Georgetown University graduate students rallied on-campus on Thursday afternoon after the university refused to recognize their efforts to organize a labor union.
“According to the Just Employment policy, every worker on campus has a right to decide if they’d like to be part of a union,” Philosophy PhD student Karen Rice told the crowd during the rally. “So, therefore the Just Employment policy applies to us because we are workers.”
Last month, the Georgetown Alliance of Graduate Employees (GAGE) sent a letter to university president, John DeGioia, arguing that their efforts to unionize have majority support of the graduate students. They asked the university to show support of their efforts under its 2005 Just Employment policy, which allows employees on campus to decide to unionize.
On Monday, university leaders responded in a letter of their own, arguing that their Just Employment policy does not apply to graduate students and that they will not recognize the union efforts. The university wrote that activities by graduate students, including research and teaching experiences, are educational and thus do not make them employees. They also wrote that they are "eager" to address concerns brought up by graduate students, but will not "recognize Gage as the collective bargaining representative."
To Rice, the decision handed down by the university is “disrespectful.”
“I think we contribute a huge amount to this university,” Rice told WUSA9. Graduate students often must help teach undergraduate classes in order to fulfill their curriculum requirements, Rice said.
History PhD student Anthony Eames, who attended the rally, said in addition to teaching, graduate students often mentor undergraduate students, design their own classes, publish articles, and present at conferences. “These are things Georgetown benefits from,” Eames said.
One of the things that GAGE hopes to do in unionizing is advocate for better healthcare. Eames and history PhD student Jackson Perry told WUSA9 that graduate students have the same healthcare plan as undergraduate students. They say this plan doesn’t provide dental care or contraceptive access.
The university said in their letter that healthcare and stipends are some of the concerns they'd like to address with students.
We planted 800 flags to symbolize the 800 workers @Georgetown is refusing to acknowledge as workers. Each white flag had a different task these workers do for their employment on campus! #WeAreWorkers pic.twitter.com/o0BOqUfSOv— GAGE (@WeAreGAGE) December 7, 2017
The rally was attended by more than students. President of the American Federation of Teachers Randi Weingarten spoke in support of unionizing at the rally. “The university compensates these graduate students for the work they do...They deserve a say—just like their peers—in the decisions that shape their professional lives,” Weingarten said in an email. Faculty members of the history department also came to show their support.
The rally comes at a time when the ability of graduate students to legally unionize is in question. In 2016, the National Labor Relations Board ruled in a 3-1 decision that graduate students at Columbia University are employees and thus covered under the National Labor Relations Act, giving them the right to legally unionize. At the time, the board members were largely appointed by President Obama, The Atlantic reported.
This decision reversed a 2004 ruling that found that graduate students at Brown University were not employees. Georgetown history professor Michael Kazin, who attended the rally in support, predicts that the case will be revisited again by the board as a Republican administration has come in. The board has since been filled by appointees of President Trump, including Philip A. Miscimarra, the only dissenter in the 2016 case, who was appointed chairman in April.
Kazin says, however, reversing the 2016 decision can take a while and hopes in the meantime "that students have a chance to vote."
During the rally, GAGE planted 800 blue yard flags to represent every graduate worker at the university before marching to the office of provost Robert M. Grove, who penned the response letter.
Psychology PhD student Kevin Carriere said he hopes that the rally sends a message to the administration that their efforts as graduate students deserve recognition as employees. “By saying we aren’t workers suggests that their students are being taught by people who aren’t professional or qualified. And I hope that Georgetown doesn’t think they have unqualified teachers,” said Carriere.