Graduate Student Unions Push Back Against Institutions’ COVID-19 Policies, Perceived Unfair Treatment on Campus

By Owen Daugherty, NASFAA Staff Reporter

As institutions of higher education across the country return to instruction for an unprecedented semester due to the ongoing pandemic, graduate students are increasingly voicing their concerns over who will be called upon to provide in-person teaching.

Graduate students often work as research and teaching assistants and, in some cases, course instructors in exchange for reduced tuition. Already stretched thin by a pandemic in its sixth month, graduate students feeling the financial, mental, and emotional strain are pushing back — with some even striking in opposition.

The Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO) at the University of Michigan recently launched a strike, calling for increased transparency from the school with regard to the COVID-19 pandemic, including its plan for testing and how it will safely bring graduate student workers back for in-person instruction.

For graduate students who are employees of the university, the union was calling for “a universal right to work remotely without documentation, resources for remote work, better representation in the decision-making processes of the university surrounding health measures, and access to the health models motivating current policy,” among other demands.

The union represents more than 2,000 graduate student instructors and assistants and many in teaching positions canceled their classes earlier this month. The union rejected the university’s initial offer, and messages of support and solidarity flooded Twitter in recent days as the university filed an injunction attempting to force them back to teaching. 

The strike ended last week after the union agreed to the university’s second offer and achieved “critical progress" on key issues such as child care options, COVID-19 testing protocols, support for international graduate students, and concerns about the role of campus police. The deal brings to an end the legal action taken by the university and could serve as an example to other unions.

“The pandemic has, if not furthered administrative control, it's at least further revealed it,” said Timothy Cain, an associate professor of higher education at the University of Georgia whose research explores college student activism. “Some of the ways decisions have been made and some of the lack of transparency in some of the decision-making [by university administration] has been eye-opening for students and for faculty and for other workers.”

Beyond Michigan, unions representing graduate students throughout the pandemic have sought, and in some cases achieved, extra protection as they see their livelihood adversely impacted.

At the University of Kansas, when undergraduate students formally striked on Labor Day in response to a growing number of COVID-19 cases on campus, the graduate teaching assistants at the university joined in solidarity, calling for campus to be closed.

At other campuses, unions are forming for the first time. Staff, faculty, and graduate student employees formed a union at the University of Arizona over the summer to advocate for transparency in the university administration’s decision-making related to finances and safety concerns.

While unionizing is nothing new, the pandemic has brought new attention to the need for them on campus. And much like society as a whole, the ongoing pandemic has exacerbated issues that already plagued graduate students, such as low pay, little to no contractual protection, and expensive health care coverage, said Brad Sommer, president and CEO of the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students, a non-profit advocating on behalf of graduate and professional students.

Furthermore, coronavirus-related safety issues are added to the mix. Along with the pandemic, Sommer attributed the uptick in union activity and the recent strikes to the dual roles many graduate students hold at their respective institutions.

“Graduate students occupy this very bizarre liminal distance within higher education,” Sommer said. “A lot of those things were problems that existed for graduate student workers … but COVID just made it that much more pronounced and that much harder.”

While graduate student workers hold dual roles, their tuition breaks are tied to their jobs on campus. When they choose to not perform their job to voice displeasure with university policies, they could lose their funding should they be fired, said Gary Rhoades, the director of the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona.

“Always what's at risk is your employment. And what goes along with the risk of your employment is your health care,” he said. “If you lose your assistantship, you likely lose the tuition waivers.”

Additionally, Cain said most institutions have a model where graduate students’ funding and stipends are tied to employment, and while some have policies that do not tie funding to an assistantship, those instances are rarer.

“Most of the funding is tied to employment,” he said. “And if they're not working, they don't get that funding, and all the sudden that’s another $40,000 a year extra they’d have to pay [in tuition].”

However, as universities attempt to offer at least some form of in-person instruction — and mostly look to their graduate and professional students to do so — unions are finding newfound leverage, Rhoades said.

Additionally, he said institutions are fearful of dismissing the union efforts to avoid a public relations headache, noting that other unions at campuses across the country are paying close attention.

“A lot of universities don't want to look bad publicly. Who wants to look bad publicly in the way that they treat their students?” Rhoades said. “This kind of public battle benefits graduate employees.”

Sommer agreed that university administrators are starting to take heed of the union’s efforts and the role of graduate student workers on campus in general.

“It's good that university administrators — people who have the actual decision-making authority on campus — take the time to actually listen to what the graduate students are saying,” he said. “One thing that I would say to the university administration is [to] try to remember what it was like when you were a graduate student. Now remember that, and then throw on top of it a global pandemic.”


Publication Date: 9/22/2020

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