COVID drives student workers' demands for university to recognize their union

Graduate students at Clark University have requested that the university voluntarily recognize them as an official union.

The students began the effort to unionize following a spike in health care premiums in 2020.

Clark University Graduate Workers United has filed a request to unionize after a two-year-long push for increased health benefits during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

A Feb. 9 letter addressed to Clark President David Fithian requests that the Worcester, Massachusetts, university recognize the proposed graduate student workers union. 

”The group is prepared to file for a union election with the National Labor Relations Board if Clark does not voluntarily recognize the union and begin bargaining,” the Worcester Business Journal reported last week. 

However, the workers announced the filing the same day they submitted the letter to Fithian.

It is not clear how much time passed between the letter submission and the election filing. 

”We ask that the University not waste time and resources by obstructing, delaying, or otherwise interfering with the exercise of our democratic rights,” the letter reads. 

The effort is spearheaded by a 17-member organizing committee representing designated departments within the program. The union extends to include workers who conduct instruction and research in two graduate fields: Clark’s Graduate Arts and Sciences and International Development, Community, and Environment.

[RELATED: Student workers union made new COVID demands as classmates returned to campus]

A supermajority of workers signed union authorization cards to standardize the process.

Clark University provided Campus Reform with its official statement on the matter. 

”As we engage with members of our community and consider the issues, we will work through the process and hope to be able to come to an amicable resolution,” the statement reads. “Our strongest desire and our firm commitment is to provide an enriching experience for all our students.”

The unionization push began during the 2020 spring semester to combat a hike in health care premiums, the Worcester Business Journal reports. 

In response, the university announced in May 2021 that it would subsidize half of graduate workers’ health insurance premiums for the 2021-2022 year with the potential to increase to 100%, budget permitting.

Since that decision, the graduate student workers have shifted their demands to include COVID-19-related items in addition to augmented stipends, working conditions, and health care. 

Since publicizing the letter, the workers have received an influx of support from alumni. The group publicly thanked the supporters and issued a call to action for others to vocalize their support to the administration:

The effort to unionize on campus follows a trend that has swept college campuses across the nation. As stated in the letter, Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Brown University, University of Massachusetts, and Tufts University all have graduate student unions that work to “improve” working conditions.

The letter acknowledged the continued effort, citing the time as a “historically significant moment for graduate labor.”

Graduate unions have flocked to Twitter to sing praise to the Clark students. 

UW Researchers United, which represents graduate research students at the University of Washington, issued their congratulations in the thread. The union filed to unionize on their campus in December 2021.

[RELATED: GWU Black Student Union ‘recommendation’ prompts campuswide ‘diversity audit’]

NYU Graduate Student Organizing Committee, United Auto Workers (NYU GSOCUAW) congratulated the group, as well, deeming the step an “amazing accomplishment.” The group has been officially unionized on campus for 21 years and has a long-standing history of on-campus advocacy, including holding multiple strikes to push demands to the university administration. 

Campus Reform recently reported on a fall semester strike at Columbia University that caught the attention of many of the nation’s political leaders, including New York politicians including Jerry Nadler and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The union’s demands tallied up to $140 million in school funding.

Campus Reform reached out to Clark University and the CUGWU for comment. This article will be updated accordingly.

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