In a recent post I wrote about the difficult work-life balance of graduate students, I said one of the steps Hopkins could take to make student life better would be to recognize Teachers and Researchers United (TRU) as an official graduate student union. I wrote this without fully researching what this would mean for graduate students, and after my post, I wanted to seriously dig into what a recognized graduate student union at Hopkins could look like.
This is especially relevant as TRU is collecting signatures via a Digital Union Authorization Card in order to hold a union election. To file a petition so an election could be held to determine if students want to form a union, TRU would need to get signatures from a majority of graduate students at Hopkins.
Why Hold an Election Now?
This petition process seems complicated, but it is the process mandated by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the independent federal agency with the power to instate union representation. In 2016, the NLRB ruled that graduate students at private universities are employees, and thereby have the right to form unions and collectively bargain (1). However, the NLRB has flip-flopped on this ruling with each change in presidential administration. Under the Trump administration, the NLRB proposed a rule to reverse the 2016 decision (2). Then, under the Biden administration this past March, the NLRB withdrew the rule proposal, allowing graduate students to continue to seek the opportunity to collectively bargain without fear that their unions will be dissolved (2). This triggered TRU’s filing for an election petition.
What Would Filling Out the Digital Union Authorization Card Mean?
The election petition that TRU has proposed would call for an election to authorize the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 500 to represent graduate student workers in collective bargaining talks. Filling out the Digital Union Authorization Card means you would support having the election. You can change your mind on supporting the union in the actual election. Additionally, your signature on the card would automatically expire after a year.
An Example Graduate Student Contract
As noted above, TRU is looking to have the SEIU Local 500 represent graduate students. The SEIU Local 500 is a union whose members work at colleges, universities, public schools and nonprofits across Maryland and Washington, D.C. (3). They currently represent one other graduate student union, the American University Graduate Student Workers Union in Washington, D.C., and their contract is available to view. The highlights of this contract include that, based on a 20-hour workweek, the minimum annual stipend for Ph.D. students is $23,000. This comes with the option to contract hourly work at $20/hour. I reached out to the American University GSU to ask if there was a weekly hour cap on how much students could work, but I did not receive a response.
However, this is better than my current hourly rate on my school of medicine Ph.D. stipend, which would be $16.78 per hour if you assumed I had a 40-hour workweek an on annual basis.
The contract does come with dues. The dues for the union are currently $17.50 per pay period, whereas nonunion members pay a fair-share fee of $15.58 per pay period (90% of the full fee) (4).
The contract defines the scope of work and provides a framework for performance evaluation. It guarantees rights to health care, leaves of absence and sufficient funding for Ph.D. and master’s students. Although health care and leaves of absence are something we receive as Ph.D. students in the school of medicine, these benefits are not uniform across the entirety of JHU.
Additionally, the contract limits graduate student duties to those “that benefit both the academic unit and advance the professional development of the [student]. Work assignments will be more academically substantive than administrative.” This would limit administrative responsibilities of the student and put the onus on departments to administratively support their students.
Finally, a concern commonly associated with unions is that workers fear they will be called to strike. It is worth noting that the American University contract has a no-strike/no-lockout rule in place. This means that the union cannot authorize a strike or lockout.
That being said, this contract is the one held by the Graduate Student Union at American University. If Hopkins were to authorize SEIU Local 500 to bargain for graduate student workers, our contract would cater to the specific needs of Hopkins students and would likely have differences from this example contract. However, I felt that how the SEIU Local 500 is currently representing American University students would be the best indicator of how they would represent us.
Pros and Cons
After examining the contract, I want to highlight some key takeaways. The American University contract benefited all graduate students across department and degrees. It clearly defined roles, responsibilities and work hours expected of these students. It establishes a minimum stipend for graduate work. It set up social supports for students and put their professional development first.
However, this comes with some drawbacks. If Hopkins graduate workers were to form a similar union, there would be dues involved that every graduate worker would have to pay. This seems likely to be approximately $20 per pay period. Some of the social supports that the union guaranteed in the American University contract are programs that Hopkins SOM already provides to graduate students. My Johns Hopkins Hospital Student Health Program health care coverage is fantastic. But we could bargain for other supports as well. For example, we could bargain to be included in the disability insurance that medical students and employees have access to. We could bargain for better child care options for graduate student parents, and we could bargain for graduate students of other fields to have a similar standard of support.
The other usual con to joining a union is the possibility of striking. However, it seems unlikely that the union TRU would help us form would have the ability to organize a strike, based on American University’s contract.
Since TRU is only collecting signatures with the goal of holding an election, there is little risk in supporting them. The closer we get to an election, the better idea we will have about what a union for Johns Hopkins University graduate students would look like, and the better decision we can make. If you would like, you can sign the Digital Union Authorization Card to support holding an election. If you have questions, I encourage you to reach out to TRU via their website.
(1) Douglas-Gabriel, Danielle. “Are They Students? Or Are They Employees? NLRB Rules That Graduate Students Are Employees.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 29 Apr. 2019, www.washingtonpost.com/news/grade-point/wp/2016/08/23/are-they-students-or-are-they-employees-nlrb-rules-that-graduate-students-are-employees/.
(2) Douglas-Gabriel, Danielle. “Labor Board Withdraws Rule to Quash Graduate Students' Right to Organize as Employees.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 12 Mar. 2021, www.washingtonpost.com/education/2021/03/12/nlrb-graduate-student-workers-unions/.
(3) “SEIU Local 500.” SEIU LOCAL 500, www.seiu500.org/.
(4) “AU Grads - Beck Notice.” SEIU LOCAL 500, www.seiu500.org/au-grad-beck-notice.
- The Graduate Student Association: a Voice for Graduate Students Across Campus
- The State of the Union: US Graduate Student Employee Rights in 2019
- 5 Things I Had to Unlearn in Graduate School
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Great piece, thanks for writing it Grace!!