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UE: Organizing and Escalation Win Major Gains in First Contract for Local 197-TRU

By Aitana Azurmendi, Laura Konisek, and Will Brakewood, UE Local 197-TRU | Photo Courtesy of ueunion.org | UE News Reuse Policy

BALTIMORE, MD—Five days before we planned to vote to authorize our strike at a General Membership Meeting, the graduate workers of UE Local 197-Teachers and Researchers United reached a strong tentative agreement on our first contract. For graduate workers at The Johns Hopkins University (JHU), this monumental win came more than a year after we voted overwhelmingly to unionize and after 47 bargaining sessions with the university administration. A little over two weeks after we reached a full TA, we ratified our first contract, with a 99.5 percent yes margin, the culmination of years of organizing.

Our first contract codifies tangible and historic improvements to what it means to be a graduate worker at Hopkins. Our labor, teaching, and research are foundational to what allows JHU to run and it is through our commitment to a member-driven union that we now have ensured that the university, which cannot function without us, recognizes our value and bargaining power. 

Contract Wins

According to the TRU-UE bargaining committee, our contract “includes life-changing improvements for all grad workers here at JHU and truly historic wins for grad labor.” Top line economic highlights include a stipend increase to $47,000 annually (an over 50 percent increase for some departments), four to five years of guaranteed funding based on division, and a $1,000 signing bonus. The contract also includes several economic wins which have never been seen before in a grad worker contract, including a cash-in-hand subsidy for parents and caregivers, full coverage of dependent health insurance premiums, free local transit passes, and financial support for visa fees. When asked about the economic gains enshrined in the collective bargaining agreement negotiated by TRU-UE Local 197, member Wisam Awadallah said, “This tentative agreement is the culmination of years of organizing and sets a standard to be built on at JHU and across graduate labor. Ratifying this agreement will allow our members to continue teaching our students and do cutting edge research, with less worry about paying our bills, with protection from discrimination, [and] with protected leave to care for our families.”

Our contract also includes a range of major and often unprecedented gains on noneconomic issues. Major wins include the right to maintain a union shop, the establishment of explicit performance standards and just cause in cases of discipline and discharge, and a process which enables more timely resolution of Title IX cases. (Title IX is a federal law prohibiting sex-based discrimination in education.) Unprecedented wins were made in the area of policing on campus, including winning the right to have progressive discipline applied to mental health crises and drug abuse cases, and the right to have peaceful protests on campus not be met with force. On the subject of noneconomic contract wins, TRU-UE bargaining committee member Jayati Sharma said, “We have won our long-deserved seat at the table when it comes to dictating our own working conditions. We are excited to experience these tangible improvements to our working conditions and look forward to the fair implementation of this historic first contract.”

Campaign

The campaign for our contract fight was, in every meaningful sense, the culmination of nearly a decade of member-driven organizing efforts at JHU. While our historic union election vote in early 2023 formally brought us and the university administration to the bargaining table, TRU’s campaign and organizing origins can be traced back to September of 2014. Propelled into action by a set of new university policies ominously titled “The Strategic Plan,” a group of graduate workers began mobilizing across several departments. Alarmed at the university’s failure to listen to its graduate population and cognizent of the value of graduate labor, Teachers and Researchers United took its first steps formulating its initial endeavors on the same foundation that leads us today: How can we build collective power to improve our conditions? 

In the intervening years between TRU’s launch and our 2023 election, TRU members began creating the platform and organizing apparatus that won our election. As early as 2015, TRU launched a campaign to address the inadequacy and high costs of the health insurance plan offered by the university at that time. After several years of dedicated organizing, talking to fellow graduate students and mobilizing, graduate workers have won improvements including parental leave, vision, and dental insurance. Healthcare campaigns continued to be a hallmark of our early organizing efforts. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, TRU continued in its already well-established organizing and advocacy tradition, first collecting over 800 signatures on a petition articulating the relief measures necessary to protect grad workers. After months of escalation, JHU’s President and Provost announced that the university would be directing five million dollars in aid for Ph.D. students. 

Using this momentum, our new affiliation with UE, and a swing back in favor of the right of graduate workers to unionize under the Biden administration, TRU began its final push towards an election. On October 25, 2022, TRU launched our card-signing campaign with a 400-person rally and a total of 1,582 graduate workers — half of our unit — signing their cards on day one. On January 30 and 31, 2023 over 2,000 graduate workers — a supermajority of all Ph.D.s enrolled at JHU — voted. The vote count revealed a historic margin of victory for our election: 97 percent or 2,053 graduate workers voted “yes” to unionize with TRU. In anticipation of our bargaining with the university and committed to formulating a contract proposal that reflects the needs of our membership, graduate workers completed bargaining surveys — more than 1,000 were submitted. In May 2023, with a host of graduate workers rallying in solidarity outside, our bargaining committee sat down to begin its negotiations with the university administration. 

While central tenets of TRU’s platform were a living wage for all, on-time payment, and improved benefits, we decided to begin our contract fight by focusing on our non-economic proposals, including effective grievance procedures, union security, safe working environments, and better protections for international workers. True to their long-held pattern of opposition to graduate organizing, the JHU administration came to the bargaining table vehemently denying our position as workers. During our second bargaining session, the administration issued a series of counter-proposals attesting to that stance and striking out or rejecting health and safety protections, non-discrimination proposals, inclusive work environment proposals, protections for international workers, a right to a fair grievance procedure, and protections against retaliation.

