Credit: Darrow Montgomery

As the sun set on a chilly March day last year, close to 20 Georgetown University graduate students gathered on campus in Red Square. A local artist, Adrian Parsons, fiddled with a projector as the students huddled and fidgeted, looking up expectantly at the red brick of the school’s Intercultural Center. After a moment, there were cheers, hugs, and smiles. The facade was lit up with the logo of the Georgetown Alliance of Graduate Employees, a fist raised over Georgetown’s gates. 

GAGE, as the group is known, is Georgetown’s graduate student labor union. The projection was part of a years-long and still unfinished process of organizing, agitating, and campaigning for collective bargaining rights and formal recognition from the university. Since August 2016, when the National Labor Relations Board recognized graduate students at private colleges as employees and gave them the right to unionize, students at three District universities have approached their administrations demanding a union contract with varying success. 

While graduate students at the three schools—Georgetown, George Washington, and American universities—are all at different stages of the unionization process, a drive to improve working conditions, pay, and health care unites them.

Grad students get an education at their universities, but they also insist that they’re workers, as does current law. These individuals, who can be master’s students or Ph.D. candidates, work as research and teaching assistants for their academic departments, and sometimes teach their own courses independently. This can be a requirement of their degrees in many cases, but it’s also work they’re compensated for in hourly wages or an annual stipend. 

Full-time grad students, who are too old or unable to join a parent’s plan, are eligible to receive insurance through the university’s health plan. Last semester, GW Graduate Students United (GW GSU), the union of students at the George Washington University, launched a campaign over their plan with Aetna, which they say is expensive and lacking in coverage. The union released an open letter signed by 75 graduate students, and members ran a teach-in on health justice on campus.

Andreas Meyris, a history Ph.D. candidate at GW, saw the plan’s flaws firsthand over the past several years. “I had to be hospitalized last summer and the summer before, and I knew with my health insurance I’d have to pay a minimum of a few thousand dollars as a result of those procedures,” he said, “which is tough when the wages the university is paying us are pretty low in general.”

As part of the campaign, students at GW highlighted the cost of their plan, which they must pay in a lump sum, as well as two specific clauses. One, which says that the plan will not cover any treatment for injury due to self-harm or attempted suicide. The university abandoned that after meeting with GW GSU. The other, which says the plan will not cover cosmetic procedures, including gender-affirming ones, has not changed since the action.

“We agree with groups like the Transgender Law Center that it is up to the individual and their physician, not Aetna, to determine what is medically necessary,” GW GSU wrote on its site. “Any pre-set exclusion of ‘cosmetic’ procedures is an unacceptable method of providing adequate healthcare.”

Despite sit-ins and protests from grad students, in March, the GWU administration declined to recognize GW GSU, which is affiliated with SEIU Local 500. Provost Forrest Maltzman wrote that the university believes the work graduate students do is part of their education, and that collective bargaining would disrupt important mentorship connections between faculty and students. The administration, instead of voluntarily recognizing the union, suggested that students file for a union election through the National Labor Relations Board. 

Though GW GSU says it’s eligible for an election and 50 percent of eligible students have signed union materials, they fear the NLRB could use the case to overturn the 2016 decision that gave grad students the right to unionize in the first place. The labor board, which Trump appointees now control, has swung to the right since its last vote on the issue. 

The George Washington University Faculty Association, a membership organization for faculty members, decried the university’s choice in a May letter to the administration. “We write as clear-eyed observers of the Trump administration and the changes it has made to the National Labor Relations Board,” the letter says. “We know that, in this political moment, asking graduate students to work through NLRB channels is tantamount to denying them the ability to vote democratically on unionization.”

At Georgetown, health care is also a priority for students. Catie Sevigny, a Ph.D. candidate in Georgetown’s tumor biology department, says that she hasn’t had vision or dental check-ups in years, in part because the health plan Georgetown offers her doesn’t cover either. 

Chris DeLorenzo, who joined Georgetown’s history department as a doctoral candidate in 2011, said in a GAGE video that he found the insurance extremely lacking. DeLorenzo, who is autistic and has depression and anxiety, said that he was turned away from the student counseling and psychiatric services in pursuit of medications he had been taking. 

“Anyone who’s had to look for medical services on their own can tell you it’s extraordinarily difficult,” he says in the video. “I was without a mental health specialist for a little over a year.” He said his prescription costs, when they were covered by Georgetown’s insurance, were prohibitively expensive, especially since he was making less than $30,000 per year. 

