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UE: Northwestern University Graduate Workers Raise the Bar for Graduate Education in First Contract Fight

IMAGE: Members of the NUGW-UE bargaining committee and rank-and-file members observing the session pose for a picture immediately after reaching a full tentative agreement on the last day of bargaining. Photo: Laiba Paracha.

From Adrian Ray-Avalani and Emma Kennedy, UE Local 1122-NUGW | Photo Courtesy of ueunion.org | UE News Reuse Policy

Close to midnight on February 21, 2024, after a grueling 15-hour bargaining session, graduate workers at Northwestern reached a tentative agreement with the university administration on their collective bargaining contract. Members of the bargaining committee and observing members broke into applause and hugged one another as the agreement was finalized. Three weeks later, on March 15, 2024, a majority of Northwestern graduate workers voted to ratify this hard-fought and groundbreaking first contract.

Northwestern University Graduate Workers (NUGW-UE Local 1122) has the privilege to represent graduate students and workers whose labor across both of the university’s campuses forms the backbone of Northwestern’s success as a university. At Northwestern, graduate workers in a variety of degree programs perform crucial services for the university, ranging from research and teaching to departmental administration, stage design, and clinical rotations. NUGW members from a variety of different backgrounds, including domestic workers, international workers, nontraditional students, workers of color, and workers who are queer, trans, disabled, and parents, came together to demand that their labor for the university be fairly recognized.

“This remarkable first contract wouldn’t have been possible without the marginalized organizers who fought to empower our most vulnerable workers,” said Rivaan Kakkaramadam, a graduate worker in the Interdisciplinary Biological Sciences (IBiS) department. “With this contract, we have enshrined our hard-won gains and will keep building on them until we attain the contract every grad worker deserves.”

Sam English, a graduate worker in the English department, commented, “[This contract]  provides graduate workers with powers in the workplace that we needed yesterday. […] These are huge wins for teaching and laboratory assistants across the Northwestern community, as our time and labor have for too long been overlooked and exploited. This contract is the first step in demonstrating how intrinsic we are to fostering and maintaining Northwestern’s academic excellence and world-class research.”

Contract Campaign

NUGW was founded in the fall of 2016, a month after the historic National Labor Relations Board decision that confirmed that graduate workers at universities are workers and have the right to form a union. Shortly thereafter, in the spring of 2017, we had our first big campaign win: successfully pressuring the Northwestern administration to offer doctoral students five full years of funding. Organizing across departments increased in 2020 during the early COVID-19 pandemic when lab workers designated as essential workers were forced back onto campus before it was safe to do so. In the summer of 2022, NUGW affiliated with UE, and shortly thereafter rang in the new year of 2023 with a landslide NLRB election win with 93 percent of workers voting in favor of forming a union. 

As we approached the start of bargaining, the pace of organizing picked up significantly. NUGW’s history has always been one centered around on-the-ground, face-to-face organizing and agitating, and this fight was no different. Throughout the bargaining process members regularly walked through university departments and offices, approaching their colleagues face to face to have conversations about their experiences as graduate workers. “One of the little things, the everyday parts of being an organizer with NUGW, was doing walkthroughs. On the face of it, walkthroughs are talking to your coworkers and checking in about union work, but more deeply, it means changing how we relate to each other as human beings,” said Summer Pappachen, a graduate worker in Political Science and member of the bargaining committee. “When I did my first round of walkthroughs in the Political Science department, I spoke to maybe 10 people over the course of three hours. […] I came away with so many stories of poverty, anxiety, nervousness, fear, and disheartenment regarding our working conditions in the department. I came away from it with the following phrases ringing in my head, ‘Thanks Summer, I feel seen for the first time in this department,’ or ‘Thank you for actually asking how I am, usually people don’t do that.’”

Many graduate workers disclosed ways in which they weren’t being treated fairly at work, including advisors or supervisors making unreasonable demands on their time; experiences of identity-related discrimination; and the long, confusing, and expensive processes for international students to handle visas and taxes. These reports led directly to the language-related proposals with which we began bargaining in June 2023: protections against discrimination and abuses of authority; a contractually enshrined grievance procedure; just cause for discipline and discharge; and agency shop.

Inside and Outside Bargaining

The nine-month long process of fighting for a contract involved sustained and intense effort both inside and outside the bargaining room. While the bargaining committee negotiated over proposals at the table with administration, department organizers held informational town halls for their departments and addressed any department-specific concerns about the negotiation process, and our contract action team and organizing committee strategized more broadly, planning out potential actions, addressing misinformation from the administration, working with faculty and staff, and ensuring that NUGW’s strength was primed to apply pressure to administration whenever necessary.

