Person of the Year: The Graduate Employees Union

In mid-January 2015, an email arrived in the inboxes of graduate students across Boston College. The Provost’s Office, they are told, has agreed to fund health insurance for those within the first five years of a Ph.D. program, plus students on Dissertation Fellowships. Then followed a bit of a surprise.


“We will no longer fund health insurance for [master’s] students or PhD students beyond their fifth year (with the exception of Dissertation Fellows),” the email read. “This commitment is for the 2015-16 academic year.”


By the time that message was sent out, Jordan Theriault, GMCAS ’17, had already worked with some other students to try to organize a student government among graduate students in arts and sciences as part of an effort to supplement the Graduate Student Association (GSA). That came, in part, out of graduate students in psychology not getting paid more to teach courses than they made as TAs.


“The line was that we were lucky to have the privilege, that it was a good learning opportunity,” Theriault said. “But we weren’t going to get paid for it.”


It was a success, he said, and they negotiated a pay raise after they learned that other departments paid more for the additional effort. After they formed GASA, the acronym for the arts and sciences graduate student government, he got involved with the BC Graduate Employees Union, which started in spring 2015. They got that email around the same time, which opened a lot of eyes to something big: nothing was guaranteed. All grad students had was an acceptance letter, with benefits and compensation that could in theory change at a moment’s notice.


“Nobody promises anything, but they say ‘If you come here, this is likely what will happen,” said Betsy Pingree, a first-year history Ph.D. student who was in the master’s program at the time. “So it was kind of like, ‘Oh wait, I’m not going to have health care? Or I’m going to have to continue to pay for it? That’s really terrifying.’”


Having to pay for health care would mean a sudden $5,000 expense taken out of a $20,000 stipend, she said.


“The rug sort of got pulled out from under us, and it was just a mad scramble to figure out what’s going to happen,” Theriault said. His group talked with administrators, but made little headway—they found the avenues for dealing with the policy change were pretty narrow. Eventually BC conceded that as long as the University was paying Ph.D. students a stipend, the students would still have their health insurance covered. But master’s student employees, who had previously received insurance and tuition remission in addition to their stipends, suddenly went without. It’s not even clear how much influence the students had in the negotiations to secure Ph.D. employees’ benefits, because they ended up largely out of the loop.


“Unless you have something that brings people to the table, and you have a contract to make sure that your rights are protected, that you know what’s gonna be happening going forward, it’s very hard to be secure,” Theriault said.


Maybe more than anything, that’s what the Graduate Employees Union is about—security, a seat at the table, a say in what’s happening. It’s an attempt to prevent that email, or at the very least to know about it before it’s sent. It’s about grassroots organizers and young parents. It’s about the grad students who form the backbone of the academic experience at BC, grading exams and planning lessons for undergrads while they juggle their own lives and work through their own degrees. It’s about all those things, and it’s why The Heights’ Person of the Year for 2016-17 is not one, but many.

[aesop_gallery id=”5679″ revealfx=”off”]

When the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled in August 2016 that graduate student employees at Columbia University and private universities in general have collective bargaining rights, the Graduate Employees Union (BCGEU) had already been laying the groundwork for over a year. It started with initial interest meetings in the spring of 2015 to get a sense of how other schools’ unions operate. The union expected the NLRB’s ruling, and started planning accordingly, trying to build up enough support to file for an election. In order for that to happen, 30 percent of graduate student workers needed to fill out an anonymous Authorization Card indicating their support for unionization.


Then, in early March, they filed with the NLRB for an election, starting a process of hearings between union members, the United Auto Workers, and BC’s lawyers, and then a waiting period while the NLRB made its decision about whether BC can have an election. BCGEU was at first optimistic that the election—which requires 50 percent support from graduate student workers to establish bargaining rights with BC—would be held this semester, but the official NLRB ruling has not yet been released.


BC, just as Harvard, Northeastern, and other schools have done in recent months, put forward its case for why the union shouldn’t get collective bargaining rights. According to BC’s general counsel, Joe Herlihy, the University’s post-hearing brief argues for three reasons that the NLRB lacks jurisdiction over the relationship between BC and its graduate employees. First, the University argues that the Columbia case was wrongly decided, because graduate employees are primarily students and their work is part of their education. Second, BC provides a lot of teaching resources to its graduate students, including the Center for Teaching Excellence, “making more clear than was the case in Columbia, that the relationship between graduate student assistants and Boston College is educational.” And third, BC argued that graduate student employees contribute to the University’s religious mission, setting up a possible First Amendment violation if the government were to become involved.  


