Tufts Graduate Students Are Latest To Vote To Unionize

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A Tufts University sign on the school's campus (Steve McFarland/Flickr)
A Tufts University sign on the school's campus (Steve McFarland/Flickr)

Graduate students at Tufts University have voted to form a union.

The union announced that the "yes" vote had won by a "wide" margin after a count by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) Thursday afternoon. More than 300 students seeking doctorates or MFAs from the university's School of Arts and Sciences will now become members of SEIU Local 509, which represents nearly 20,000 health care workers and educators in Massachusetts, including graduate students at Brandeis University.

The move is part of a wave that began last summer when the NLRB reversed itself, declaring that graduate students at private universities are indeed workers with the right to form unions. Since then, a number of schools have held votes on whether to unionize.

In keeping with a national trend, Tufts campus organizers insisted that they are indeed workers — asked to do research and teach multiple classes each semester. But administrators stuck to the script, too — warning students that collective bargaining could contaminate the timeworn instructional relationship between rising scholars and their universities.

Union advocates at Tufts have few complaints about the school's administration. But they say that academia has changed nationwide, and that what they do for a degree can feel more like a low-paying job than an apprenticeship.

Anna Phillips, a fourth-year doctoral student in physics who worked in support of the union effort, says it would be a mistake to imagine she's being paid to sit in a library, "reading a lot of books, coming up with new arguments."

That represents a fraction of what she's asked to do. "A lot of my work at Tufts has been in the classroom, meeting with individual students, grading papers — a lot of administrative stuff."

In other words, the stereotype doesn't hold — being a graduate student is, often enough, a job like any other.

As a doctoral student in English, James Rizzi earns a stipend of around $21,500 a year. But that includes many weeks of full-time teaching, and doesn't go very far in Medford and Somerville — a part of Greater Boston that grows more expensive every year.

Rizzi, who also organized on behalf of the union, says that when he watches friends from college buy homes and start families, pursuing his doctorate feels like a sacrifice.

"Many of those things are too expensive to do on a graduate student's stipend."

Rizzi says grad students often live with roommates into their 30s and are likely to forgo the typical big expenses that come with adulthood. And there's no guarantee that a good job will be waiting for them upon graduation due to the changing nature of the university.

In 1975, about half of those teaching at universities had tenure or were on their way to getting it — today it's less than a quarter. So organizers argue graduate students are being asked to do more with less certainty of academic work after they graduate.

At Tufts and elsewhere, students are hoping the union will win them better benefits in the interim: adequate coverage for dental care and mental health, professional development, subsidized transportation, even affordable housing.

Tufts administrators have "big concerns" about students seeking those changes with a union, says James Glaser, dean of Tufts' School of Arts and Sciences.

He's troubled by the possibility that students' time at the university — during which they're supposed to be allowed to explore and make mistakes — will become more regimented or even hostile if they're under contract. He worries too that the union may start to interfere in problems of a personal or academic nature.

Glaser concedes the academic job market is uncertain, but he says the path to a professorship has always been that way. He remembers living in a studio apartment with a Murphy bed and a hotplate during his own doctoral study more than 25 years ago.

"Once they leave here, there is a certain amount of instability," Glaser says. "And that, I'm afraid, is not something we can do anything about" — even with a union.

Across the country, administrators at private universities have made similar arguments. But it's worth noting that many public universities have had unionized grad students for decades, and there's evidence that collective bargaining hasn't been corrosive to campus culture.

In a survey conducted at universities with grad student unions in 2000 by Gordon Hewitt, then the head of institutional research at Tufts, 90 percent of professors said that the change hadn't worsened their relationships with students, their ability to teach or mentor, or stifled free speech on campus. A 2013 study found that unionized graduate students feel better supported, and are better paid.

Since the NLRB declared that graduate students at private universities can form unions, a number of schools have voted to unionize, including Columbia and Yale. Brandeis students voted to join SEIU Local 509 earlier this month.

But the progress of the trend is uneven, and some universities are fighting it every step of the way. Harvard students appeared to vote against a union in November, but irregularities with the voter roll will likely lead to a second election later this year. And graduate students at Boston College are still awaiting clarity from the NLRB before they can vote.

And Donald Trump's presidency could have an effect on the process. Though Yale students voted to unionize in February, they haven't made it to the negotiating table. Organizers claim the university is delaying talks so that President Trump can appoint NLRB members who are likely to be more hostile toward unionization efforts. Yale grad students are presently in the middle of a hunger strike opposing the delay.

It looks unlikely that Tufts will follow that course. Patrick Collins, the chief spokesman for Tufts University, said in a statement that although the administration is "disappointed" and "concerned" by the outcome, they "also respect graduate students' right to make this decision and to bargain collectively."

Collins reiterated what Dean James Glaser said ahead of the vote — that the university is prepared to negotiate in good faith with higher education's newest student union.

Editor's note: The web version of this story has been updated to reflect that the students voted in favor of forming a union. The audio version was recorded before the vote was finalized. 

This article was originally published on May 18, 2017.

This segment aired on May 18, 2017.

Max Larkin Reporter, Education
Max Larkin is an education reporter.



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