Today marks an exciting point in our campaign: four months after our successful election in November, we met with admin for our first bargaining session. We’re bargaining because #OurWorkHasVALUE.
In 2018, a majority of Brown University graduate workers voted to form a Union. While the University has legally respected this decision, the administration still maintains that Brown “believes its principal relationship with graduate students is as students.” We want to be clear and honest about how our work shapes and sustains the University, and how our status as workers reflects the value that we generate for Brown. We believe that as workers, we have the power and the right to speak up for why our labor is indispensable to the University, and that what we do here needs to be valued for what it is: work.
As a third year Ph.D. candidate in the neuroscience department, I can tell you I have not set foot in a classroom in over a year. Instead, I work regular hours in the laboratory, producing data that will be eventually used for my dissertation, yes, but that will also help bring in grants and funding opportunities that benefit the University. I will author papers that advance the University’s mission of “discovering, communicating, and preserving knowledge and understanding.” I will train and teach and work with undergraduate students, toward the University’s goal of “educating and preparing students to discharge the offices of life with usefulness and reputation.” In short, although I am a scientist in training, I am also a vital contributor to the University’s mission.
For too long, graduate workers at Brown have not been able to speak up for our employment rights, and have not had enough say in how the University views and treats us. In fact it was Brown’s decision to challenge our status as employees in 2004 that stripped us of our rights as workers here at Brown and for graduate workers across the country as well. Because we lacked representation, the University was often able to evade or avoid the disappointing ways that it handles graduate student issues, and to shirk its ethical responsibility to ensure a safe and healthy work environment. We have watched as the University system has failed our fellow graduate workers—especially women, students of color, and students with disabilities. Today, that changes. Today, you will be hearing from graduate employees who will speak to the profound disconnect between our roles as students and as educators, and to the experience of structural inequality embedded in every aspect of graduate life. Today, we are standing up against the deliberate ignorance of abuse and inequity in departments across the school. Today, on behalf of those graduate students who struggle with the crushing weight of financial insecurity and student debt, we ask that graduate students be paid year-round, with benefits and salary adjustments to adequately compensate us for our indispensable work. Today, you will hear from graduate parents, international graduate employees, graduate employees of color, and women in STEM, the humanities, and the social sciences. Today, you will hear the ways in which we contribute to the University, and the way in which the University has failed to meet our needs. Today, we offer you our creative solutions that can usher in an era of success, stability, and equity for all graduate workers.
Over the past year, SUGSE has had one-on-one conversations with 93% of graduates to hear about their concerns and experiences at Brown in general. Subsequently, we sent a survey to the entire graduate student population with specific questions on many of the concerns that we had compiled from these one-on-one interactions. We are here to represent the graduate worker body and collaboratively develop a contract which supports our value to the University based on their responses. In order to fully thrive and support the University’s mission, we need a voice in our working conditions, accountability from the University, living wages, unity among graduate workers, and an equitable and inclusive work environment.
We will now discuss the components of our contract proposal in detail. This is an illustrative list, not an exhaustive one.
How do we think that graduate workers should be valued? By the following actions:
Communicating clear working conditions
We ask that Brown recognize that graduate workers are employees and not only students.The notion that graduate students are primarily students infantilizes graduate workers and fails to recognize the significance of our labor to the University’s success. To argue that this work is mere training would be based on the premise that work is only work if one does not gain experience from it. This is a clumsy assumption. Furthermore, no department in the university would function without graduate workers serving as teaching assistants, instructors, researchers, and pedagogues. As teachers and researchers, we contribute in innumerable ways to Brown’s standing as an internationally recognized research university.
As the primary instructor of my own section of Basic French, I am well aware of my status as a worker. In my department, graduate workers teach the bulk of the language classes. In my role as a language teacher, I am performing labor unrelated to my dissertation research, as a French Studies degree is a literature degree, not a degree in language pedagogy. Furthermore, many of my colleagues report that the additional labor that our teaching assignments entail has impeded their ability to work on their own coursework, research, and exam preparation, as well as participate in professionalization opportunities. This is especially true when course sections are overloaded: an overloaded course easily results in a situation where the graduate instructor is required to work well over 20 hours per week (though unfortunately a class section does not even have to be overloaded for the work required to exceed this “maximum”). Undergraduate education suffers when graduate workers are overburdened. Graduate working conditions are undergraduate learning conditions! Although my official title is Teaching Assistant, I am hardly an assistant. The idea that teachers are “in training” unless and until they hold a PhD is absurd! My tasks are identical to those of an instructor. To put this into perspective, undergraduate students at Brown pay just as much to take my class as they do any other. Prospective undergraduates have even been brought to my class as part of their recruitment experience! The University is deriving enormous benefit from my work while continuing to deny its value.