But it doesn’t really matter anymore. David Sessions, one of the organizers and GMCAS ’22, said that if the Boston NLRB were to overturn the Columbia decision by ruling in favor of BC, it’d be a major precedent that would likely then be overturned by the D.C. branch. Besides, Sessions estimates that they already have 50 percent support. A collective bargaining agreement is probably imminent. At this point, it’s a waiting game. One of the reasons they filed for the election now is that if President Donald Trump can make enough appointments to the NLRB, a new ruling could overturn graduate students’ collective bargaining rights. Late last month, Trump appointed Philip Miscimarra, a Republican who has expressed anti-collective bargaining views, as the NLRB’s new chair. He’s still in the minority on the board, but that could change with time.


And as interviews with a dozen graduate student employees suggest, from improved compensation and benefits to transparency and free expression rights, a collective bargaining agreement could make waves on campus and in students’ personal lives.

[aesop_quote type=”block” background=”#800000″ text=”#ffffff” width=”100%” align=”center” size=”2″ quote=”"[For] a Ph.D., you’re not a student. You have a job, especially after those first couple years."” cite=”Aaron Rose, GMCAS ’17” parallax=”off” direction=”left” revealfx=”off”]




Pay for Ph.D. students differs across departments. In history, for example, it’s around $20,000 a year, while in some of the sciences and economics, it can be about $30,000 or a bit higher. For many people, it’s not enough to live on in Boston—Caliesha Comley, a third-year Ph.D. student in sociology, has five paying jobs just to keep up with the bills. In his program, Chad Olle, LGSOE ’17, makes an $18,000 stipend for nine months, all but requiring students to find other sources of funding or work during the summer. In the Law School, where the employment structure is much different, Ian Gillespie, BC Law ’18, makes $11 an hour doing a research job for which a lawyer could make far more.


BC maintains that its students are paid stipends competitive with peer institutions.


“Boston College has long enjoyed positive relationships with its graduate students and is grateful for their participation in the life of the University,” Associate Dean for Admissions and Administration Robert Howe said in an email.


But many of the students interviewed discussed the challenges caused by low pay. Some said making ends meet would be challenging without the support of a partner’s salary. Pingree’s husband, for example, is a Navy veteran on the G.I. Bill and receives disability payments from the government, enabling them to live in Boston.


“Having to rely on your spouse being injured in the military so that you can survive is kind of messed up,” she said.


And for master’s student employees, pay is effectively cancelled out by tuition, which often leads to student loans or forces students to depend on their families.


Low pay also impacts where students can live. Peter Berard, GMCAS ’17, lives in Watertown because it’s within rough striking distance of BC and, with roommates, is affordable. Olle lives in Brighton, one of the least expensive places to live around Boston, and it’s still a struggle to pay rent, eat, and have money left over. He has had to take out tens of thousands of dollars in federal loans. Several students highlighted the fact that their stipends don’t increase at the same rate as the cost of living in the area.


In contrast, Aaron Rose, GMCAS ’17, lives in graduate student housing at MIT. His wife is a Ph.D. student in engineering, and the two live for far cheaper than non-university housing would be in Brighton. Non-BC students like Rose’s wife can make $35,000 or more in science or engineering fields.


A general assumption about graduate students, Berard said, is that for somebody to apply to a Ph.D. program, they must come from money and can therefore get family support to supplement the low pay. He argues that that assumption harms diversity among students by eliminating working-class people who can’t afford to make so little money for years.


Comley grew up in rural Kentucky in a working-class family, and she said most of the students she has class or works with come from similar lower-income backgrounds. As a grad worker at BC, her experience with job insecurity and a low stipend has pretty much been the same as when she was growing up.


“I would say it’s an insecure time for a lot of us,” she said.


Grad students at BC also don’t have dental insurance, so Olle, for example, forgoes the semi-annual cleanings he’d have had before coming to BC. When he needs to see a dentist he goes through Tufts, which is a little cheaper because it has a dental school—still, he has to pay out of pocket.


“It’s one of those things that if you don’t have the support from elsewhere you kind of have to sacrifice,” he said. “Which sucks, because that’s your health.”


Mikayla Robinson, GMCAS ’17, started at BC just as the new policy on master’s students’ health care and tuition remission took effect, making it a little tougher at first when she was trying to figure out housing. She searched on Craigslist for weeks to find an apartment that required a bit less money up front, because she didn’t have much in savings to offset the cost of moving.


Another issue is that graduate TAs in history don’t get their first paycheck until Sept. 15, after they’ve had to pay a month’s rent, meaning they need a big lump sum right off the bat. They also don’t get paid in January, so they have to budget their money to get them from Dec. 15 to Feb. 15 without a paycheck. A goal for the union’s contract could be to revise the pay schedule, whether to negotiate biweekly payments or to move up paychecks to the very beginning of the school year.


Besides the low pay, some Ph.D. students, Sessions said, are teaching three or four sections in addition to their coursework or research, stretching them really thin.


