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Graduate Student Workers Push for Collective Bargaining Rights at Hearing

Boston College graduate student employees testified at a public hearing before the Boston City Council on Thursday evening regarding the university's refusal to recognize the Boston College Graduate Employees Union-United Auto Workers (BCGEU-UAW).

Sponsored by Boston City Councilor Lydia Edwards, the hearing discussed student workers and labor practices in the city's institutions of higher education. Graduate students from Harvard, Northeastern, and Boston University also testified about their own collective organizing efforts.

Thursday's hearing before the city council follows years of union organizing efforts by graduate student workers, who have been met with resistance from their universities' administrations.

Although each university administration submitted letters to the City Council, there were no representatives present at the hearing to speak on behalf of their universities, a fact which Boston City Councilor Lydia Edwards described as “unfortunate.”

Edwards went on to suggest that if the university administrations fail to come forward to discuss the issues raised by graduate student employees and their unions, the city council “may consider some form of subpoena power to make them explain what is going on." This statement was met by applause.

In 2016, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that private university graduate teaching and research assistants are employees for purposes of the National Labor Relations Act, and therefore, are entitled to be represented by unions. A year later, graduate student employees at BC voted to be represented by BCGEU-UAW in an NLRB-approved election in September 2017.

However, the university administration refuses to recognize the union, despite the election results and student employees continuous organizing efforts.

A letter from Provost David Quigley in September 2018 described the possibility of a graduate student union as a “serious threat” to the academic values of BC. BC’s stance is that graduate student workers are to be considered workers, not employees.

On the other hand, graduate student employees say that their roles as teaching assistants and lab researchers conducting the research that brings in millions in research grants every year are critical to the educational mission and everyday functioning of their universities.

When student workers brought the situation with their administrations to the attention of the Boston City Council, a resolution affirming the rights of graduate student workers was passed in April.

“I think it is very important that we as Boston City Council make very clear that we view graduate students as workers,” said Edwards, who had sponsored the aforementioned resolution. “We value your work, value your rights, and value your voice.”

The view that graduate students are not workers allowed BC to take disciplinary action against students who were trying to organize. Last fall, 16 graduate students were disciplined for handing out flyers at an event. In a letter submitted to the Boston City Council, BC defended these disciplinary actions, stating that graduate students "are bound by the same policies and code of conduct that apply to all 14,400 BC students." 

BC graduate student Sam Levinson was among those who were punished for participation in the event.

“I am a student, but I am also a worker," said Levinson. "As a worker, I have a right to hand out flyers in my workplace.”

At the hearing, Levinson described BC’s failure to meet her healthcare needs. Since her work as a graduate student required her to be exposed to materials she was allergic to, Levinson was prescribed an EpiPen.

"My exposure to these compounds is entirely a work-related risk, and therefore, Boston College should accommodate this medical necessity and pay to fill the subscription,” said Levinson.

BC refused to fill the subscription until Levinson informed the college that she was planning a lawsuit if she were to have a reaction at work. While  Levinson now has an EpiPen, she is still fighting for the right to unionize at BC to ensure protections for herself and fellow graduate student workers.

“Hopefully Boston College won’t take three years to reimburse me, but without a union contract dictating the timeline of graduate employee reimbursements,  I have no guarantee,” said Levinson.

James Mazareas, a master's student at BC, described how important unions are for LGBTQ+ workers, noting that unions protect gay and trans workers in lieu of federal law.

“This is particularly important when your employer claims a religious exemption or religious status like Boston College does,” he said, explaining that LGBTQ+ students are particularly vulnerable in a Catholic environment. He brought up a recent national news story about the archdiocese in Indianapolis, which told a school they had to fire two gay teachers for being in same-sex marriages.

While sexual orientation is protected under BC’s non-discrimination policy, gender identity is not, and the school reserves the right “where appropriate to take actions designed to promote the Jesuit, Catholic principles.”

Mazareas contrasted Boston College with Georgetown, another Jesuit university with both a graduate student union and an LGBTQ+ student center.

Abril Harris, a third-year Ph.D. candidate, spoke up about the experiences of graduate student workers of color, particularly Black students, who make up only three percent of the graduate student population at BC. 

Harris said that this reality can be isolating, and that she is often made to feel unwelcome on campus, such as being asked to present identification to be allowed to study in department spaces meant for doctoral students. 

“I myself was studying in our department space meant for doctoral students and was asked to present my ID to make sure that I was a student there,” said Harris.

She emphasized that discussing worker’s rights without attention to race will continue to perpetuate the inequalities that exist in society.

Harris explained that graduate student work often goes unrecognized and that contributions are seen as repayments for the favor of being allowed to be educated at these institutions. 

“While I am grateful to have an education, it also the privilege of the university to have students offer their intelligence, perspectives, and energy to inform the solutions that will hopefully make this world a better place,” said Harris. 

In her closing statement, Councilor Edwards addressed the challenges of making changes at private universities. She focused on ways that students could apply political pressure and bring attention to the issues they were facing. Also, she mentioned that there had been a tweet in solidarity with BC graduate students from Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders prior to the hearing.

"I'm very proud of this hearing,” said Edwards. “I think it's one of the best things I've done in my short political career here and I am proud to still be a member of the UAW. I’m glad I could stand with my brothers and sisters today for all social justice."

The full hearing can be watched here