Ivy League grad workers win historic first union contract

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Graduate workers at Brown University have signed a groundbreaking labor contract, winning job security, hundreds of dollars in COVID-19-related healthcare relief and a stipend increase, in the middle of an unprecedented national crisis. The contract marks the first time an Ivy League school has agreed to a labor contract with graduate workers.

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The tentative three-year agreement, covering more than 1,200 workers, will provide graduate employees with peace of mind and financial relief to chart a path through the coronavirus and economic turmoil upending U.S. higher education. It comes after five years of organizing and 13 months of bargaining by their union, Stand Up for Graduate Student Employees, which is affiliated nationally with the AFT.

The contract includes an effective 3.7 percent stipend increase in the first year; a one-year appointment extension due to COVID-19 for third, fourth, fifth and many sixth years; full reimbursement for out-of-pocket COVID-19 testing and treatment medical expenses; the establishment of a health reimbursement account; and a mechanism to deal with sexual harassment claims outside of Title IX. Graduate workers who are parents have secured additional relief.

This agreement comes as Brown has announced a campuswide wage and hiring freeze. And it proves that even during a crisis, collective bargaining can be a powerful tool to address problems in the community.

“The long fight for union recognition at Brown has culminated in a contract that recognizes the labor of all graduate student employees,” says Rithika Ramamurthy, a sixth-year research assistant in the English department, adding that it provides “the stability and security that they deserve in their jobs.” The timing was especially meaningful, says Ramamurthy. “Now more than ever, grad workers need clarity around raises, healthcare coverage, workload and appointments.”

“This contract brings much-needed security to graduate workers at Brown,” agrees Kaity Hajdarovic, a fourth-year research assistant in the neuroscience department, who cites COVID-19 work extensions, increased pay, protections against unfair workloads, a real grievance procedure and increased financial support for healthcare as especially important. “This contract is more than just the economic benefits it provides. With this contract, graduate student employees assert their rights as workers and their value as contributors to Brown University’s mission.”

In 2018, facing a hostile Trump administration determined to strip them of the right to unionize, Brown grad workers sidestepped the National Labor Relations Board and forged a private election agreement with the administration, followed by a successful vote for formal union recognition.

Last month, Georgetown University graduate employees, also affiliated with the AFT, inked their own deal with university administrators. Brown and Georgetown grads gave official notice of their intent to form unions on the same day in 2018. The NLRB still wants to deny graduate employees bargaining rights under a pending rule—but neither schools’ agreements will be affected.

“The Brown graduate workers, after years of painstaking organizing and sheer hard work, have met this moment and won job security and financial protections as the country faces unprecedented economic, health and racial justice crises,” says AFT President Randi Weingarten. “They have shown that the power of collective action is the best way to fight back and get results, not only for themselves but for millions of contingent workers like them.”

“First, the grads had to push back against the university’s reflexive ‘just say no’ approach to a union. Then, after negotiating a private election agreement with the administration, they voted decisively for representation. Finally, during COVID-19, Brown made a decision to fund, rather than forfeit, its future. Today, the Brown grads made that initial promise real, and I couldn’t be more proud of them.”

The contract is the third major university contract negotiated by the AFT since the pandemic struck: In addition to the Brown and Georgetown agreements, faculty members at Oregon State University won a contract May 28. The Oregon agreement is among the first in the Pacific Northwest for research-heavy land-grant universities.

The Brown contract is expected to be ratified by the full SUGSE membership in the coming days.

[AFT Communications staff]