Low stipends, labor rights and a new hope: Into the formation of the BU Graduate Workers Union

By Jazmine Ramos, Annalise Freimarck, and Ramsey Khalifeh

Boston University News Service

He stands in front of a class of around 20 students wearing horn-rimmed glasses, making wide hand gestures as he lectures them about ethnocentrism with a slight German accent.

The class, of which he teaches two sections, is just 50 minutes — but it only makes up a fraction of the roughly 60 hours a week Jacob Tischer spends pursuing his Ph.D. in anthropology at Boston University.

As a seventh-year graduate student, Tischer said he spends around 20 hours a week preparing to teach and the rest of his time working on his dissertation about Taiwanese tradition in younger generations, working intermittently from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. six days a week.

Tischer is paid a $25,000 stipend for the academic year. His monthly rent is $1,150, he can’t afford a car and at the end of the month, he has no money left to stockpile in savings.

He said he is “suspicious” of how much BU pays its graduate students, and believes they need to be paid $30,000 to $40,000 during the school year to have a good quality of life. 

BU’s website says the university pays graduate students a stipend that can range from $24,521 for 8 months to $36,782 for 12 months. Stipends vary by department.

“I don’t think we can hope for any benevolence,” he said. “BU has its own interests at heart.”

Tischer’s said his experience as a graduate student at BU is not unique.

At BU, graduate students are expected to teach, focus on their own research and live in Boston solely off of the stipend they receive — all while trying to live in one of the country’s most expensive cities.

These constant pressures have led to this month’s launch of the Boston University Graduate Workers Union, started by a group of graduate students pushing for livable wages, better health insurance and workload protections for all BU graduate students.

The student union aims to partner with Service Employees International Union Local 509, the local chapter of a larger union representing employees in the United States and Canada. 

On Tuesday, Sept. 20, hundreds of students, faculty and allies gathered outside of Marsh Plaza under a dewy gray sky to listen to the Boston University Graduate Workers Union (BUGWU) members preach their cause to the BU community. 

Students standing in front of Marsh Chapel during Sept.20th Protest. Photo by: Jazmine Ramos / BUNS

Graduate students from surrounding universities, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston College and Harvard, attended in solidarity. 

Members of the union held up homemade signs made of cardboard that read slogans like “Pay us more,” “We demand a living wage” and “No decisions about us without us.”

“It’s not a living wage. [We are] trying to introduce parity across departments. There are some departments that make more money, and some that make less, so [we are] trying to bridge that divide economically,” said Greer Hamilton, a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate at the School of Social Work and one of the speakers at the rally. 

As expressed by all other members at the rally, Hamilton believes that one of the biggest problems that graduate students face is the inability to sustain their lifestyle because they are underpaid. 

Hamilton receives a stipend of $29,000 for eight months of work. “For me, I want to be able to have a wage that sustains me so I don’t have to work multiple jobs in order to be able to live in Boston,” Hamilton said. 

Not only do graduate students have to find four months of summertime funding, but many students also have to consider exterior costs such as living wages, dental insurance, and for some, childcare expenses. International students are also not allowed to work outside of BU’s campus, adding another layer of difficulty when they are looking to make extra money on the side. 

Before the speeches began, the leaders of the rally excited the crowd and encouraged everyone to shout at full volume “union” and “power.” Students raised their fists and screamed, “BU works because we do!” 

The leaders ushered everyone to gather closely together. Passerbys stopped to take photos of what they were witnessing in the middle of what would usually be a normal school day. 

Zach Coto, a graduate student at BU, cited the history of the union and incorporated Martin Luther King’s beliefs on unionization, one of the university’s most notable alumni. 

“Our alumnus, Martin Luther King, [whom] the university parades around for their own purposes [but] ignores the fact that when they say ‘they shouldn’t unionize,’ that one of their most important alumni was very much in support of labor rights,” Coto shouted through a megaphone. 

So far, the response by BU administrators is not supportive. When asked to comment, the administration declined to speak on labor matters. 

On Friday, Sept. 23 an email was sent out to BU’s graduate students by university provost Jean Morrison urging them to consider the downsides of unionizing. The email made clear that the administration “continue[s] to oppose a graduate student union at Boston University.”

The email contained a few reasons why Morrison and the university believed that forming a union “would change the fundamental relationship that [they] have with faculty” and “may necessitate changes to how the University distributes the funds that are available for graduate education in ways that could negatively impact some of our graduate student cohorts.”

In 2017, BU Today published an article titled, “POV: Unionizing BU Grad Students would be a mistake.”

“More concerning, given the opacity hostility creates, graduate students risk demanding money that other students, perhaps minority or poor students, require,” wrote Jeffrey Bristol, a Ph.D. student at the time of the article’s publication. When reached for comment, Bristol said his “opinions are likely unchanged”, adding that he is “not categorically opposed” to student unionization. 

Experts in the field of labor law chimed in on the current situation unfolding with BUGWU. Professor Richard Freeman, the Co-Directer of Harvard Law’s Labor and WorkLife Program, is optimistic about the unionizing process.

