Graduate workers’ union accuses Georgetown of not fairly negotiating COVID-19 protections

August 10, 2020

The Georgetown Alliance of Graduate Employees (GAGE) entered their third collective bargaining meeting on the Fall 2020 reopening plan with university administrators on Aug. 6; however, they did not reach an agreement on additional protections for graduate workers and international students. Following the meeting, GAGE members expressed frustration at what they viewed as attempts by the university to delay bargaining sessions and backtrack on previous promises.

These negotiations are the first test of the new collective bargaining contract signed by GAGE and the administration in May.  The contract came after a year and a half of negotiations between the union and the university. Graduate students first voted to unionize in November 2018 to push for expanded health care coverage, a better system for reporting workplace harassment, and increased worker compensation. 

Jeremy Canfield, a doctoral student on the union’s organizing committee, felt the university was unwilling to negotiate with GAGE and said they did not bring up any counter-proposals to the demands. “The administration made it clear that they are not willing to bargain in good faith, or even bargain at all,” he said.

Since the pandemic began to affect university operations this spring, GAGE members have organized petitions calling for additional relief measures and a remote teaching option for all instructional staff. In early June, the union conducted a survey to gauge the opinions of masters and doctoral students about the fall. 

Based on the results of the survey, GAGE identified four demands from graduate students in order to feel comfortable this fall: university provision of PPE and masks for those who work on campus, the option to work remotely without losing benefits, a guarantee for international graduate students to be able to work either remotely or in-person in the fall, and protections for workers’ privacy and medical confidentiality.

Although the university agreed to this bargaining meeting with GAGE, Canfield said that one member of the administration’s team repeatedly asserted that it “was ‘just a meeting’ and not a negotiation session,” frustrating the graduate students present. The disappointment with the university’s perceived backtracking was echoed by doctoral student Daniel Solomon, vice president of GAGE. He argued the university’s outward support for worker’s rights was contrasted by its unwillingness to negotiate demands. 

“Georgetown’s agreement to bargain was nothing more than a cynical bait-and-switch,” Solomon said. “They told us that they don’t feel obligated to bargain with GAGE over policy changes that will have dramatic effects on our health, safety, and job security.”

The bargaining sessions come after several months of activism from graduate workers to negotiate fall reopening plans with the university. GAGE submitted two demands, on July 14 and July 21, to initiate an impact bargaining process for the Fall 2020 semester, as provided for under their union contract. Many GAGE members have stated concerns that the current reopening plan does not guarantee pay and health insurance for graduate workers who want to work remotely, raising the possibility that they will be forced to teach or conduct research in person.

Ana Paula, a rising second-year Ph.D. student from Brazil, plans to live at home during the fall and work virtually as a teaching assistant for the Government Department. However, Paula reported feeling unsure if she would continue to receive the same benefits and pay despite not being on campus. “I feel like I’m unsure about what consequences my decision to stay [in Brazil] would look like,” she said. “Now, I’ll have to TA, and what will that look like as a virtual experience?”

Describing the uncertainty she and other international workers are facing about their ability to keep their university jobs, Paula said “A lot of students have been really worried and really anxious about this. If teleworking is possible or not depends on which country you’re in.” 

Back in May, the Student Employment Office published a list of the countries from which international students could work virtually for the university over the summer. The list mentions 26 countries, including Brazil, but notably excludes China. Since then, there has been no university-wide update on whether all international students, regardless of location, will be able to hold remote jobs in the fall. 

Through these negotiations, GAGE members sought a letter of agreement, a legally-binding document holding the university accountable for implementing any agreed-upon demands. According to GAGE’s official Twitter account, the administrators rejected this idea, telling representatives at the meeting “there isn’t a need for an additional agreement which bluntly would then open the doors for requests.”

However, Canfield said GAGE’s union contract mandates a letter of agreement at the end of the collective bargaining process, making the university’s refusal a violation of the contract. GAGE President and doctoral student Jewel Tomasula likewise expressed her frustration that the administration was not abiding by the terms of the contract that had been painstakingly negotiated by both parties. “Simply put, Georgetown admin has broken grad workers’ trust with every step of their decision making this pandemic,” she stated.

Tomasula further insinuated the administration was unfairly stalling to gain the upper hand in negotiations with the graduate workers. “GAGE Organizers’ Council approved impact bargaining as a course of action on July 1st. We submitted the demand July 14th. We were ready to work overtime for a fair letter of agreement.”

“We could’ve signed off on one by now. So why not? Georgetown admin is on a power trip,” she said.

The administration stated that it is continuing to develop a plan that accommodates the needs of graduate workers and provides safe working conditions during the fall semester.

“The university has been working thoughtfully on developing a policy for providing graduate students flexibility in fulfilling their service assignments for Fall 2020 in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.  Under the current version of the draft policy, graduate students will not be compelled or pressured to teach on campus this fall,” a university spokesperson wrote in an email to the Voice.

The university has also met with, and intends to continue discussions with, representatives from GAGE about the draft reopening policy.”

Highlighting the importance of reaching an agreement to ensure the wellbeing of graduate students, Solomon added, “All we’re asking is that Georgetown bargain over our proposals in good faith so that we can work together to protect the health, safety, and job security of graduate workers.”

“Is that too much to ask?”

Darren Jian
Darren is the executive editor for resources, diversity, and inclusion and a senior in the College studying government and math. Some things he likes are flea markets, indie rock concerts, and student debt cancellation.

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