5 Reasons We're Forming a Graduate Student Union at USC

As you may have heard, graduate students at private universities recently won the right to form unions. We’re writing you today to tell you why we’re organizing to form a graduate student union at USC.
1. Together we can fix a broken system.
Our colleges and universities are becoming a luxury for the wealthy instead of a pathway to the American Dream. Students spend their entire lives trying to pay off debt, yet instructors are paid so little that they qualify for food stamps — all while top administrators pay themselves millions. Together we can fight to restore the promise of higher education: a commitment to quality, accessible instruction that graduates students without debt, pays educators a living wage, and generates more opportunities for everyone in our communities.
2. Gaining a voice on campus.
Graduate students are the glue that binds our university together, but all too often we’re overlooked and overworked. A union is a way to be heard. A way to come together, build collective power and help bring about greater change at our and other higher education institutions.
3. Getting back control of our work.
A Graduate student union will bring more security and control over the terms of our work, teaching, and research. Our working conditions directly impact student learning, research outcomes, and our own health and well-being. By forming a union, we can secure a strong, collective voice for ourselves, our work, and the students we teach.
4. Winning the better pay and improved benefits we deserve.
USC relies on us for undergraduate and graduate instruction, to support research projects, and to further the work of tenured and tenure-track faculty, all of which contribute to maintaining an exceptional academic experience, improved student outcomes, and increased university rankings. But despite our importance, our work is often undervalued and under-appreciated. We teach and research without an adequate voice in pay, healthcare coverage, and university fees, even when the cost of living in Los Angeles continues to skyrocket. Graduate students and faculty who have formed unions have won landmark improvements in wages, access to benefits, and professional development in their first contracts.
5. We’re in this together.
As the fall semester continues, USC graduate students are organizing to build a strong union on campus, and we’re not alone. Graduate student organizing campaigns are underway at universities across the country, including Duke, Saint Louis University, Northwestern, American University, and Vanderbilt.
As graduate students, we need a strong, united voice to effect change. We believe the best way to improve our working conditions and fix higher education is by coming together to form a union.
Will you join us? Take the first step: fill out the confidential form below to show your support.
All the best,
Victor Sánchez, Research Assistant, Program for Environmental and Regional Equity
Peter Guekguezian, Teaching Assistant, Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences

Graduate Students Are Uniting to Change Higher Education

Dear Fellow Graduate Student Employees: 

We are writing to share why we are coming together to improve our working conditions and to ask you to join us.

As you may have heard, graduate student teaching and/or research assistants at private colleges and universities now have the the right to form unions and negotiate over the terms of their employment. Graduate student workers are vital to the mission of higher education. Our teaching, grading and instructional support are core components of undergraduate education; our lab work and fieldwork underwrite major new discoveries and innovations; our research and scholarship contribute both to the broad advance of knowledge and to the reputation of our institution.
Yet graduate needs, perspectives and voices are too often overlooked. Over the past few months, we have spoken with our colleagues across our universities about a range of issues impacting graduate students. Several core themes emerged from these discussions, including: concerns about rising costs of living; inadequate flexibility in healthcare coverage; lack of basic workplace protections; the need for better workplace harassment and discrimination policies; the imposition of continuation fees and other financial burdens; and sudden changes to our contracts and work conditions.
As graduate student workers, we need a strong, united voice in order to effect change on these and other issues. We believe the best way to improve our working conditions is by coming together to form a union for graduate student workers on our individual campuses and to unite with our peers at universities across the country.
While graduate employee unions are not new, we are now part of a national movement. We are standing up and saying it’s time for the people responsible for the core mission of instruction and scholarship to have a voice in the decisions that impact our degree path, our livelihoods, and the future of higher education.

In the past three years, non-tenure track faculty at nearly 50 universities voted to form a union under the banner of SEIU Faculty Forward—joining a nationwide movement of 120,000 SEIU members who work in higher education. Graduate student unionization campaigns are underway at peer institutions such as Duke, Northwestern, Saint Louis University, Vanderbilt and others. By forming a graduate student union with SEIU, we can join our colleagues on campus and across the country in order to improve our work conditions and the quality of higher education as a whole.

Improving our working conditions will benefit not only graduate student workers, but also our students, our faculty and the administration:

  • Undergraduate students deserve teachers, graders and teaching assistants who can be fully engaged in providing the best possible education. Financial insecurity, inadequate health and childcare, unclear teaching guidelines, and uneven work expectations detract and distract from this mission.

  • We also believe that workplace protections, fair grievance procedures and consistent, transparent employment policies for graduate student workers will improve health, productivity and outcomes.

  • Faculty rely on graduate student workers for assistance with research and instruction and will benefit from healthy, happy, productive graduate students, as will the university as a whole.

By working together, we can positively impact our working conditions in ways that benefit the educational and research mission of our universities.

If you’re ready to take the first step to making improvements, click here to sign a union authorization form today, or fill out the form at the bottom of this page. You should also feel free to contact us directly to answer questions about how forming a union would raise standards for our jobs, students, and profession and to find out more about how you can get involved.
We hope you will join us!

