Emma Duffy / Gavel Media

LTE: Grad Students' Labor of Love Not Reciprocated by BC Administration

Boston College sided with President Donald Trump on labor issues by filing an appeal with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). This has chilling implications at the national level.

In September, graduate workers at BC voted to unionize (270–223, with a 63% turnout). This election was certified by the NLRB. BC had 10 days to file an objection if they believed that the election was undemocratic; they did not. BC recognizes that the majority of their graduate workers want union representation. However, the administration filed an appeal arguing that graduate workers at private institutions should not be allowed to unionize—ever.

In 2016, the NLRB recognized that graduate workers at Columbia University had the right to unionize. Now, our administration hopes to overturn that decision with an appeal (Request for Review II A), potentially disbanding graduate unions at other universities. The administration believes that they can do this because the NLRB is now controlled by Trump appointees. BC is siding with the Trump administration on labor issues in direct opposition to Catholic social teaching.

In September, BC’s administration distributed anti-union propaganda, supposedly composed by individual Deans, although the emails were nearly identical. All included the following paragraph,

A vote against graduate student unionization is not a vote against unions. The Catholic social thought tradition has long been committed to promoting respect for the dignity of labor…. This election raises a different sort of issue—the unionization of graduate students whose fundamental relationship with the university is academic. Our concern is to safeguard the faculty-student relationship...

Supposedly, the Boston College administration is not against unions, just against this union, because it will “damage our relationship with the faculty” (80 of whom signed a letter to The Heights supporting students’ rights to unionize). BC believes this so strongly that they are challenging the right of graduate workers to unionize on the national level, opportunistically taking advantage of the Trump administration’s anti-labor stance to influence national policy for decades to come.

BC’s reasons for doing so hinge upon two arguments: (1) graduate workers are not workers, and (2) because BC is a religious institution, it does not have to provide its workers with the same protection as non-religious institutions. Both of these arguments are disingenuous and hypocritical.  Graduate workers— including graduate instructors, teaching assistants, and research assistants—do essential labor towards the teaching and research missions of the university. BC’s administration has acknowledged that Catholic social teaching supports collective bargaining and fair compensation for all workers.

Graduate instructors are profitable, teaching courses for scant compensation. Undergraduate tuition alone at BC is $26,250 a semester. Divided by five courses per semester, a BC student paying full tuition is paying $5,250 per class. As a graduate instructor in English, I was paid $21,500 last year to teach two courses—about as much to teach a 25-student course as two full-tuition students were paying to take it. Even the small amount that graduate workers are compensated is contingent, and it is not uncommon for entire cohorts of graduate students to lose health insurance or teaching positions they thought were guaranteed. Without a contract, we cannot count on compensation or benefits from year to year.

This is not a BC-specific problem. Unionization at private universities is the solution. As the administration pursues its short-term self-interest, it threatens the rights of graduate workers at all universities to unionize. The only way to shift the balance of power and provide dignity for graduate workers is to encourage collective bargaining at all universities, both public and private.

-Amelie Daigle, GMCAS '19