“It’s also bad for [undergraduates],” he said. “Right now I have two discussion sections. I know everybody’s names, I know what they look like. It’s just much better. I feel like they’re getting closer to the education they come here to get.”


“Making sure we’re the best teachers we can be, making sure we’re the best students we can be, doing the best research we can do, in order to graduate in five years, which is a really compressed time frame—it’s exhausting,” Pingree said.


It can get to the point that Ph.D. students spend so much time working that it takes them longer to finish. As Pingree said, the official length of the history Ph.D. program is five years, but it can easily take more, which was one of the biggest issues with the 2015 email that would have cut off health insurance past the fifth year. Rose estimated the average Ph.D. completion time in physics at somewhere over six years, for example.


“Even though the department would like us to graduate in five, it’s not super realistic, it’s not the national average, especially if you’re involved in experiments that could take seven or eight years,” said Victoria Gabriele, a first-year Ph.D. student in physics.


In some science labs, Rose said, the expectation is that you work 12 hours a day, six days a week—virtually all the time. Federal law dictates that international students can only work 20 hours a week, but he said nobody really wants to cut hours. But for students who are coming in on Saturdays, he thinks limits on extremes are a possibility.


“I don’t really want anything to be standardized, but there are definitely students who are overworked, and who it’s expected of them to be overworked,” he said. “There are other students who overwork themselves and it’s not necessarily expected.”


In the humanities, graduate student employees are critical to the smooth operations of their departments, especially in history, where core classes can cater to 300 students each.


“Almost all of us teach for the majority of our careers here,” Berard, a history Ph.D. student, said. “And, you know, the Core runs on our labor—us and the other graduate student employees, as well as the research element, which is very important in the sciences. You wouldn’t have all these people getting grants and awards in physics or biology or chemistry without grad student labor.”


He thinks the argument BC made about its grad students not being employees is a fiction for the simple reason that they create value for the institution with the work they do.


“At the end of the day, structurally they want to get the most work out of people that they can at the most affordable price,” he added. “It’s nothing personal, it’s just business.”


Sessions said some people who graduated from the BC program have told him they had to do more work than their competitors for jobs in academia, which has a slow job market as is, with National Science Foundation data showing increased competition across the board.


Rose initially got involved with the union when he and his wife were interested in having a baby. He wanted to explore ways of obtaining some family friendly benefits, be it assistance with childcare or paternity leave. He said some members of GASA, the student government Theriault had helped start, approached administrators about a potential policy but hadn’t really gotten anywhere. He saw the union as a channel to help families.


Day care is offered to BC employees, but he said it’s hard to get into and not really geared toward infants. The price, he said, is pretty average—around the same cost as a one- or two-bedroom apartment.


Rose and his wife joined the Peace Corps after undergrad, so they were applying to grad schools about four years later than other students, meaning they are a little older for their programs. Before they had their baby, they saved money for a year to make sure they could afford three or four months of full-time daycare, which is about $2,000 per month. He and his wife will both graduate within the next couple of months, but if they were to be set back a year, they could run out of savings.


“That just doesn’t make sense to me … especially this late in the game—we’re mature adults,” he said. “A Ph.D., you’re not a student. You have a job, especially after those first couple years. So you shouldn’t have to push off having a child.”


Pingree has a friend in the history department who just found out she is pregnant. Over the course of three months, she had a lot of meetings with administrators to figure out what her pregnancy and post-pregnancy tuition and benefits will look like, because there’s no policy currently in place. At a basic level, her friend was trying to ensure that she will not lose her position in the program or lose funding. She eventually sorted it out, but only after months of discussions.


“I think that that is the pinnacle of why a union could help us, because we could bargain in our contracts that a policy exists for all graduate workers, and make sure that those kinds of protections are in place as part of procedure, instead of going to the dean and pleading your case and hoping that that works for you,” Pingree said.   


(Pingree’s friend did not respond to a request to comment for this story.)


Despite the low pay, lack of benefits, and often-challenging conditions for these students, it’s not all bad, which is an important note that union members take care to stress.


“At the same time, I left behind a job that paid probably three times what I get paid here,” Sessions said. “But I did it because that’s what I wanted to do. … It’s not like anyone expects it to be the same as a professional career, but there should be some balance.”


A collective bargaining agreement would be as much about making sure benefits and compensation are secure as about improving either. It’s unclear what a union contract would cost BC, although an FAQ page put together by Harvard’s grad union claims that there is no precedent for a school making budget cuts because of unionization among grad students. The initial negotiations would likely not stipulate a massive raise.


Specific gains in benefits or compensation are also just one part of the equation for the union: they represent the material aspect. But there’s another, more general side of their goals. Many see the union as a vehicle for furthering other activist efforts on campus, for improving transparency, and for improving representation among grad students. This is the political side. It could prove even more impactful.

