Open Letter on Graduate Student Employee Unionization

Members and affiliates of Stand Up For Graduate Student Employees (SUGSE)—an anti-racist, feminist advocacy organization for graduate student worker rights—have begun a campaign to unionize graduate student workers at Brown. We wanted to take the opportunity to explain our reasons, to state our best intentions, and to invite all of Brown’s community members to work with us as partners in improving the quality and security of the lives of the hundreds of graduate students from around the world who have accepted Brown’s invitation to research and teach in Providence.

Over the last several years, we at SUGSE have sought to improve working conditions for graduate students. We’ve successfully fought for more options and transparency in the late-year funding processes, for dental insurance for graduate workers, and rallied against the institutional racism which has made Brown a hostile working environment for many. Our image as concerned advocates is widely felt; at SUGSE, we have frequently found that our fellow students, wanting a way to redress entrenched problems, come to us for help as though we actually already are their union. And the problems they bring to us are many. We’ve heard accounts from graduate workers asked to be on call twenty-four hours a day to their laboratories; of graduate students given the herculean task of serving as teaching assistants to one hundred undergraduates, each writing weekly papers; of graduate students who have faced sexual harassment from faculty and who have thereafter been denied requests as simple as changing their T.A. assignments or amending the precise order in which they must pursue required coursework. Our fellow students face personal reprisals on account of faculty hostility to their diversity initiatives, report the institution’s incapacity to reckon with their visa and international travel problems, and testify to the myriad ways in which the institution over-burdens and under-serves teaching and research assistants.

One reason we have made the decision to seek a union is that we share our friends’ and colleagues’ frustration at the lack of accountability to their very real problems, and we honor their courage in speaking out. But we have realized that these problems are structural; we will not win resolution through individual, heroic efforts, but through formal, collective power sharing with the administrators of this institution. Grad workers need the leverage of a union which would negotiate for us collectively and petition grievances individually. As it is now, we run administrative gauntlets, or else simply give up—and not only do we lose too often, but many of us experience our struggles in relative isolation. One of the worst effects of the status quo, we believe, has been to our collective psychology; whether as individuals, as cohorts, or as departmental graduate bodies, we have been left with the false impression that we are going it alone.

None of us is alone. Least of all are we alone in urgently seeking a union. Graduate workers at Columbia University are, even now, petitioning the decision in National Labor Relations Board v. Brown (2004). The Supreme Court’s decision in that case followed a union vote among graduate students here on Brown’s campus just over ten years ago. The decision formally prevents graduate teaching and research assistants from receiving the legal protections which “employee” status confers. But the Brown decision’s legality is now in question, and the court is reconsidering its opinion. Today, we join unionizing graduate students at Columbia, Cornell, Harvard, Yale, NYU—and we also join unionized graduate students at major public universities around the country—in arguing that the Brown case was decided based on a “false binary between teaching and learning” and the myth that private universities constitute an environment of “academic freedom” which divorces them from the typical rules which govern employer-employee relations. We’re here to assert that the work we do is work, is valuable, and while, like any form of employment it may promise the benefit of professional development, the primary beneficiaries of this labor are the Brown undergraduates we serve and the reputation and continued functionality of the university itself.

Graduate student workers are properly understood as early career professionals who are learning on the job, like workers everywhere must, from their first day to their last. And we will note, too, that we are paid for this work by the university, in a market which is competitive with other institutions which seek to hire us to come teach and research in the name and for the good reputation of their universities, in an economic environment and with qualifying standards which have a great deal of resonance with the one in which faculty are also hired.

Power is seldom ceded; administrators and Brown’s Corporation should not be expected universally to join an effort which is, in fact, intended to diminish their full sway over graduate employees. And they have not. In fact, recently, the Brown administration joined administrators (speaking through university lawyers) at Harvard, M.I.T., Stanford, Dartmouth, Columbia, U Penn, Cornell, and Yale, in an amicus brief which robustly defended the outcome of the Brown decision. Their decision doubles down on their argument from 2004, and turns both on the image of “academic freedom” as the culture of higher learning, as well as on the feudal notion that graduate workers are in a “master-apprentice” relationship and not an “employer-employee” relationship.