“The message I’ve gotten from the Georgetown administration is that disabled grad workers just aren’t welcome here,” DeLorenzo says in the video. 

Sevigny and others say they hope GAGE can bring health care to the bargaining table. The union won recognition from the university in November through an election outside the NLRB. Though the administration originally declined to voluntarily recognize the union, they acquiesced in April to an election run by a third party and agreed to not appeal the result to the NLRB. For graduate students, this meant that their election could not be used to overturn the decision their unionization rights are based on. For the university, the agreement allowed the administration to say what the union could and could not negotiate, specifically curriculum changes and other academic matters. The school’s Just Employment Policy affirms that the administration will refrain from pressuring workers during unionization or delaying legal union proceedings. The union won the election with 555 students voting in support of unionizing and 108 voting against. 

In 2016, when GAGE first went public with their goals, Georgetown responded as universities across the nation have, and denied that grad students are workers.

Ben Feldman, a 34-year-old history Ph.D. candidate at the university, thinks the school tries to have it both ways. “They want us to both be trainees who are not yet experienced enough to be treated as employees. They also want to charge people a quarter of a million dollars to get an education wherein some significant percentage of that education is directed by graduate workers,” he says. “So either they’re ripping us off, or they’re ripping off the families who are giving them a quarter of a million dollars.” 

At American University, grads won recognition for the union through a traditional NLRB election and ratified their first negotiated contract in December. 

Stephan Lefebvre, an economics Ph.D. candidate who sat at the bargaining table at American, says a range of structural and economic issues were important to grads in their contract. Students won the clear ability to take outside jobs and indicate preferences in their work assignments, as well as promises for further collaborations on scheduling and other issues. 

Though Lefebvre thought the contract negotiations were collaborative, he says the union did not get everything it wanted, specifically on economic issues. Soon after the union filed its petition for an election, the university announced a 10 percent increase in Ph.D. candidate stipends. The contract codified this increase, but did not augment it. “Hopefully in the future we will move closer towards what our membership wanted, which is closer to a living wage for Washington.” Lefebvre said.

Pay is, as expected, another major concern for grad students, especially in an expensive city. Most say that they can make ends meet, but emphasize that “getting by” is a low bar. 

“A salary of, in our case $32,000 a year—we’re basically taking all of it and dumping it into rent,” says Louis Poon, a Ph.D. student in Georgetown’s chemistry department.

Pat Geiger, a master’s student in geography at GWU, emphasizes that master’s students at the university are sometimes paid tens of thousands of dollars less than doctoral candidates for the same work.

“Getting pay raises each year is important, particularly in D.C. where it seems like rents are going up every year,” he says. Most students aren’t able to live in Foggy Bottom, near the university, and Geiger thinks a transportation stipend would also make things easier. 

Joseph McCartin, a labor historian and professor at Georgetown, says it’s not hard to understand why organized labor is gaining traction quickly in higher education. “These private institutions in many cases have the resources to do better for their grad assistants than they had been doing,” he says. “These grad assistants at these more well endowed institutions so to speak, they might naturally be the ones who would first raise the demand for unionization.” 

For Feldman, the question isn’t whether a person born into means or a supportive family can pursue graduate scholarship, but whether someone less privileged has the chance to contribute, and what the answer to that question says about the research being produced. 

“I drive into Annapolis every Sunday night so my mom can watch the baby while I work,” he continues. “That’s not available to everybody. So what happens to somebody who doesn’t have the ability to do that?”

“Graduate work is supposed to prepare you for an academic job,” Feldman says. “You don’t want graduate school to be something that just the privileged do to pursue an intellectual curiosity.”

Even for the many grads who have few to no complaints with their administration, the union is an important safeguard. 

Poon notes that he thinks his department, chemistry, takes good care of grads. “We’ve had things pretty smoothly, but the more we began talking with the other departments, it sounds like they’re not getting as smooth a ride as we are,” he says. “If they can do it to that department, they can do it to our department as well and proceed with impunity.”

“It’s the most democratic and the most effective way for graduate students workers to sort of advocate to make their lives better,” says Chad Frazier, a history doctoral candidate at Georgetown. “For me the big idea is having increased transparency and accountability.”

For many, the benefits are intangible. 

“Graduate students really didn’t have a unified voice before this,” says Lefebvre, who attends American. “The union gave us that.”