In response to JHU’s assurance that university policies in place were sufficient to protect graduates, TRU took action, calling on its members to share their stories of how those very same policies were failing workers. On June 8, 2023, TRU members packed the bargaining room, joining the bargaining committee, with 15 members reading testimonies from members of our unit to put pressure on administrative officials denying the reality of our conditions. As one worker wrote, “The administration’s belief that existing grievance procedures are sufficient is going to get someone killed; I literally was electrocuted, exposed to toxic metal powders without a respirator, and told that this is my problem to deal with, with zero recourse… I stand with the Union in their desire to place the safety of graduate workers above the profit and egos of program managers.” A little over a month after this action, the bargaining committee secured a tentative agreement on grievance procedure. 

By fall 2023, our bargaining committee was in the thick of negotiations with a persistently oppositional university administration. Using our general membership meetings and contract action team, TRU organizers got to work, mobilizing a series of actions over the course of our Fall semester to place increasing pressure on JHU to meet the needs of their graduate workers. Our bargaining committee saw incredible movement on our proposals in the wake of our “TRU Day of Action,” a cross-campus and division-wide movement undertaken by our members. From a graduate worker walkout in the School of Medicine to an undergraduate teach-in led by workers in the School of Arts and Sciences, hundreds of us made our voices heard. In the bargaining session that followed, our bargaining committee secured an agreement on health and safety and drew closer to an agreement on appointment security.

Despite some huge wins during the fall semester, TRU recognized that after nearly seven months of bargaining, JHU’s continued opposition to our demands required that we begin building a credible strike threat — particularly once we introduced our economic proposals. Recognizing that our collective power and a demonstration of our resolve through strength in numbers was paramount, we began several weeks of speaking with our graduate community about the potential for a strike and introducing a slate of organizing actions to build our momentum. The centerpiece of our organizing efforts towards a strike pledge was a cross-campus practice picket. More than 500 graduate workers showed up to demonstrate across our East Baltimore and Homewood campuses, marching for hours to signal our resolve. In the bargaining session that followed two days later, university administration came to the table with proposals on discipline and discharge and union security. Moreover, we were offered a strong version of union security with the protections of a union shop, securing a strong and lasting union for years to come. With this momentum, TRU organizers continued their work of mobilizing, offering town halls to answer questions regarding the strike, translating our FAQ’s documents into foreign languages for international students, phone banking, and conducting walkthroughs of the offices and labs where our members work. 

On March 7, 2024 TRU launched its strike pledge at our General Membership Meeting. Less than 36 hours later we had over 1,000 signatures. In the weeks that followed, as more graduate workers signed the pledge, we continued to put pressure on the university administration from all sides. In response to JHU’s continued refusal to improve benefits for parents and caregivers, TRU invited the parents and caregivers among us to offer testimony to the struggles they face. Highlighting the inadequacies of what the university currently offers, many of the 20 speakers who offered testimony brought their children with them to the bargaining room. Amidst this escalating pressure placed on them, the university offered to schedule an additional bargaining date, all the while our bargaining committee secured wins on issues like public transit, $2,500 in relocation assistance for international workers, and dependent benefit subsidies for both children and adults ($3,500/year for children under six, $3,000 for legally dependent adults). Finally, on our last day of bargaining, with a majority of our unit signed onto a strike pledge and five days before our GMM to authorize that strike, our bargaining committee secured a full tentative agreement with massive wins and a contract that will set a strong foundation for years to come. 

Next Steps

Once our tentative agreement was reached, we made numerous efforts to relay to our members the importance and successes of our TA. We held divisional town halls, did walkthroughs, answered questions through email and Slack, and encouraged active discussion. After a three-day voting period, our contract was ratified on April 18 with a 99.5 percent yes margin! We are so proud and elated to have this major support from our bargaining unit, and to put into place our protections and grievance procedure.

Our next focus is to write and put into action our local constitution. The constitution will be written with elected delegates spearheading the effort. We are currently holding elections for the constitution writing committee. Open meetings will be held in which any member can attend and provide their opinions on constitutional language. In this new phase of our university we are energized to have an organization that maintains our standards for supporting and protecting each other, and even those outside our unit.

Our organizing base was built up through walkthroughs, personal relationships, and encouraging further involvement to event attendees. Our amazing organizers were crucial to keeping our members informed, relaying member priorities and ideas to other organizers and to our bargaining committee. Our major success could not have been possible without the tireless efforts over this past year by our bargaining committee and UE Staff! We thank all of our organizers for their dedication to providing our bargaining unit with these rights and protections.

The Local 197 (TRU-UE) bargaining committee consisted of Aaron Salisbury, Alaa Saad, Sandy Peeples, Anna Word, Breanne Kincaid, Connor Krill, Fearghus Horan, Irika Sinha, Janvi Madhani, Jayati Sharma, Jeffrey Davis, Joanna Zienkiewicz, Lily Liang, Logan Kostic, Marie Pearce, Maryam Esperanza Razaz, Sreyas Chintapalli, Steven Sola, Verónica Ríos Saavedra, Vivian Su, and William Brakewood. Kwaku Quansah is a former member. They were assisted by International Representative Tara McCauley and UE Project Organizers Katie Shy and Andrew Eneim.

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