With the new year on the horizon, graduate workers at Northwestern University are gearing up for an election in the winter quarter that will answer one question: whether they want a union. The union movement at the school, nearly six years in the making, has reached a crescendo, with the election on Jan. 10 and 11 serving as the high point.

Vote sign in a residential neighborhood near the campus.

“We as graduate workers understand that we contribute in a very big way to Northwestern’s educational enterprise, to its research enterprise. The stakes are whether we get a say in determining what the conditions of our workplace are,” said Emilie Lozier, a fifth-year graduate student in the chemistry program and one of the two elected co-chairs in the union.

Graduate workers are not solely students, she said.

“Many of us don’t even take classes anymore on a day-to-day basis. We are conducting cutting-edge research, we’re teaching courses, we’re writing curricula, we’re publishing in prestigious journals, we’re gathering research data,” Lozier said.

“It really doesn’t capture the full picture to describe us simply as students.”

On Nov. 17, the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, a labor union, filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board seeking to represent NU graduate students enrolled in degree programs who are “employed to provide instructional and research services” at the university. Since then, union leadership and organizers had been negotiating election logistics with the school prior to the start of winter quarter.

More than 2,000 NU graduate workers have signed a union card showing support for the union, Lozier said. Union efforts in higher education, particularly among graduate workers, have been gaining ground nationwide in recent years.

Northwestern officials issued a statement Dec. 10 about the upcoming union election. “While our graduate students consider whether to vote for or against unionization in the upcoming National Labor Relations Board election, the University remains steadfast in its commitment to support, mentor and prepare graduate students for future success,” the statement read.

University officials were unavailable to comment further as the school is on winter break.

According to a list from the Washington University in St. Louis Undergraduate and Graduate Workers Union, the number of certified graduate unions has nearly doubled since 2016 from fewer than 40 to nearly 70. A landmark ruling by the NLRB in 2016 called for graduate students at private universities working as teaching or research assistants to be considered employees, and thus entitled to collective bargaining and eligible to form unions.

In that case, grad assistants at Columbia University in New York City were pushing for union recognition. Lozier said that development was a big inspiration to the union movement at NU.

“It really pointed out there is a path to unionization,” she said.

The pandemic and current economic pressures have invigorated graduate workers’ momentum for unionization, Lozier said. “Increasingly this year, we’re seeing a lot of inflationary pressures – we’re not immune to that as graduate workers. The cost of living has put it in perspective for many people how insufficient our stipend is,” she said.

According to the school’s 2021 financial report (see page 14), NU has an endowment with net assets of $16 billion. Despite the strong financial position, those funds have not found their way to grad workers, Lozier said.

“Graduate workers across the country have experienced a decline in wages, especially with the rise of inflation,” said Valentina Luketa, a field organizer at the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America. She said graduate workers at NU have not received raises in years.

“What we want is to make sure that the work that graduate workers do is valued properly,” she added.

Manan Bhavnani

Prior to joining the RoundTable, Manan Bhavnani covered business and technology for the International Business Times, with a focus on mergers, earnings and governance. He is a double Medill graduate, with...

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