We understand the state of graduate work in 2019 to be fundamentally in crisis. The implicit contract we have made until now with the University, in which our teaching, administrative, and research labor is performed at a lower-than-fair rate in exchange for a secure future in our chosen career, is broken, because this desired secure future is no longer the University’s to confer. Without the promise of a steady academic job, we are faced with uncertainty both now and in the future. In my department, Mathematics, I have received emails from the department begging graduate students to agree to be graders for math courses without specifying the pay, invitations from Applied Mathematics to grade for $10.10 per hour, and I find out what my summer research stipend is only when I receive the check in the mail, after I’ve already begun working. I have been asked to indicate what teaching position I want to apply for without being told the pay in advance. There is no transparency and there are no guarantees that I can predict my financial situation. This is money I use to pay my rent and live my life, and the reason the University sees fit to treat me this way is because it frames the labor math graduates perform, which makes the department run, is just our “training.”
The following assurances of fair working conditions will situate us to have a secure and tolerable work experience. We envision:
- Reasonable parameters for the work expected of teaching assistants.
- Formal delineation between the roles of Teaching Assistants and Teaching Fellows.
- Clarity in appointments, everything in writing, with salary and benefits stated up front.
- An end to the paradigm in which graduate employees are guilted into doing voluntary administrative or teaching labor, especially when it has no relationship to their appointment.
- The same basic assurances that any worker should expect: decent space in which to work, routine performance feedback, and professional development.
These necessary protections for our working conditions have not been freely given by the University, and so we must bargain for them in the form of a formal contract.
Granting competitive benefits
As valuable workers, we should have employment benefits that adequately reflect our contributions to the University. Our status as students often means that there are costs that are considered to be “waivers” or stipends rather than necessary expenses which are adequately compensated by our salary. These include things like summer health fees, relocation costs, parking permits, and other out-of-pocket expenditures that endanger our economic conditions. Just like any other competitive employment sector, the University should provide for retirement accounts. Furthermore, without adequate paid time off benefits—such as vacation and sick leave—the parameters of graduate employment are often unclear and subject to idiosyncratic and unwritten rules. In the interest of fairness and transparency, Brown should offer us these benefits in clear and contractual terms.
Offering better healthcare
As employees of Brown University, we deserve adequate healthcare from our employer. Our health, both physical and mental, is critical both to our own success and to the success of the University. If we cannot thrive, we cannot produce our best work. Currently, however, our healthcare needs are not being met.
According to the results of our recent survey, 7 out of 10 grads require corrective eye lenses. However, due to inadequate vision coverage, accessing the eyecare we need poses an undue burden which can even prevent access altogether. More than half of survey respondents reported having purchased eyecare without a current prescription or having foregone eyecare entirely. We hold that vision care is not a luxury, it is a necessity: we need it not only to perform our work but to go about our daily lives.
Furthermore, as research has thoroughly shown, graduate employees are exceptionally vulnerable to mental health disorders which are compounded by the ambiguous circumstances of our work. Unfortunately, the University does not provide adequate mental health support to graduate employees. Thirty percent of grads who sought mental health support from Brown reported dissatisfaction with the support they were provided, citing long waiting lists and limited appointments among their concerns. Survey respondents also reported privacy concerns, inconvenient hours, feeling uncomfortable accessing mental health services in the same space where the students they teach receive care, and that their needs for long-term care or weekly appointments were not supported. In short, the system which is in place now is failing us. We would like to negotiate to rebuild the mental health framework for graduate workers.
Finally, about a third of grads have reported that their out-of-pocket copays constituted a financial hardship. More than 20 percent of respondents said that they have skipped or delayed medical care, including dental, at least once per semester because of costs or lack of accessible care options. Employees of Brown University are foregoing medical care because of financial barriers and other issues. Does that sound right to you? A university with a four-billion-dollar endowment can surely do better for its workers.
Providing parental support
Financial hardship is especially concerning amongst graduate workers who are parents. Brown University considers itself a pioneering academic institution in support of graduate workers who are parents, and the administration has been considerably outspoken about welcoming parents into their academic community. In an effort to promote diversity and inclusion, the University has repeatedly stressed their endeavors to facilitate the academic advancement of graduate parents during their time at Brown. We know the graduate school has recently approved 50% healthcare coverage for dependents for next year, and we are happy to see those initial steps being taken to improve working conditions for parents.
However, significant barriers remain in place that prevent graduate parents at Brown from thriving, and contribute to high dropout rates of graduate parents in academia as a whole. Despite the outspoken institutional commitments to dismantling these barriers, substantial support is still needed to ensure that graduate parents are able to succeed. We have had meetings with many graduate parents at Brown who have described having to meet with Deans and other administrators to renegotiate their working conditions, often times after strongly considering that maybe they would have to leave Brown due to financial hardship.
