[The following was sent to Vanderbilt University graduate workers on 22 February 2017.]

Graduate Student Organization


What are some practical benefits of unionizing?

Once our union is recognized, we elect a bargaining committee of graduate workers, and fill out bargaining surveys to set the priorities in our contract. These may include anything the union's members feel is important, but often emphasize:

·       Contractually guaranteed annual cost of living stipend increases and timely payments

·       Enhanced dental, vision, and mental health insurance (and lower copays)

·       Improved access to insurance coverage for partners and dependents

·       Expanded funding beyond fifth year

·       Increased travel funding to cover conference costs

·       Tuition and fee remission for fifth year and beyond

·       Standardized teaching requirements (such as smaller section sizes, better section

·       assignment procedures, and workload guidelines)

·       Vacation and sick leave for research assistants

·       Subsidized child care and parental leave (including retaining student status while on

·       leave, which can mean retaining visa status, health insurance, and access to university

·       facilities)

·       Subsidized university housing

·       Subsidized transportation

·       Protections against discriminatory hiring and admissions, sexual harassment and assault

·       Improved disability access and resources for minorities

·       Establishment of a transparent grievance procedure

Our union is:

Voice. Unions give graduate workers real and meaningful representation in how the university operates. In an era of increasing academic corporatization and reliance on adjuncts over tenured faculty, graduate worker unions give us a powerful voice in determining the future and values of the university as our workplace.

Security. Graduate workers are particularly vulnerable, and unions provide a safety net to prevent graduate workers from falling through the cracks of funding and bureaucracy.

Community. Unions are centered on the graduate community, and can be powerful spaces for building relationships across disciplines and departments premised on the foundation of grads supporting grads.

Power. By joining together, we can use our voice to change the direction of Vanderbilt, and ensure graduate employees’ contribution to the success of the University is compensated and respected.

Dispelling Common Myths about Grad Worker Unionization

A union is US, not a third party.

The collective bargaining process will be between Vanderbilt administration and Vanderbilt graduate workers. As to the sort of relationship change that might accompany unionization, Rebecca Gibson of Tufts University states: “Though we have benefited from the experience and energy of SEIU’s professional staff at every step, our issues, our preferences, our priorities, our language about our situation, our strategy and our ability to discover all of these, have determined the shape and direction of our efforts to form a union. Far from feeling separated by some third party, we feel much more deeply and more significantly integrated into the university than before. We have gained stature by being together, a union, and we feel it both in our own commitment to the well-being of our students and our teachers, and in our ability to be heard and considered part of our university.”

Unionization will not harm your relationship with your advisor or your PI.

Unionization does not harm research or academic freedom.[1] In fact, research done on quality of life for graduate workers at public universities suggests that unionization actually improves our relationships with our advisors and PIs, departments, and the broader university. By giving grads a voice in the university's policy-making process, unions can empower grads to have a say in funding structures, lab conditions, class sizes, and academic requirements, instead of depending on administrators to make these decisions based on their own criteria. Formalizing our workload expectations, expanding our health coverage, creating transparent and accessible grievance procedures, among other gains, improve our individual lives, and allow us to better pursue our own research, teaching, and education.

Our union won’t cover the different conditions between the sciences and the humanities.

It is accurate to say that there are significant differences in the working conditions between the humanities and the sciences.  For that matter, there are significant differences between, even, different humanities departments, and within single departments.  However, there are shared interests, from the wish for guaranteed raises to formal, third-party grievance proceedings.  Further, we can put specifications into our contract that speak to the diverse interests of our own departments.  Finally, when we negotiate our contract, it is dependent on us to make sure that we elect a bargaining committee that represents all of our departments, and to vote for a contract that benefits us all.

Won’t I have to pay dues?

You don’t pay dues until you ratify your first contract, and the contract we put forward would include a pay raise to offset the expense of paying dues. Non-members are not forced to pay dues in Tennessee.

Will I have to go on strike?

According to one source, 98% of contract negotiations are resolved without a strike.  More importantly, members vote on labor actions, including strikes.  No strike will occur if an overwhelming majority of members don’t wish to do so.  You can’t successfully strike unless a formidable portion of members are committed to walking out.

1. Sean E. Rogers, Adrienne E. Eaton and Paula B. Voos, “Effects of Unionization on Graduate Student Employees: Faculty Student Relations, Academic Freedom, and Pay” ILR Review 66:2 (2013).