“Literally every other place has succeeded,” Freeman said when comparing BU’s graduate students union’s prospects to those of other universities in the city. “I think labor relations in the university setting is so much nicer than in many industrial settings or non-university places.”

Across the river, universities including Harvard and MIT have both successfully unionized their graduate students. Earlier this year, Harvard’s Grad Students Union negotiated and won their second contract. Freeman noted that the graduate student demographic is probably the fastest growing part of the union movement across the country. 

Yet BU’s view on unionization in the past has not been supportive. BU Law Professor Michael C. Harper, a labor expert, has been teaching at the university since 1978 and has noticed the union pushback.

“BU has been hostile to unions since I have been [here], under this president as well as the prior president,” Harper said. “They don’t want the graduate students to unionize, they don’t want to collectively bargain with them, they don’t want to pay them more.” 

In response to the 2017 BU Today article, which the publication says pertains to the views of the writer only, both Freeman and Harper weren’t surprised by the anti-union rhetoric. 

Freeman finds it hypocritical that the school would worry about how they allocated their money. “I would just say fine … [But] how about the president of BU taking a 10% wage cut. Or how about getting rid of some of your administrators?” Freeman said. 

The article also did not fare well with other graduate students of color.

“As a Black student, I will say that I am hurt by not having a living wage. So if they want more Black students, they want more students of color, that tactic is not effective and it is not true. We are hurt by their current approach to pay,” said Hamilton in response to the article. 

According to the Living Wage Calculator created by MIT professor Dr. Amy K. Glasmeier,

single Boston residents need on average $46,000 after taxes in order to sustain a comfortable livelihood.

According to Harper and Freeman, this tactic of dividing the workplace is common amongst employers looking to restrict their employees from unionizing. 

“Management employers have always used that. They divide the workplace on the basis of ethnicity to fight unions,” Harper said. But he also believes that the interests of the administration are somewhere else. “[BU President Robert] Brown cares most about his salary and the salary of the provost and all the other administrators. He is just like any other CEO.”

It is clear that BUGWU is about to face challenges in beginning the voting process and collectively bargaining with the administration, but faculty, staff, and undergraduates are generally supportive of the movement. So is the country.

An August 2022 Gallup poll shows that U.S. approval of labor unions is at its highest point since 1965. 71% of Americans now approve of labor unions in any form. The figure is also up from 64% before the pandemic. 

“They need a voice to get things better. The university doesn’t hear that voice. And that is why these groups of people [exist] around the country,” Freeman said. 

Harper echoed a similar sentiment when thinking about how the community can support BUGWU to meet their demands.

Students holding sign “Summer Funding For All” at Marsh Plaza on Sept.20th. Photo by: Jazmine Ramos / BUNS

“I think this is an important issue,” Harper said. “I would hope that undergraduate students support the graduate students because it really does help their education for these people to be satisfied.”

At the moment it seems that many graduate students are not satisfied. 

Casey Grippo, a third-year philosophy graduate student and an organizer of the unionization efforts, said they joined the movement because they don’t want to have to constantly worry about finances — a reality they said most graduate students at BU face. 

Grippo makes a $25,000 stipend during the school year.

“It really shouldn’t be this hard to live,” they said. “It’s not that we are not even thriving, it is like we are struggling to really, truly survive in Boston right now.”

Grippo said that after the school year ends and they finish teaching two sections of a philosophy class, they worry about how they will afford to live in the summer. They said they have been lucky to receive a half-funded summer stipend, but that income is never guaranteed. 

“The summer is very, very scary for me because there is just no security,” they said.

BU graduate students are given the basic student health insurance plan, which does not cover dental insurance or optical insurance.

Grippo said the first thing they would do if the union efforts pass is to replace the lenses in their glasses, which are an outdated prescription.

“I would love to see clearly again,” they said. “Maybe I will get an apartment that isn’t super old and super cold in the winter.”

BU did increase stipends by 1.5 to 4% this year, in accordance with the salary increase professors receive annually. The university also covers each student’s tuition and recently has offered stipend extensions to students financially impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

But graduate students say that is still not enough to comfortably live on. 

Hafsa Arain, an anthropology graduate student and member of the union’s Queer, Asian American and Latinx student caucuses, said she relies in part on financial support from her partner.

She said students should not have to seek financial support from loved ones, and a union would impact more than graduate students.

“It is not just about graduate workers, it is also about the communities that we are all a part of,” she said.

Tischer, who supports the unionization efforts, puts around 20 hours a week into teaching alone and said that while he could work fewer hours, he wants to make his classes worthwhile for his students. 

He said that the competitive environment and constant pressure to be working, combined with the stress of making ends meet, have affected his mental health. 

“It is struggling to keep it at bay and finding ways of enjoying life and company without constantly thinking about what am I not doing in this moment?” he said.

Tischer said if the pressure doesn’t relax and the salaries don’t increase, he struggles to see a future in academia.

“If it is like this, who would want to do that?” he asked.

Feature photo credit: Jazmine Ramos / BUNS

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