[aesop_gallery id=”5685″ revealfx=”off”]

Earlier this spring, the union released a statement on its Facebook page in solidarity with its counterpart at Northeastern, where an administrator had sent a letter to grad students alleging that the United Auto Workers (UAW) was playing on the post-election fears of international students to get them to join the union.


Many in BC’s union saw it as a common tactic used by employers to prevent unionization, and part of understanding the grad employees union is understanding what role the UAW has to play.


“While the international union supports us, graduate employee unions are fueled by us—our issues, our needs, our goals, and our hard work,” the union’s solidarity statement reads.


Gabriele said the perception on a lot of campuses is that the UAW is some kind of outside force that comes in to organize things for the students. In her experience, though, most of what she’s been observing is a grassroots effort led by graduate students. Robinson, for example, will graduate this spring with her master’s and then will actually go to work for the UAW, staying in the Boston area and continuing to help schools with their graduate student workers.


“After the elections this fall, I just realized how limited academia can be in creating change, or educating others,” she said. “I see the academic institution as a very privileged institution, and in that way it’s limited.”


Robinson also felt a lot of limitations because she’s a woman and identifies as a person of color, she added. “I wanted to do more hands-on work with people, and at least trying to make some positive change in society,” she said.


Many see the union as a way of obtaining or expanding rights. Two graduate student town halls this spring were built around ways in which different activist groups can work together, and one thing that’s come up is the possibility that a union contract could in theory negotiate some of the issues groups have organized around—it could stipulate that single-stall bathrooms should be gender-neutral, for example, an issue that the Graduate Pride Alliance has supported.


A contract could also be critical to free expression. Earlier this year, members of Eradicate BC Racism were sanctioned for their involvement in two unregistered demonstrations, which were in response to Trump’s election in November. Since the sanctions were administered, to seven students, members of Eradicate and other students have held a series of meetings to try to clarify and make recommendations for changes to BC’s free expression policy, which requires that demonstrations must be registered either by individuals or by groups that are recognized by the University. Eradicate has said it will not seek to become a recognized student group because its “undocumented” status allows it to create a space of resistance.


Cedrick-Michael Simmons, a sociology Ph.D. candidate, hopes a contract could specify and ensure his rights and protections in addition to compensation. He received probation for participating in one of the demonstrations, a candlelight vigil. Sometimes disciplinary hearings were assigned based on who was holding a clipboard and thought to be organizing the demonstration, or who was mentioned in coverage by The Heights.


“And that can have devastating consequences for my material realities at BC—my health insurance, my compensation—and it’s definitely had a huge impact on my relationships, my attempts to actually work on projects at BC that aren’t in the extra-institutional realm,” Simmons said. “It certainly feels like we don’t necessarily have advocates outside ourselves. … I was hoping and continue to hope that the union is one of those mechanisms that allows for some type of legally binding rights and protections that I thought we initially had.”


Olle was also sanctioned for his involvement in a demonstration, and said that one issue is that the students don’t have any say over what the policies are. The perception is that administrators get to change them at a whim.


“It didn’t feel like a process where the burden of proof was on them, or anything like that,” he said. “It was a very sort of unequal, undemocratic process.”


With an institutionalized mechanism like a union, students could get representation. Maybe they could make changes to the code of conduct or get a student representative in conduct hearings, Olle said.


Theriault’s experience has been that even at the department level, nothing is set in place to make sure students have an advocate. Right now it’s a lot of developing relationships with the right people. A union contract could standardize and democratize that structure.


“There will be transparency and democracy in the conditions of our labor,” Berard said. “We’ll have a contract that we agreed on with the administration … and things will be above-board in a way that has been democratically decided.”


Pingree studies labor and immigration history in the U.S., and she views unions as a vehicle for workplace democracy. She sees this as a much larger thing, both nationally right now and historically.


And then there’s the fun part, too. For Robinson, one of the biggest takeaways has been how the union has opened up lines of communication across departments. They can be siloed and isolated to the point that it can get lonely. Pingree said she would never meet sociologists like Comley if not for the union. One of Comley’s favorite aspects of her union work has been the strong female leadership among the organizers. And for Theriault, amid students’ concerns and struggles, the union has emerged as one of the best experiences in his six years at BC.


“This process of meeting people from other departments and sharing what’s going on there, and getting to build something from the ground up with people from across BC has been super rewarding,” Theriault said. “It’s a little trite to say it, but it really has been one of the more fulfilling parts of being at BC. I love doing research, I love working on what I’m working on, but being able to build something that’s going to last and make BC a better place, in my opinion, has been a big part of what’s been enjoyable about graduate school.”

Featured Image by Julia Hopkins / Heights Editor


Connor Murphy

Connor is the editor-in-chief of The Heights, was the news editor in 2017, and was the copy editor for 2016. You can follow him on Twitter @murphheights.

Learn More →