a stipend for researching or teaching, according to Basile.
Basile recognized that some may not support unionizing because LGS stipends are comparable to those at peer institutions. He called stipends for graduate students a “race to the bottom,” in which universities are paying historically low wages and have not been acknowledging students’ contributions to the institutions.
The Graduate Student Government Association (GSGA) is not involved in the attempt to unionize, according to GSGA President and Goizueta Business School graduate student Jared Greenbaum.
Correction (Feb. 22 at 11:50 p.m.): The article incorrectly said that Basile launched the website promoting unionization and started the signature collection. The graduate organizing committee started both the website and signature collection.