At the end of June, the Boston City Council held a public hearing to address student workers and labor practices at local universities, intending to gather the impacted parties and administrators in the same room and spark a much-needed conversation.
Instead, students from Boston College, Boston University, Harvard University and Northeastern University testified to a group of city councilors—with no administrators present.
“Given that the BC administration has not respected our majority vote, has not heeded our majority petitions, and now has refused an opportunity to engage with us in a public forum, we are now increasingly looking towards direct action to have our democratic majority demand for a fair union contract respected,” said Bryn Spielvogel, a member of Boston College Graduate Employees Union—United Auto Workers.
BCGEU-UAW leadership had hoped that the Council hearing would be a step forward for the union, allowing them to argue their case on a public stage in the presence of administrators, according to Spielvogel. But with no admin there to argue with, the union is increasingly seeking support from outside the college, from members of local government, the public, and other unions in the area.
This is not the first time BCGEU-UAW has caught the attention of the Boston City Council, which passed the Resolution Affirming the Rights of Graduate Student Workers to Organize for Fair Working Conditions in April to specifically call out BC’s treatment of their graduate student workers. The resolution, sponsored by Councilor Lydia Edwards, “calls upon the Boston College administration to respect the democratic choice of its workers by, without delay, bargaining a contract with the BCGEU-UAW that reflects the values of fairness, equality, and justice the University promotes.”
Unlike at Harvard, where the university has agreed to bargain with graduate students, or Northeastern and BU, where a majority of students have not yet voted to form a union, BCGEU-UAW was voted for by a majority of graduate student workers and was officially recognized by the National Labor Relations Board in September 2017.
BC then appealed the decision and refused to bargain. BCGEU-UAW chose to withdraw the petition amid concerns that a Republican-led NLRB might rule against graduate students’ right to unionize.
Since then, BCGEU-UAW has been trying to convince BC to voluntarily recognize its union and negotiate a contract outside of the NLRB, with no success.
At public universities, the rights to collective bargaining and union recognition are determined by state labor laws. But private universities like BC rely on the NLRB to decide when graduate students are considered employees. In 2016, the NLRB ruled that graduate students at private universities are employees, opening the door for BCGEU-UAW to be officially recognized. With new Republican appointees in the NLRB, though, universities fear that any petition for union recognition could lead to the 2016 decision being overturned. Instead, graduate students at BC and other universities are attempting to bargain directly with their universities, often facing firm opposition.
“Our position remains that graduate student unionization in any form undermines the collegial, mentoring relationship among students and faculty that is a cornerstone of this academic community,” Provost and Dean of Faculties David Quigley wrote in a September 2018 letter to the Boston College community that was posted on the BC website.
At the Boston City Council hearing, rather than a representative, BC sent a letter claiming that its treatment of graduate student workers is sufficient.
But BCGEU-UAW’s unique situation—a majority-supported union that was already recognized by the NLRB—has led members of government to take notice, with even Bernie Sanders tweeting out support.
During the hearing, Edwards raised the possibility of subpoenaing university and college representatives to create opportunities for face-to-face meetings in the future.
“I think it is very important that we, as Boston City Council, make it very clear that we see graduate students as workers,” said Edwards. “As this conversation continues we may consider at some point some form of subpoena power to make [the institutions] come and explain what is going on and why they aren’t supporting you.”
It remains to be seen whether political pressure will force BC to change its position. But BCGEU-UAW is hopeful that if public opinion turns against BC, the university will change its current attitude.
“The hearing demonstrated that, in addition to the continuous majority support among BC graduate workers for the union since our election, we also have our community behind us,” Spielvogel said.
According to UAW, which represents over 50,000 workers in higher education in the United States, BCGEU-UAW is in it for the long haul.
“These workers are part of a massive movement that is not going away,” said Beverly Brakeman, UAW’s Region 9A Director. “We will stand by these workers until Boston College comes to the table and agrees to a fair contract.”
Graduate student workers at BC argue that a collectively bargained contract will help to more fully address problems BC’s graduate student workers are facing, such as stipends that they claim don’t match the high cost of living in Boston. BCGEU-UAW’s expectations for a contract with Boston College include “increased stipends, expanded health benefits, improved rights for international graduate students, protections against discrimination, [and] a fair process for resolving grievances.”
Going forward, BCGEU-UAW has no plans to restrict its campaign and plans to grow support both inside and outside the college, according to Spielvogel.
“BC graduate workers will continue to demand justice and move forward until we have our seat at the table,” Spielvogel said.
Boston College declined to comment.