Graduate Student Employees Launch a Nationwide Drive to Organize Unions with SEIU

Columbia University decision paves way for student assistants’ efforts to join together

By: Bryan Doyle

By: Bryan Doyle

WASHINGTON– Following a decision from the NLRB to restore their rights, graduate student employees at private universities across the country are launching a massive drive to build unions with SEIU. Graduate assistants at Duke, Northwestern, St. Louis University, American University and countless other colleges and universities are taking immediate steps on campus and online to advance their efforts to build unions with their co-workers. This builds on successful efforts from Faculty Forward, which has quickly grown to include more than 120,000 higher education employees who are fighting the trends in higher education that are putting students in debt and forcing educators to rely on food stamps to support their families.

"Higher education should provide opportunities, but the lack of investment in the core mission of our schools and efforts to limit the input from the employees who are teaching and conducting groundbreaking research is breaking that promise to students and employees alike,” said Elizabeth Eikmann, a graduate student in American Studies at Saint Louis University. “Graduate assistants understand the needs of students and educators and are ready to work together and improve our working conditions to not only to achieve our professional goals, but to ensure higher education institutions are living up to their missions to provide a public good through education.”

Recent years have shown a disturbing trend to defund higher education and increase contingent faculty, all while student debt is reaching epidemic levels. According to a recent report by the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, states have reduced spending on public higher education by 17 percent per student since 2008, while tuition has risen by 33 percent. Both public and private universities depend increasingly on graduate workers and other non-tenured workers for instruction and research with nearly 70% of all professors on college campuses in non-tenure track positions – including adjunct instructors, 31 percent of whom live near or below the poverty line and often earn just a few thousand dollars per course. And state schools with the highest-paid presidents are adding part-time and contingent faculty faster than national averages according to an Institute of Policy Studies report.

SEIU President Mary Kay Henry said, “Colleges and universities that used to provide a pathway to the American Dream are now becoming a road to poverty for students who find themselves saddled with debt and graduate workers and faculty who are unable to support their families on low pay. SEIU members in every industry are coming together to ensure that our broken higher education system will not derail the next generation. Restoring the rights of graduate workers is a critical step in ensuring that those on the front-lines of teaching and researching at colleges and universities have a voice in improving higher education for all of us.”

To restore the promise of higher education, graduate assistants are coming together to join SEIU members, including more than 120,000 tenured, tenure-track and non-tenured faculty, adjunct instructors, post-doctoral associates, researchers and other campus workers, as well as students and the community to strengthen the higher education system nationwide. In 2015, underpaid adjunct instructors linked arms with fast-food, home care and child care workers in the Fight for $15, as part of a growing national movement questioning not only the crisis of low-wage jobs, but also the state of professions that used to be middle class jobs with benefits.

###padjunct instructors from cities and states around the country convened with other underpaid workers in Richmond, Virginia at the first-ever Fight for $15 convention just days ago.

“Coming together with other graduate students at Duke and across the country, I am convinced we can achieve better, fairer, more transparent wages, benefits and work conditions—including clearer policies about work expectations and better procedures for addressing workplace harassment and discrimination, which I know are all too common for many of my peers,” said Bennett Carpenter, a Duke University graduate student. “I believe this will benefit the whole university. Healthy, happy, financially stable graduate students make for better researchers and teachers, leading to improved productivity and outcomes.”

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