The Georgetown Alliance of Graduate Employees (GAGE) announced on March 25 an agreement with the university securing COVID-19 protections, approximately eight months after beginning negotiations for COVID-19 guarantees. GAGE sought third-party arbitration with the university last September after bargaining disputes continued to delay an agreement.
The union’s initial demands for COVID-19 protections included guaranteed remote work for all graduate workers, paid sick leave for employees with COVID-19, personal protective equipment for on-campus graduate workers, and legal rights for graduate employees under the administration’s Community Compact.
GAGE’s first union contract with the university was finalized on May 8, 2020, and allows for the union to bargain over issues not included in the original contract and seek third-party arbitration for disputes. In June of the same year, GAGE representatives began to negotiate with the university on COVID-19 protections for graduate employees. These talks halted in August, however, when the university announced it could not bargain with GAGE over the protections. GAGE claimed that COVID-19 protections were not included in the initial contract talks, while the university maintained they were as the contract was formalized after the onset of the pandemic.
GAGE announced a grievance motion on Sept. 18, claiming the university had refused to continue COVID-19 protection negotiations. Under the arbitration process, GAGE could use a third party to resolve disputes with the university over collective bargaining agreements. The university denied the formal grievance 15 days later, resulting in the start of the arbitration process The administration agreed to an expedited arbitration regarding the COVID-19 negotiations on Oct. 13, in which arbitration occurred without testimonies but each party submitting paperwork.
May 2020: GAGE finalizes first union contract with the university
June 2020: GAGE begins negotiations over COVID-19 protections
August 2020: Negotiations stop when the university says it cannot bargain over COVID-19 policies
September 2020: GAGE announces a grievance motion and seeks arbitration
October 2020: The university agrees to expedited arbitration process
January 2021: An arbitrator rules that the university did not adhere to GAGE contract and must resume negotiations
March 2021: GAGE announces new agreement with COVID-19 protections
According to GAGE President Jewel Tomasula (PHD ‘24), Georgetown’s lawyer argued to the arbitrator that GAGE was infringing on the university’s management rights. “It’s still distressing to me that in a health crisis where the global death toll is millions of people, the Georgetown administration explicitly prioritized asserting its management rights rather than agreeing with GAGE in Fall ‘20 on health protections for graduate workers,” Tomasula wrote in an email to the Voice.
The independent arbitrator ruled in favor of GAGE on Jan. 19 of this year, stating that the university did not adhere to the GAGE contract in negotiations over COVID-19 protections. The arbitrator’s ruling prompted new negotiations between GAGE and the university, with an agreement announced on March 25.
“Without our union and the third-party arbitration process that we won in our May 2020 Collective Bargaining Agreement, graduate workers’ concerns would have been ignored by university administrators,” Tomasula explained.
The March agreement includes guaranteed protections such as parking and emergency isolation housing for graduate research assistants, university support to TAs and instructors of record who need to purchase new technology for teaching, and transparent rights for graduate workers teaching in-person elements of hybrid courses.
Tomasula discussed the need for graduate workers to have transparent COVID-19 protections from Georgetown during a time of shifting university policies and public health conditions. “Grad workers are living through so much uncertainty right now, like near-term stress about our research progress and long-term worries about the job market. It is such a huge relief to make these workplace rights and health protections certain and clear,” she explained. “Now we are going into this summer session with side agreements that ensure rights and protections for in-person work, which helps so much to ease concerns felt by TAs and Instructors of Record.”
A university spokesperson emphasized the university’s commitment to the safety of its students and workers, including members of GAGE, who are affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). “The health and safety of all members of our community has been our foremost priority since the beginning of the pandemic,” the spokesperson wrote in a statement to the Voice. “ No GAGE-AFT member has been required to come to campus if they feel unsafe, and we have worked creatively to ensure their continued employment in a virtual environment.”
Moving forward, the spokesperson said the university will continue to collaborate with GAGE. “Georgetown has provided GAGE-AFT members with flexibility and support, just as we have with our faculty,” the spokesperson wrote.
GAGE’s COVID-19 agreements with the university come before an expected return of the full student body to campus this fall, with freshmen invited back early for a five-week Summer Hilltop Immersion Program.
“I’m so relieved GAGE members organized for a safe and equitable pandemic response and kept organizing despite the challenges, and now we have stronger rights and protections to help us get through the rest of the pandemic,” Tomasula added. “I am so proud of how GAGE members acted in solidarity with each other and persisted in this really challenging time.”