This “master-apprentice” model supposes that qualified adults should relinquish their right to negotiate on their own behalf for fear that such self-determination will have a negative impact on the “mentorship” they receive from research and dissertation advisors. But of course mentorship prevails in industries throughout the working world, and they are not adversely affected by the relationships between two individuals recognized as employees. What is here deemed as the “special nature” of graduate and faculty relations in fact belies an administrative crisis of faith in the Brown professoriate, many of whom support better conditions for the vital field of employee labor represented by grads and would welcome a sustainable and accountable method for determining university-wide standards.

The brief, we at SUGSE would argue, defends the “freedom” of faculty to make demands, the freedom of administrators to decide late-year funding outcomes, and ultimately the mastery of faculty over the outcomes of graduate worker claims of sexual harassment, discrimination, hostile working conditions, and overly strenuous demands on our time. But it’s fair to say that members of SUGSE have already made up our minds. So we invite our colleagues who are reading the Brown decision or the recent amicus brief for the first time to ask, as they read: whose academic freedom? Freedom to do what? Whose mastery? Mastery of what parts of my life as a supposed “apprentice”? Under what conditions? And legally, is it in my best interest, and the best interest of my work, to forward that work as an “employee” or an “apprentice”?

We don’t recognize ourselves in the stereotypes of unionizing crusaders. In reality, we’re a motley crew of people—scientists and social scientists and humanists, men, women, and gender non-conforming, people of diverse racial, ethnic, and cultural heritage, and folks of diverse temperament. Working to compose, edit, and distribute this letter has been a task we’ve undertaken around grading and publishing papers, lab work and dissertating, editing or researching alongside faculty, mentoring undergraduates, and working to afford, financially and otherwise, the rest of our lives—research trips, time to care for ailing family members, keeping up our old cars, finding quality time with our partners or our children, and all the other life tasks that would become a little easier if everyone understood our work was work. And like just about all graduate student workers, we don’t have time to combat all the problems which stem from the university’s preference that graduate worker problems be structured out of visibility or relevance. That, in fact, is our point. We need a union, because we actually already have jobs at Brown, and they take up all of our time.

Challenging the status quo becomes safer when we do it collectively. This is not a case that needs to be made in theory, or ex nihilum. Almost two centuries of union history, in contexts around the world, shows that they’ve largely been effective instruments for improving the working conditions of contingent workers like us, and local conditions also show that they’ve been effective for other unionized workers around Brown’s campus and for graduate student workers on other campuses. They are not silver bullets for all of our problems–just as a winter coat won’t stop you from getting cold when it’s sub-zero, but is preferable to not having one. Yielding to anecdotal evidence of incompetent or ineffective unions and denying the mass of evidence to their effect would betray us as a community of scholars. We’ll work to show that in the coming months.

We know we have supporters all around the university, including many people who were convinced by our case long before we at SUGSE were ready to make it. To our friends in the administration, on the faculty or staff, among the undergraduate student body, around Providence, and especially to our friends and colleagues enrolled as graduate students: you’re welcome to email us at and to follow SUGSE on Facebook. You can find some of our previous projects and statements on our website, which is In the coming weeks, please look for ways to get involved: join one of SUGSE’s working groups to become a member of the organization, offer to take on a task (like editing or research) which you can do from the comfort of your home, make a donation to help us afford much-needed supplies, or just send a brief letter of support. Graduate student department bodies can send us more feedback on what elements of a dedicated contract would best support their needs and goals, or invite SUGSE representatives from a relevant department to come and exchange our knowledge and best ideas. Let’s build a union together, and let’s thereby get our work recognized; do better work; and build a better Brown workplace.

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