Graduate students at Brandeis University today announced that they have ratified a contract settlement with campus administrators – a three-year agreement that makes significant increases in compensation – up to 56% over the life of the contract – and gives graduate student workers access to the same professional development opportunities as faculty, academic freedom and workplace protections, and a voice in the decisions that affect their work.
The settlement is the first contract for graduate assistants at Brandeis, who voted overwhelmingly in May 2017 to form a union with SEIU Local 509. This is the first contract for graduate student workers at a private university since the 2015 NLRB decision that gave them the right to unionize. Brandeis graduate assistants also now have the first collective bargaining agreement at a private university in New England.
“Our teaching conditions are our students’ learning conditions. We want to be paid fairly for the jobs we do, and it’s important to be able to safely deal with conflicts in the workplace: both on behalf of our students and for ourselves,” said Kalee Hall, a graduate student in English at Brandeis. “We are committed to making Brandeis better, and the Administration is too. This contract shows how we can make Brandeis better by all working together and negotiating.”
Workers unionized for a variety of reasons, but the most pressing was their struggle to make ends meet. Dozens came forward with stories of choosing between rent, heat, and food; paying to come to campus often meant choosing not to eat that day. On top of their financial concerns, grads frequently felt disrespected as educators; some were even barred from speaking to their own students outside of class. Their commitment to their undergraduate students often went unrecognized, despite the role they frequently play as intermediaries between undergraduates and faculty.
“We’re the workers that make Brandeis work. With this contract, we’re being recognized for the valuable work that we do. We’re going to have a seat at the table and get the respect we deserve,” said Ben Kreider, a graduate student at the Heller School for Social Policy at Brandeis. “I feel very proud of the work we’ve done and the gains we’ve made on behalf of student workers.”
Among the gains in the three-year tentative agreement:
- Significant increases in compensation: Graduate assistants across the University will receive raises in their per-course pay, ranging from 16% to 56% over the life of the contract.
- Fair Workloads: New caps on average weekly work will allow graduate students to balance teaching responsibilities, their own academic studies, and the second or third jobs that many work in order to make ends meet.
- Academic Freedom: Graduate assistants are now entitled to academic freedom in their professional capacity as educators, ensuring that they can provide the support and guidance their students need.
- Professional Development: Teaching development opportunities provided on campus will be extended to graduate assistants, rather than just faculty, helping workers develop their skills and improve the learning outcomes of their students.
- Employee Resources: Graduate assistants are now guaranteed access to the textbooks, tools, equipment, and supplies they need to do their jobs, ending the practice where some had to buy their own teaching materials.
- Improved Mental Healthcare Resources: Graduate students will now have improved access to mental healthcare services across campus, helping to reduce the stigma and other barriers that prevent some workers from getting the care they need.
- A True Voice on Campus: In addition to establishing a process for addressing problems that arise, the contract creates formal committees that will allow graduate assistants to work with the administration to improve working and learning conditions on an ongoing basis.
These achievements are the result of ten months of bargaining between graduate assistants and administrators from the University. They will join the other members of SEIU Local 509 with higher education contracts, including part- and full-time faculty at Bentley, Boston University, Brandeis, Lesley, Northeastern and Tufts. Graduate assistants have also unionized at Tufts and are currently negotiating their first contract.
The conclusion of these negotiations marks the end of the joint efforts of graduate assistants, faculty, undergraduate students, and community members to reach a successful agreement. Letters of support, hundreds of postcards, and the continued presence of allies throughout the campaign were instrumental in these negotiations.
“It’s been great to see the undergraduate support for our organizing campaign. The Brandeis Labor Coalition was a huge form of support, and the solidarity between grad students and undergraduates is astounding,” said Dominick Knowles, a graduate student in English at Brandeis. “Our basic material conditions will improve under this contract, and that will improve our academic work and our ability to teach.”
“We’re grateful for the chance make Brandeis a better place for graduate students and to improve living security so we can focus on our work,” said Jessica Priestley, a graduate student in Anthropology at Brandeis. “Our contract is strong and in a great place to develop and grow when we enter future negotiations.”
To arrange an interview with Brandeis graduate students leading the bargaining process, contact Megan Piccirillo at 973-668-8999 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
SEIU Local 509 represents nearly 20,000 human service workers and educators throughout Massachusetts. We provide a variety of social services to elders, at-risk children and people with mental illnesses or developmental disabilities — as well as educational services in both public and private sector settings. From mental health clinicians and social workers to early childhood educators and university lecturers, Local 509 members are united in our mission to raise living standards for working families while improving the quality and affordability of the services we provide. SEIU Local 509 is part of the 2 million member Service Employees International Union, the fastest-growing labor union in the United States. Focused on uniting workers in four sectors –- public services, long term care, property services, and hospital systems — SEIU is the nation’s largest health care union, the largest property services union, and the second-largest public employee union.