PROVIDENCE, R.I.—In an historic first for the Ivy League, 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 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.
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.
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.
The contract is expected to be ratified by the full SUGSE membership in coming days.
Rithika Ramamurthy, a sixth-year research assistant in the English department, said: “The long fight for union recognition at Brown has culminated in a contract that recognizes the labor of all graduate student employees. This contract makes sure that grad workers at the university have the stability and security that they deserve in their jobs, including COVID-19 work extensions and full coverage of COVID-19 healthcare costs. Now more than ever, grad workers need clarity around raises, healthcare coverage, workload and appointments; SUGSE has worked hard to secure an agreement that provides these protections, and looks forward to standing up for graduate student employees throughout the duration of the contract.”
Kaity Hajdarovic, a fourth-year research assistant in the neuroscience department, said: “This contract brings much-needed security to graduate workers at Brown. Importantly, in addition to securing COVID-19 work extensions for the majority of our members, we’ve won increased pay, protections against unfair workloads, a real grievance procedure, and increased financial support for healthcare. 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.”
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.
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten cheered the agreement, the third major university contract negotiated by the AFT since the pandemic struck: “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. 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. We often say unions make possible what would be impossible alone, but it takes guts, commitment—and bargaining—to turn words into action.
“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 1.7 million-member AFT, the largest U.S. higher education union, represents more than 34,000 graduate employees around the country.