Last month, Georgetown University declined to voluntarily recognize the Georgetown Alliance of Graduate Employees (GAGE), a graduate student workers’ union. Over 50 percent of graduate student workers, or graduate students who work for the university, sometimes as a necessary part of their degree program, signed documents of support to create the formal union. However, Provost Robert Groves and Edward B. Healton, executive vice president for health science, wrote a letter to GAGE explaining that the university views graduate student workers fundamentally as students, rather than employees.
This editorial board urges the university to recognize GAGE. Graduate student workers are employees as well as students, and the university must recognize them as such in all labor issues, including the right to unionize. Many serve as teaching assistants for undergraduate classes or research assistants in laboratories in addition to a full slate of course work. Because many graduate students are required to work extensive hours for the university, Georgetown must recognize GAGE as a union of university employees. Refusing to recognize GAGE overlooks the university’s 2005 Just Employment Policy (JEP) and ignores federal law.
The JEP requires the university to allow for employee unions: “[T]he University will respect the rights of employees to vote for or against union representation without intimidation, unjust pressure, undue delay or hindrance in accordance with applicable law.” By downplaying graduate student workers’ contributions to the university, Georgetown impedes the very right the JEP is designed to protect. Groves and Healton’s letter states that the university does not believe the JEP applies to graduate student workers. The JEP itself does not mention this exception.
University policy aside, the National Labor Relations Board, a federal agency that oversees labor unionization, ruled in 2016 that graduate student workers from private universities have the right to unionize. In its decision, the board directly addressed the argument that graduate student workers have a primarily educational relationship with their universities. Responding to a petition from Columbia University graduate student workers, the board ruled that graduate students can also be employees if they provide and are compensated for work by a university.
Last week, Groves and Healton sent an update email to the Georgetown community explaining that the university is considering a proposal from GAGE for a union election run by a neutral third party, rather than the NLRB. This would be a positive step, but it is far from enough. GAGE should be able to make decisions on conducting an election based only on what is best for the union, not the university.
Administrators continue to cling to the exploitative logic that refuses to admit graduate student workers are employees, despite the NLRB’s clear ruling. To defend this neglect of federal law, the update email argues that the NLRB has vacillated on their decision in the past. “Sometimes the NLRB has held that graduate students are primarily students and therefore not eligible to form unions under the National Labor Relations Act,” Groves and Healton wrote. “At other times, including currently, the NLRB has held that graduate students are considered employees who are eligible to unionize.” The implication that current law is less binding because of past decisions that have been overturned is both laughable and dangerous. Neither past nor potential future changes lessen the duty to follow the law. And even without the legal imperative, there is still a moral obligation to recognize the rights of those who work for and benefit our community.
GAGE has already made a positive impact on campus, even without university recognition. The union offers support for international graduate workers, works to increase job opportunities, and promotes events geared toward raising marginalized and underrepresented workers’ voices.
Graduate student workers’ contributions to the wider Georgetown community cannot be overstated. Nearly every undergraduate student learns from graduate teaching assistants. Teaching and research assistants also provide crucial support to professors and administrators. Everyone benefits by attracting the best and brightest graduate student workers to campus. Discouraging capable potential Hoyas and disempowering current workers by denying their right to bargain collectively on their own behalf hurts us all. It has been encouraging to witness advocates for GAGE from many corners of campus life, including a unanimous resolution of support from the history department. Hoyas should continue to defend their peers.
Graduate student workers are under constant threat. In November, the Republican tax plan threatened to include graduate student aid money as taxable income. Graduate student workers also often receive stipends far below a living wage. The Georgetown Graduate School of Arts and Sciences offers $28,000 stipends for student workers to live in Washington, one of the most expensive cities in the country. Meanwhile, Georgetown’s health care offering for graduate students through United Healthcare includes out-of-pocket maximums of up to $6,350 per year. International graduate students are particularly at risk because they do not have access to federal loans or spousal and child benefits.
It is time for the university to abide by its own policy and the NLRB decision. If Georgetown hopes to stay true to the spirit of men and women for others, it must treat all of its workers with dignity and respect and recognize their lawful right to fight to improve their conditions. Graduate student workers alone have the right to choose whether or not to unionize, and they have made their decision. GAGE has and will change campus for the better.