Edward Muna, University of Southern California
Kenneth McCarthy Bolster, University of Southern California
Petrina Crockford, University of Southern California
Sabeen Ahmad, Vanderbilt University
Jackson Christopher Bartlett, Northwestern University
Jean Clifford, Loyola University of Chicago
Elizabeth Eikmann, Saint Louis University
Max Freeman, Northwestern University
Connor Gadek, American University
Justin Hubbard, Vanderbilt University
Lisa Madura, Vanderbilt University
Paulo G. Martinez, Vanderbilt University
Ben Meiners, Washington University in St. Louis
Jesse Montgomery, Vanderbilt University
Imani Mosley, Duke University
Aitza M. Haddad Nuñez, J.D., Howard University
Sebastian Ramirez, Vanderbilt University
Lyle Rubin, University of Rochester
Shahrazad Shareef, Duke University
Kelly Swope, Vanderbilt University


Are they Students? Or are they Employees? NLRB Rules that Graduate Students are Employees

The Washington Post reports on the NLRB’s landmark ruling clearing the way for graduate students to organize unions on their campusesL

The National Labor Relations Board ruled Tuesday that graduate students who work as teaching and research assistants at private universities are school employees, clearing the way for them to join or form unions that administrators must recognize.

Debates about the role and rights of graduate students have emerged as more universities rely on low-paid adjuncts and doctoral students, rather than full-time professors, to teach — a model that has been widely criticized as exploitative. Though adjuncts are making inroads in their fight for higher wages, graduate students have struggled, in part, because the work they do is often a component of their education.” 

Read the whole thing here.

NLRB Reports USC Violated Federal Laws

From the Daily Trojan: “A report released by the NLRB Monday supported these objections and rendered the original Dornsife vote invalid. The ruling, issued by NLRB Hearing Officer Yaneth Palencia, found that Quick and the USC administration broke federal labor laws by attempting to dissuade adjunct faculty from voting for the union. Though the University will face no legal action, the vote results will be set aside and a new vote will take place within the coming weeks. Votes at the Roski School of Fine Arts and the USC International Academy, which voted to unionize, will remain in place.”

NLRB: USC Broke the Law in Faculty Unionization Vote

Inside Higher Ed reports on the lengths USC administrators are willing to go to stop faculty unionization efforts: “’Provost [Michael] Quick engaged in conduct that was so aggravated as to create a general atmosphere of fear making a free election impossible,’ such as by allegedly suggesting that joining a union would make faculty members ineligible for various forms of shared governance.” More here.

USC's Tuition Will Top $50,000 for the First Time

The Los Angeles Times reports: “USC, always striving to reach new heights, is set to cross a dubious milestone: Tuition for the 2016-2017 academic year will surpass $50,000 for the first time.” Read the whole article here.

University of Chicago Nontenured Faculty Votes to Form Union

Huge news out of Illinois as UChicago faculty win their union election by a 4-to-1 margin, from the Chicago Tribune:
“A group of nontenured instructors at the University of Chicago has voted to form a union, adding a prestigious name to a swelling national movement to bring organized labor to the ivory tower.”
Read the whole story here.

USC's Non-Tenure Track Professors Take First Step to Unionizing

Big news out of USC today, as over 500 non-tenure track faculty filed a petition for a union election with the National Labor Relations Board. Seeking to protect quality education through improved faculty working conditions, faculty have taken the first step towards forming a union on campus.
Despite non-tenure track faculty’s critical role in the University, many of our professors are having a hard time making ends meet. From KPCC:
“I love what do here, I love my job. I wouldn’t trade the work that I do for any other,” said Kate Levin, who has taught writing at USC since 2011. “But — I personally — I find it hard to afford my rent. I find it hard to afford day care for my kid, and sort of the basic necessities of life, on what we make here.”
Levin teaches two writing classes a semester — more than some part-time faculty. She said she also earns a bit more per class than others, $8,000 a class. But that amounts to about $32,000 a year. To supplement, she does freelance writing.
Levin said she has benefits, but some some part-time professors don’t, like Alexis Disselkoen, who has taught in the art department at USC for almost four years.
“I would like to see things like some more job security, and potentially being able to work toward getting health benefits – one, day, hopefully,” said Disselkoen.
Read the whole story here.

University Lecturers on the Breadline: Is the UK Following in America’s Footsteps?

The Guardian takes a first-hand look at the U.S.’ ongoing trend towards the corporatization of higher education, and the real effects of driving down the cost of instruction to maximize profits:
“The thing is the real economic hardship of this,” says Wedell, who lectures at the University of Southern California Roski School of Art and Design. Her annual wages from non-permanent contracts in the past few years have oscillated between $21,000 and $24,000 depending on how many classes she’s been given to teach. “Scrabbling around” for non-academic work to supplement her income has been essential. “I have to sublet my apartment during the summer and live with my mother – at 43. I have put off having a family because of this. The situation is obscene.”
Read the whole story here.

USG College Affordability Resolution Hits the Mark

Daily Trojan writer Lily Vaughan weighs in on the recent affordability resolution put forth by USG:
“The lack of transparency as to where these funds are going increases mistrust among the University community and amplifies the sting of the same tuition increases the University fails to explain. Students deserve to be able to predict the cost of their higher education, to access the University regardless of their socioeconomic standing and to rely on their University to responsibly and openly disseminate financial information.”
Check out the whole article here.