When preparing our economic article proposals, the bargaining committee sought to convey to the administration not only our membership’s specific economic demands — for a fair living wage and for dental and vision insurance to be fully covered as part of our student healthcare plan — but also a broader demand: that the university immediately begin holding itself accountable to its mission statement, which claims to value diversity and belonging on its campuses. Accordingly, the bargaining committee put forth proposals including a wage increase, fully covered dental and vision healthcare, a significantly expanded childcare grant program, inclusion of dependents in the student healthcare plan, international worker cost subsidies, and mandatory Americans with Disabilities Act compliance and regular accessibility audits for primary departmental buildings.

On Nov 1, 2023, the day that the bargaining committee introduced its economic proposals, members packed the halls outside the bargaining room, confronting the administrators with the strength of our demand that our worth be fairly recognized.

When the University stalled on giving an initial response to our economic proposals, repeatedly canceling or postponing the next bargaining date, NUGW members held a rally to demand “Pay, Power, and Protections NOW,” featuring speeches from faculty, undergraduate students, graduate workers, postdocs, and Northwestern University Library Workers Union (NULWU) workers.

As bargaining proceeded, workers began to escalate their efforts to build a credible strike threat in January 2024. On January 29 at a General Membership Meeting, NUGW launched a pledge to strike if the university did not show movement at the table. Within 48 hours, 1,000 workers had pledged to strike, and in the face of that number the university was forced to finally begin bargaining with us in earnest. Throughout February, members worked tirelessly to mobilize their coworkers, disseminating the strike pledge and having thousands of individual conversations about what a contract could do for each and every person. On the final day of bargaining, over 2,000 strike pledges, and the countless hours of organizing behind that, pushed the university to improve their economic offers, and to settle a tentative agreement which met the majority of our membership’s core demands and which provided “Pay, Power, and Protections Now.”

Emma Wilkinson, a graduate worker in Linguistics, reflected that, “Contract negotiations were a long fight but our bargaining committee worked hard to provide great argumentation on our behalf. It was encouraging to see how action on the part of membership in the form of surveys, pack-the-halls events, open bargaining sessions, and a strike pledge moved NU admin’s proposals. I am looking forward to seeing how we can continue to support our fellow grad workers through the grievance process because we can take on many more issues with our new contract!”

Contract Wins

The three-year contract ratified by NUGW members last month contains significant and transformative wins for graduate workers, and simultaneously lays a strong foundation for organizing fights to come. We won “Pay” — an incredible 22 percent stipend increase, to $45,000 as of September 2024, and 100 percent coverage of dental and vision insurance. We won “Power” with agency shop being enshrined in our TA on union security, meaning that all members of our bargaining unit will be required to pay dues or agency fees. This sets us up to be a strong, united force on campus indefinitely. Finally, we won “Protections” — NUGW was able to enshrine a robust grievance procedure, allowing workers to pursue formal resolution of any violations of the contract. In particular, graduate workers are now able to require just cause for discipline or discharge, to bring a union steward to any meetings in which they anticipate being disciplined, and to take unlimited paid sick days. Additional key wins included our nondiscrimination article, which contains protections against discrimination based on caste that are groundbreaking in academia; an expanded childcare grant program and inclusion in caregiving programs historically only afforded to non-graduate employees; and a university fund for international student visa and immigration fees, including fees for their dependents. 

After the TA was finalized, members reflected on the change that this first contract would effect in their lives. Tiffany Christian, a graduate worker in Statistics, pointed to the workplace protections in our language articles as a reason why she was excited to vote to ratify the tentative agreement. “[The contract] provides solid workplace protections around health and safety in the midst of an ongoing pandemic. In light of changing CDC recommendations and Northwestern’s abandonment of COVID-19 tracking, testing, and masking requirements, I am encouraged by the inclusion of Leave of Absence Section 2 in the tentative agreement, which grants workers the right not to be denied paid leave after a confirmed direct exposure to an infectious disease. […] NUGW has empowered us to protect ourselves against irresponsible COVID guidelines, and other workplace hazards as graduate workers. I’m happy to be represented by a union that cares about my health, safety, and well-being.”

