In August, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that graduate students are considered employees and have the right to form unions under the law.  Over the past few months, Tufts graduate student workers have been talking about exercising our new right to unionize and collectively bargain over our working conditions. Here are some questions that have come up:
Why are we forming a union?
As graduate student workers, we love to research. After the NLRB ruling, we began investigating whether or not this option was right for Tufts. We discovered that unionizing improves the working conditions of graduate student employees in many areas including pay, benefits, job security, relationships with faculty, transparency of expectations, and more.
But perhaps more important than the material improvements, as a union, we can more fully participate in conversations that shape Tufts and impact our community. As members of a union, we strengthen our voice and gain a seat at the table. It’s not only about increased pay - what we seek is a role in the process of making decisions that impact us.
How will my advisor react to this?
There is empirical evidence  that unionizing has a positive or neutral impact on advisor-student relationships. Anecdotally, organized faculty on campus report that forming a union has strengthened their relationships with supervisors and the administration. At Tufts, academic union-university relations have been marked with a mutual collegiality. Tufts spokeswoman Kimberly Thurler has been quoted saying, “Our negotiations [with part-time faculty] were focused on ensuring that our part-time faculty recognize that we respect the work they do for Tufts and their contributions to our educational mission.”
While there is a culture at Tufts that is respectful of unions, it’s true that we can’t predict how individuals will react. But forming a union is our right that is protected by law. In the unlikely situation that we feel retaliated against for union activity, we would have legal recourse.
Can Tufts can afford to provide better pay and benefits?
With total net assets of $2.1 billion, unrestricted operating revenues of $854 million, and an $18 million operating surplus for FY 2016, it is fair to state that Tufts is in a strong enough financial position to more fairly compensate graduate employees, who make significant contributions to the University community. Raises for all graduate student employees across the University would amount to an almost negligible impact on an operating budget as large as Tufts.
Will I have to pay dues even though I don’t yet know what we’ll win?
We won’t pay dues until we bargain our first contract with the administration, thoroughly review the agreement, and vote to ratify it because we agree that it is worth our dues. Once we have ratified our contract, dues are 1.5% of our newly negotiated pay. We won’t ratify a contract that doesn’t provide pay increases that at bare minimum covers what we’ll pay in dues. Additionally, if you are not being paid, there are no dues.
Will I be forced to go on strike?
We will not be forced to go on strike. While strikes can be an important and powerful source of leverage during negotiations, they are rarely necessary and are an absolute last resort. The Tufts administration has a history of working with, not against, unions, as demonstrated by their work with faculty union on campus. In academia, letter writing campaigns, teach-ins, and walk-outs have been effective. In the unlikely event that those options fail, we can decide, by voting, if a strike is necessary. It is up to individuals to decide whether they will participate. Each worker within or without the union system has the right to choose to participate in a strike or protest of any kind.
If paid through an external grant, am I covered by the union? Is it possible for me to negotiate my compensation?
Yes, the NLRB ruling states, “we hold today that student assistants who have a common-law employment relationship with their university are statutory employees under the Act. We will apply that standard to student assistants, including assistants engaged in research funded by external grants. ”  Moreover, UMass, University of Washington graduate workers, and University of California postdoctoral workers have already collectively negotiated annual increases in their grant-funded compensation through collective bargaining.
I enjoy specific benefits as a graduate student in my department, would forming a union put those in jeopardy?
When we form a union, we will bargain from what is currently in place. If we want to keep something, we can ensure it through an agreement with the university. Many people worry about losing the benefits we currently enjoy, but it’s important to note that a collective bargaining agreement does not force departments to follow uniform policies or deny them of flexibility. We believe that as graduate employees, we know what policies are good or bad for us; that’s why we believe we should have a right to negotiate with the administration over these practices.
I am part of the community of International Students at Tufts. What does this mean for me?
All graduate student employees, regardless of nationality, are eligible to join a union. The NLRB’s ruling that we are does not impact visas or change anyone’s tax status.  Beyond that, benefits such as reliable summer funding and retention of visa status during parental or sick-leave will be especially important to international graduate students.