Childcare is a central component for the success of graduate parents, as it is critical to complete their required work as well as the extra labor that goes into a successful academic career. Current stipends do not nearly match the costs of daycare in Providence. A modest annual estimate for full time care of a 4 year old child is $11,436. This cost goes up for infants and toddlers. Listings of preschools and nurseries in Providence show a minimum average cost of $1,300 per month per child. In my case, with a family of two international graduate workers at Brown and two children under 5, neither of them counting as tax dependents, childcare adds up to more than one of our stipends, which is $2300 post tax deduction during the academic year – summer months are simply undoable. In addition, as international graduate parents we do not have the possibility of accepting work off campus, getting assistance from state programs, or taking up a loan should the need arise. Because child care is unaffordable, and inaccessible, parents miss out on professional opportunities comparable to those of their peers, and face difficulties conducting their work on campus. On-campus requirements, extra-curricular activities with their undergraduate students, and departmental events end up competing with living a healthy family life, with spending time with our children. We feel segregated from the academic community, are constantly being being put in the position of apologizing for having children and being sorry for asking for additional resources in order to feed our children. Single parent households, dual graduate student households, and families with non-working or low-income partners in particular are put under enormous stress, as financial and logistical obstacles make it impossible to work under humane conditions. These families are severely segregated from their peers, and can struggle with food security, among other concerns.
Childcare costs are necessary for graduate parents to work, but they are only one aspect for graduate parents. Costs of dependents’ healthcare and the additional daily expenses for a child are an extraordinary toll on graduate parents. Being in graduate school, especially with one or more children, makes it difficult to find extra sources of income for anyone, international or not. In fact my husband and I end up having trouble to buy groceries after the 20th of each month. When I was 8 months pregnant we were offered to take a $500 emergency loan from the graduate school because we did not know how to pay our rent in June, not to mention food, utilities or copays for doctor appointments.
While the financial aspect is a central issue regarding the professional visibility of graduate parents, changing institutional culture and protecting parents on campus is absolutely essential for the inclusion of parents in academic demographics. Parents should not, for example, feel penalized for having to stay home with a sick child because they could not find or afford adequate back-up care – a benefit that the University already offers to faculty and staff. Inaccessibility, harassment, and discrimination are not just isolated phenomena but are part of the daily struggles of graduate parents. Ultimately, we feel that the University can do more to bolster its commitment to a more inclusive academic community by helping graduate parents achieve an equitable position in their departments.
Advocating an equal and diverse community
I grew up on the Shinnecock Indian Reservation. When I arrived at Brown for graduate school it was not what I expected. From other students believing the reservation could be equated to a gated community, to a professor recently insisting that their incorrect usage of “talking stick” and “talking circle” were an honor to my culture, the level of cultural acceptance and lack of diversity here was hard to cope with.
I am unable to anonymously voice my concerns as the current grievance structure relies on. As a member of such a small minority, my academic career has been open to retaliation since my first day here, when I was told trail of tears jokes and took a stand against them.
The talking stick and circle are part of an important and sacred ritual in my culture which allows everyone, regardless of position, age, gender, or status to have equal opportunity and an equal voice. That is what this union is about, banding together so that collectively we are able to be heard and acknowledged.
I served in the U.S. Air Force for 11 years and deployed on 4 combat tours. I am fortunate to be able to pursue an engineering PhD since leaving the military – an ambition I’ve always had. I was initially thrilled to become a member of the Brown community. I was excited about the progressive values and being in an environment where womxn in STEM were treated equitably. I soon came to learn that while Brown talked the talk, the university did not walk the walk.
In my first lab, I experienced inappropriate comments which ranged from my body composition, my sexual orientation, my veteran status, as well as gender-biased statements. During one research discussion, my advisor asked me in a crowded coffee shop with numerous strangers in earshot, if I thought “my military service might preclude me from being mentally sound enough to pursue a PhD in engineering at Brown University”. I was mortified and humiliated. Not only was his comment in bad form but, it was completely without cause, and it also put me on the defensive regarding my decision to serve my country. I joined the military after 9/11 because I wanted to defend certain values I hold dear – liberty, diversity, and equality. These same values bring me here today.
The university did assist me in switching labs, however when the topic of filing a grievance arose, I was told that I could file whatever I wanted, but my former advisor would ultimately only get a slap on the wrist due to his tenure. Tenure should not absolve professors of accountability from their poor behavior choices. In addition to instituting a fair grievance process, the university needs to ensure consequences for those members of our community who fail to treat others equitably and inclusively.
