Georgetown graduate workers win groundbreaking first contract

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Graduate workers at Georgetown University have ratified their first-ever labor contract, winning significant wage and benefit improvements to help them weather the coronavirus, combat the spiraling cost of living in the nation’s capital and provide sorely needed job security in uncertain times. The historic agreement—reached on May 1, International Workers’ Day, and overwhelmingly ratified by 99 percent of voters by May 8—is widely expected to become a model for graduate workers across the nation.

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The agreement delivers average annual stipend and cost-of-living increases of $5,000, sets up an emergency assistance fund with approximately $50,000 annually and establishes a joint committee to deal with sexual harassment claims outside of Title IX. It will cover more than 1,000 workers, but its impact will reach much further.

“GAGE's [contract] is an important victory for graduate workers at Georgetown, and for workers across the country striving for equitable pay, affordable healthcare and fair protections for workers in higher education,” says Daniel Solomon, a teaching assistant and second-year doctoral student in government. “In a time of grave economic uncertainty for so many educators and researchers across the country, we're excited to continue to demonstrate how collective action can win and sustain new gains for our community.”

The agreement follows five years of tireless organizing and 13 months of productive collective bargaining between the AFT-affiliated Georgetown Alliance of Graduate Employees and campus administrators.

“Five years of organizing and a full year of negotiations went into getting this [contract],” says Deidre Nelms, a teaching associate and fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in philosophy. “It can be really hard to share with your colleagues that you’re struggling and demand more from your employer, but our members were able to trust each other and speak up. I'm thrilled with what we were able to gain.”

The GAGE contract is the first new agreement for grad workers signed since the Trump National Labor Relations Board signaled its determination to strip them of their organizing rights, proof that they can still come together to win material gains in the face of the president’s anti-union animus. Georgetown grad workers sidestepped the NLRB’s official channels and won a private election agreement with the administration, and then formal recognition after a ballot in November 2018, overseen by the American Arbitration Association.

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Critically, the university opted to work with, not against, its workers to bolster resources. The constructive relationship bore fruit: Highlights include 2 percent cost-of-living increases in years 2 and 3; a 12 percent stipend increase, to $32,500, for those on nine-month contracts; and a 15 percent increase, to $35,500, for those who work on 12-month contracts. The hourly wage will now be $19.50; it had been the District of Columbia’s minimum wage of $14.

The agreement includes full dental insurance for Ph.D. candidates and the ability to put pretax income into retirement or transport benefits accounts. Doctoral candidates won six weeks of paid flexible parental leave, six weeks of paid medical leave and the emergency assistance fund for those in need.

Jewel Tomasula, a research assistant and third-year doctoral student in biology, says the agreement shows “major progress toward our vision to make graduate work at Georgetown accessible to anyone and ensure inclusive, supportive working conditions for teaching and research. GAGE has really shown the power of organizing and the merits of collective bargaining.”

AFT President Randi Weingarten hails the new contract as “a testament to the university and its graduate faculty—it creates economic and educational security in one of the most uncertain times in modern history. The university opted to invest in its workers, not forfeit its future.”

The path to the contract was not easy, says Weingarten, recalling early resistance from the administration and a final chapter complicated by the coronavirus. In the end, bargaining sessions went virtual. But the workers prevailed, says Weingarten: “They didn’t mourn or give up, they organized and won,” she says. “Unions make possible what would be impossible for individuals to accomplish alone, and today, because of the determination of our members, the GAGE contract makes that promise real.”

[Virginia Myers, AFT Media Relations]