Georgetown University graduate students are doubling down after school officials formally declined to acknowledge the creation of a graduate student union, which would have negotiated benefits for graduate students at the university if approved, by preparing to file with the National Labor Relations Board.
Last week, Georgetown University Provost Robert Groves informed members of the Graduate Alliance of Graduate Employees, or GAGE — a group of Georgetown students who have been pushing for official acknowledgment of their organization as a union for nearly a year — that the university would not recognize graduate students as university employees protected under its Just Employment Policy.
Students took to Georgetown University's Red Square, a designated free-speech zone named for its brick pavement, to rally against the decision. They planted 800 flags in the ground, representing the 800 graduate workers at Georgetown who are being denied worker status, coverage by the Just Employment Policy, and collective bargaining rights.
The faculty has also joined in the protest, drafting a letter in support of GAGE which has garnered more than 35 faculty signatures.
Established in 2005, Georgetown’s Just Employment Policy was created to guarantee fair compensation and benefits for university employees, as well as individuals serving as full-time contractors.
In an email to The Hoya, university officials stressed that they view their relationships with graduate students to be purely educational, rather than as a business transaction.
“A graduate student’s relationship with the University is fundamentally an educational one and [Georgetown] has declined to recognize GAGE as a collective bargaining representative for a limited subset of graduate students,” said Rachel Pugh, Georgetown’s senior director for strategic communications.
GAGE members insist that Georgetown is mistaken in its assessment of the graduate student-Georgetown relationship and its application of NLRB rulings. According to Inside Higher Ed, Georgetown's opinion "is in conflict with a 2016 decision from the National Labor Relations Board saying that student teaching and research assistants at private institutions are workers under the National Labor Relations Act and therefore entitled to collective bargaining (public campuses are governed by state laws on that issue)."
“We know that current labor law is on our side. That, regardless of what Georgetown may believe, the law states that we are workers. We know that we have identified our graduate workers and a majority of them are in support of unionization,” a spokesperson for GAGE told the Washington Examiner.
“Our plan is to continue to grow this base of support, and to show Georgetown that its position is not legally founded, in contravention of the university’s JEP, in discord with its Jesuit values, and more broadly a position that the Georgetown community, including large numbers of faculty, undergraduates, and alumni, fundamentally disagree with,” GAGE continued.
GAGE is considering "multiple options" on how to best accomplish their goals and told the Washington Examiner that they will be filing paperwork with the NLRB to request a vote in which all student employees would give their say in whether or not they would like to be unionized. Georgetown graduate students would need to vote in favor of the union by at least 51 percent in order to force Georgetown’s hand in recognizing the union.
Earlier this semester, University of Chicago graduate students used this process to become recognized as a union on campus. The October vote resulted in 1,103 votes for the union and 479 against. There were 149 challenged ballots.
“We have no plans of slowing down, and will continue to hold various events throughout the spring that show the power of our collective voice. We’re quite excited for the future,” GAGE told the Washington Examiner.
The students’ effort to unionize has been backed by the American Federation of Teachers, a national education union that has heavily supported Democrats in recent elections. AFT has been instrumental in recent campaigns to force universities to recognize graduate students as union workers, though they still force graduate student unions who choose to affiliate with them to pay their organization a portion of their total union dues.
What many students and faculty often fail to realize is that unionizing means turning labor negotiation rights over to a national labor organization, such as AFT or the United Auto Workers. In recent years, students and faculty at New York University and Yale University have reported a number of negative experiences with their affiliation with the UAW. These include the union blocking efforts to appoint qualified students as adjunct professors, labeling graduate students who are adjuncts as “teaching assistants,” and even forcing universities to hire graduate students from their own schools who may be less qualified to teach a course, rather than hire graduates from outside the school.
Georgetown University officials told the Washington Examiner that despite their ruling, they remain "committed to working with graduate students to address issues affecting them."
John Patrick (@john_pat_rick) is a graduate of Canisius College and Georgia Southern University. He interned for Red Alert Politics during the summer of 2012 and has continued to contribute regularly.