Too many graduate workers at Brown have felt as though they have to endure toxic behavior and harassment because the perpetrator is also someone who holds power over their education, career and working conditions. We want to work with the University to ensure that we have effective systems in place to deal with discrimination and harassment. We want to be part of the process of building those systems, based on the experiences of current graduate workers. In a survey conducted by SUGSE, 1/3 of the respondents claimed that they have experienced workplace harassment, discrimination, bullying, or disparagement from colleagues, staff, faculty, or administrators. Of those who had such an experience, only 1/3 reported the incident. Of those who did not report, 50 percent agreed that they did not feel comfortable bringing it up. Examples of other responses were: ”I did not feel safe to report it”; ”I didn’t trust Brown to properly address the issue”; ”It was from the DGS [Director of Graduate Studies]. It wasn’t a battle I was willing to pick.” Of those who experienced harassment, discrimination and bullying and did report, only 16 percent agree that the process sufficiently met their needs. Forty-two percent of respondents neither know of someone who would support them or who could ensure institutional accountability, should they ever face workplace harassment, discrimination or bullying.
While Brown has put forth plans to increase campus equity and diversity, these plans are insufficient, especially with regard to the experiences of graduate workers. Real change is needed to ensure the University’s stated goal of “creating a learning environment in which students from all backgrounds can thrive in their chosen fields of study.” To that end, our proposals will outline expectations for both employee and employer that will result in a working environment that is productive, equitable, and safe. We want protection employees on the basis of race, gender, class, age, color, disability, gender identity or expression, genetic information, marital status, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, HIV antibody status, and veteran’s status. We believe that by contractually outlining appropriate conduct, we can work to overturn academia’s long history of racism, sexism, classism and other forms of discrimination.
Compensating graduate workers with fair pay
SUGSE is invested in the quality of life, equitable treatment, and rightful remuneration of graduate employees. In its mission statement, Brown University says that it aims to foster education, knowledge, and inquiry “through a partnership of students and teachers in a unified community.” As a part of this community—as students, teachers, and workers—graduate employees at Brown are hereby asking for good faith negotiations regarding fair pay and compensation for our work at the University. If graduate workers are understood to be a part of this unified community, then our needs and difficulties must be recognized, so that our compensation can reflect our status as an integral part of the student-teacher partnership prioritized by Brown.
Economic concerns are often at the root of graduate employee disenfranchisement. Our surveys indicate that many graduate workers have reported going into debt or borrowing money from family and friends in order to meet basic needs. There are many factors for this, but we find that the issues in question are directly tied to insufficient salary and uneven distribution of pay over the course of the year. For example, the graduate worker salary has not been adequately adjusted to compensate for the increase of cost of living in the Providence area. Most importantly, the University’s uneven pay structure (variation between 9 months of academic year and 3 months of summer term pay) causes a considerable financial burden and does not conform to intuitive year-round costs. Furthermore, the lack of guaranteed funding in the final years of the dissertation process often leads to higher attrition and lower job placement rates. We firmly believe that if the University values its graduate workers, it will not expect them to take loans in order to supplement income for basic expenses like rent, and it will not make the completion of the degree contingent upon independent wealth or economic burden. Placing less financial stress on graduate workers will undeniably lead to better work performance, and financial security is a fundamental tenet of academic freedom.
Brown advertises itself as a diverse institution, yet much of the labor required to change historically exclusive processes in academia lies in the work of historically marginalized groups. The people who provide this unrecognized labor to Brown gain nothing in exchange. Thus, we are committed to building institutional frameworks and practices that ensure the effective implementation of diversity and inclusion plans, while requiring fair treatment of minority and historically marginalized graduate workers and fair remuneration.
Graduate employees are indispensable to the University, performing teaching labor as well as playing a large role in the production of innovative research and scholarship. We are employed as researchers and teachers; pay and employment parameters should therefore reflect these roles in the University, so that our labor is adequately compensated and our research is not impeded by financial difficulty.
Valuing the Union itself through good-faith protections.
We take it as given that the Union must have stable and secure accommodations and long-term prospects if it is to represent its members’ interests with the vitality requisite for fair and good-faith collective bargaining. Therefore, we find it necessary to provide for reasonable protections for the Union’s long-term vibrance. Our union was founded by members of the Brown community, and in order to continue representing our community, we expect to be able to access graduate workers in their workplaces and communicate with them freely. Since democratic governance is the foundation of our organization, we need to be able to organize within Brown communities. Good-faith protections will ensure that the Union is treated fairly and respectfully, which we view as a necessary part of our working relationship with the University.
Our expectations for negotiations
SUGSE has worked hard since our founding to distill and understand the issues which matter most to graduate employees. Our statement is informed by our personal experiences of working here, and we have learned the hard way that the existing system has failed. We expect that the University will respect our first-hand experience of the brokenness of this system, negotiate with us in good faith, and most importantly, accept our paradigm of graduate work as labor which has value. We understand that contract negotiations involve give-and-take, and we will endeavor to find a contract which both we and the University can accept. But one thing must be absolutely understood before we begin: if you want us to do work for you, you need to recognize us as workers. And our work has value.