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Despite massively contributing to Emory University’s research and education, Emory graduate student workers struggle to stay afloat. This is evident in Laney Graduate School’s January 2023 survey, which aimed to assess the cost of living of Emory graduate student workers.

“It is difficult to do good research when you are hungry. It is difficult to do good research when you are so financially stressed,” said one Laney Graduate student in their anonymous response to the survey.

Raising graduate workers’ standard of living is part of the goal of EmoryUnite! — Emory’s own graduate student worker union, which the Emory undergraduate community must actively support. Starvation wages are simply unacceptable for all the labor that graduate student workers do. Emory undergraduate students need to step up to advocate for the prospective union through attending rallies and increasing campus awareness.

The stressors on graduate students extend beyond their time as students. Anxieties over an uncertain post-doctoral job market, especially in academia where positions have historically been inaccessible, weigh on them. As one of the leading institutions in the U.S., it is imperative that Emory takes a significant step to fairly compensate graduate students. In the same manner, it is important that undergraduate students at Emory recognize the fears that graduate students have while supporting the cause.

Unions struggle to form and operate in Georgia because of the state’s right-to-work” law, which prohibits unions from exercising standard practices like enforcing dues and requiring all employees to join the union. Without dues, unions cannot operate, and without strong participation, they lose much of their bargaining power. However, Emory graduate students gained the right to unionize in a 2016 National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruling and now possess the power to set an example for the rest of the state with EmoryUnite! and advocating for Laney Graduate School student worker wages, stipend security and improved working conditions. It’s clear that Emory graduate students have had to overcome incredulous systemic barriers to even organize campus-wide voting for the establishment of a comprehensive union, and it’s vital that undergraduate students and others at Emory foster a supportive environment for student organizers to thrive and advocate for the best agreements for graduate students. 

Graduate students now await the result of an Oct. 16 and 17 election, which will determine whether EmoryUnite! will establish a majority union with the NLRB and become the first graduate worker union in Georgia. If decided in EmoryUnite!’s favor, Emory will be required to bargain with the union and bridge the power inequity between the institution and its graduate workers that its administration and policies have directly caused. 

Even if it does not engage directly in union-busting practices, the University’s aims are opposed to those of the union. Former Laney Dean and Vice Provost for Academic Affairs — Graduate Studies Lisa Tedesco, explicitly responded to EmoryUnite!’s initial unionization effort in a 2017 public statement that “graduate students are not employees,” diminishing their contribution to undergraduate learning environments. Rather, the majority of Emory’s support towards graduate students comes in the form of free tuition, valued at $23,400 per semester. Since higher-education institutions like Emory don’t perceive graduate students as employees, their stipends are thought of as charity, not salaries, and are supposedly enough to support graduate students.

This perspective overlooks the tremendous amount of work that graduate students perform, from teaching classes, developing coursework, engaging in research and acting as mentors for undergraduates. Doctoral students need to be recognized for their labor and compensated fairly for it. In essence, the potential union is negotiating for recognition as workers and fair pay for work — basic rights. 

As students, we see the incredible assistance that graduate students provide in order to enhance our own educational opportunities, and it’s imperative that we stand with them — despite the administration’s continued diminishment of their contributions — in this fight for their livelihoods.

The administration’s response to student organizing efforts illustrates a critical point: Emory’s graduate students are given the same responsibilities as full-time employees but aren’t treated as such. Co-chair of EmoryUnite! David Meer argued that a union would ensure some stability for student workers, as “Emory could at any point drop its student worker stipends in half if it wanted to.” Meer is still on his parents’ health insurance because Emory’s graduate student health insurance does not provide him adequate coverage. If David had children, 15% of his stipend would go towards their dependent’s healthcare—a stipend which is already well below Atlanta’s living wage. 

Jerik Leung, a third-year doctoral student worker and an active organizer with EmoryUnite!, provided some insight into the reality of motivating graduate student workers to unionize. 

“There’s been a larger financial squeeze,” he said in response to the cost-of-living crisis.

Leung also pointed out that within the graduate school, there are large disparities formed by the range of financial stability among students. While some students are able to focus on research and attend classes for their dissertation, others have to dedicate time to their families, part-time work, instructor jobs and fellowship stipends to continue their education. 

The reality that graduates face when simply trying to better their futures through higher education cannot be tolerated by Emory’s undergraduate student body any longer. It’s imperative that students support their graduate student teaching assistants in any way they can.

Overall, Emory’s high student fees, low stipends and limited healthcare benefits, combined with Atlanta’s rising cost of living, put an extreme strain on graduate student finances. Despite a 6.5% national inflation rate in 2022, graduate student salaries have not been increased to match higher costs. The average Laney graduate student makes $36,376, according to MIT’s Living Wage Calculator, which is almost $3,000 less than Atlanta’s $39,372 average wage for a single adult with 0 children in 2023. 

Emory’s position as a leading university also emphasizes the significance of EmoryUnite!’s success as their victory would set the tone for labor organizing at private institutions and other student worker groups in Georgia. Emory has the ability to change the political landscape in Georgia and beyond, so it must be a leader in welcoming this new wave of labor organizing in our state. 

It’s important that undergraduate students support the prospective union by attending any future events dedicated to raising funds, awareness and membership, as graduate students are crucial to Emory’s intellectual culture. By joining their fight for just treatment and fair pay, undergraduates will not only be contributing to a large, nebulous organization. Rather, they will be both supporting graduate students, and in turn, their own futures.  

The above editorial represents the majority opinion of the Wheel’s Editorial Board. The Editorial Board is composed of Evelyn Cho, Marc Goedemans, Sophia Hoar, Carson Kindred, Justin Leach, Eliana Liporace, Elyn Lee, Lola McGuire, Shruti Nemala, Sara Perez, Maddy Prucha, Jaanaki Radhakrishnan and Ilka Tona. 

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The Editorial Board is the official voice of the Emory Wheel and is editorially separate from the Wheel's board of editors.