Life-Changing Contract

Raina Bhagat, a graduate worker in Comparative Literature, commented that one reason she voted to ratify the contract was because “when I needed new glasses […] I was asked to pay over $600 for a new pair of glasses at an in-network provider. With a full vision insurance subsidy and more competitive pay, this number won’t devastate other workers the way it devastated me,” while Erica Rosario, a graduate worker in the IBiS department, said she was excited to vote to ratify the contract because “I cannot afford to wait any longer for the increase in pay, protections and support this tentative agreement provides. For me, this contract means non-discrimination policy protections, clearing medical bills, and having financial capacity to support my six-year-old niece.” 

Two weeks after NUGW reached our TA, University of Chicago’s Graduate Student Union (UC GSU) reached a TA on their own first contract, also featuring a stipend raise to $45,000 along with several other significant wins for UC-GSU graduate workers. In early March, the incredible Service Employees’ International Union (SEIU) Local 73 also ratified a contract for graduate workers at Illinois State University, and just last week came to a TA protecting school support staff at Chicago Public Schools.

This series of Illinois-area wins exemplifies the power of solidarity and of a united struggle. Our wins are transformative for our own members, but they are also collective wins: each one moves the needle forward in demanding what we deserve, and each one contributes to changing the landscape of graduate school, academia, and education for everyone.

Next Steps

Although we are incredibly proud of the transformative change that our first contract affords all graduate workers at Northwestern, the fight has nonetheless only just begun. While we were able to secure incredible wins, Northwestern administration made it clear that their claims of valuing marginalized students were merely lip service, setting a hard line on dependent healthcare and wholesale rejecting our accessibility proposal four separate times. This frankly shameful behavior, all while the university continues to recruit students with promises to “champion access, diversity, and belonging,”  only shows, however, that we must continue to hold the administration accountable to their own stated values.. NUGW’s strong history of issue-based campaigns and subsequent wins will bolster us in this next phase of mid-contract issue campaigns to secure further protections and benefits. With the power of a strong contract behind us, and with the ability to form coalitions across groups on campus, we will make NU a better place for graduate workers with specific needs.

Since the contract has been ratified, our most immediate fight has been regarding the scope of our bargaining unit. Despite strong language in our recognition article, Northwestern continues to fail to acknowledge the crucial labor that certain graduate workers, including graduate assistants doing administrative tasks, first year workers in lab rotations, some workers on fellowship, and more, provide to the university, without any of which Northwestern would certainly not be the world class institution it touts itself to be. Membership-driven efforts, such as a petition to administration to grant all graduate workers the June stipend raise, have led the fight about bargaining unit scope thus far, while the bargaining committee and other elected officers have transitioned to drafting our local constitution, handling grievances, training new stewards, and beginning the work of implementing our new contract. In addition, we are also excited to support the newly-formed Northwestern University Postdocs’ Union (NUPU), whose fight for fair pay, power, and protections is about to begin.

Gracie Siffer, a graduate worker in IBiS, speaks to her experience over this past intense yet historic year for NUGW: 

Organizing on campus has been one of the most rewarding parts of my Ph.D. experience. It is easy to get lost in the moment of a specific fight and feel hopeless, but if we look back even two years ago there has been SO much realized that was once only a glimmer in an organizer’s eye.  We are an affiliated and recognized union now, we have a contract with our employer, and we have even successfully started enforcing our contract. Membership has skyrocketed, and ideas are flourishing everywhere on how to pressure admin to respect both the letter and spirit of the contract. The goal has shifted in my short time here from ‘we ought to have a recognized union’ to ‘we have to make sure every worker is covered under our contract,’ and I can’t wait to see what’s next!

The UE Local 1122-NUGW bargaining committee consisted of Alejandro Abisambra, Jade Basinski, Maddie Brucker, Lawrence Chillrud, Kavi Chintam, Peter Cummings, Adam Goldsmith, Jack Hamill, Reem Ibrahim, Lauren Johnson, Esther (Em) Kamm, Cataldo Lamarca, Elisabeth Latawiec, Thomas McKenzie-Smith, Behailu Mihirete, Ben Oxley, Summer Pappachen, Adrian Ray-Avalani, Jakob Reinke, Mounica Sreesai, Drew Weidner, Teke Wiggin, and Ruoxi Zhu. They were assisted by UE Staff Coordinator Kim Lawson, International Representative Valentina Luketa, and Project Organizers Eugene Lim, Emilie Lozier, and Carla Patricia Reyes.

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