WASHINGTON—Graduate workers at Georgetown University have signed 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 agreement, covering over 1,000 workers, delivers average annual stipend and cost-of-living increases of $5,000, sets up a $50,000 emergency assistance fund and establishes a joint committee to deal with sexual harassment claims outside of Title IX. It can serve as a model for graduate worker negotiations at other intuitions.
The contract 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.
It is the first new agreement for grad workers signed since the Trump National Labor Relations Board signaled its determination to strip grads 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 grads 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.
The tentative agreement is expected to be ratified by the full GAGE membership in coming days.
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 PhD 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 a $50,000 emergency assistance fund for those in need.
Deidre Nelms, a teaching associate and fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in the philosophy department, said, “Five years of organizing and a full year of negotiations went into getting this tentative agreement, and I'm so proud to vote on it this semester. Grad workers have all been struggling for a long time at Georgetown with a high cost of living, unpredictable income and hours, and unaffordable insurance coverage, to name only a few issues.
“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.”
Jewel Tomasula, a research assistant and third-year Ph.D. student in biology, said, “Our tentative agreement is major progress toward our vision to make graduate work at Georgetown accessible to anyone and ensure inclusive, supportive working conditions for teaching and research. I'm so proud that GAGE has won pay increases, improved benefits and new workplace policies that will markedly improve the lives of all graduate workers at Georgetown. GAGE has really shown the power of organizing and the merits of collective bargaining.”
Daniel Solomon, a teaching assistant and second year Ph.D. student in government, said, “GAGE's tentative agreement 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. The gains we have made through this contract—a step toward a livable wage, an emergency assistance fund that creates a safety net for workers facing unexpected precarity, and new dental benefits—will enable hundreds of graduate workers to thrive as we do the teaching and research that makes Georgetown excel.
“We hope this contract will provide a model for graduate workers seeking similar protections from their own universities. 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.”
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten hailed the agreement: “The contract is 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.
“It wasn't easy at the beginning, when the administration tried to stifle the grads’ voice, or at the end, when the cornoavirus could have upended everything. I am so proud of these workers: They didn’t mourn or give up, they organized and won. Their resilience and determination is an important lesson this May Day.
“This agreement will provide stability for 1,000 contingent workers who can now face the future with far more confidence, and it will send an important message to Georgetown students that the university is doing everything possible to continue in its best traditions.
“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. They bargained both significant pay and leave improvements, and a pioneering sexual harassment mechanism outside of Title IX that will serve as a model for other institutions. And they won a $50,000 annual emergency fund that can be drawn on by members in crises such as this one.
“I also want to credit Georgetown University’s bargaining team, who didn’t use the coronavirus crisis as an excuse to ignore their employees, but instead committed to work constructively with the union to get this deal done. The product of their labor is a landmark contract that will not only make a great institution even better, but act as an inspiration for tens of thousands of contingent academic workers around the country who are organizing to improve their, and their students’, lives.”
The 1.7 million-member AFT, the largest U.S. higher education union, represents more than 32,000 graduate employees around the country.