Graduate students unionizing for better working conditions

UNC workers across campus, including graduate students, are coming together to form a new University Workers Union in an effort to protect their interests from the University.

Abigail Lee, a Ph.D. candidate and TA in the English department, said a number of UNC workers first met with a union representative in the spring of 2017.

Lee said one of the union’s claims is that graduate students are also graduate workers, because graduate students are often completely responsible for a course. 

“I’ve taught several sections of English 105, and I’m an instructor of record. I create all the syllabi. I do all the grading,” she said. “I have the same responsibilities as an adjunct faculty member.”

Graduate students in the union, Lee continued, want to connect with other campus workers -- including housekeeping, lab workers and brick layers -- to create a union that represents all of their interests.

Micah Hughes, a graduate worker from the religious studies department, said he’s also planning on joining the union. He said he feels that graduate students need representation in order for the University to address concerns they may have that aren’t appropriate for just their respective department.

“We view ourselves as both students and workers for the University,” Hughes said. ”That hybrid status requires that we need some kind of extra form of representation to make our needs and issues and demands clear to the University.”

One of the biggest issues campus workers face, Lee said, is parking fees.

“If you make, let’s say, $20,000 a year, and you have to pay 500 to a thousand dollars to park, that’s really eating into your wage, which isn’t really a living wage to begin with,” she said. “One thing we want to advocate for is more transparency from the University about why parking costs so much … why they are giving out raises but also clawing back those raises by raising parking fees, saying that they need to make more revenue, which means making revenue from their own employees.”

Another issue central to the union are graduate student fees. Lee said graduate students at UNC have some of the lowest stipends across the country, and student fees cut into the money they can take home. 

“I have to pay these student fees to be allowed to work and learn,” she said. “Other workers have to pay the university to be allowed to park to come to work.”

Stephen Pedroza is a research technician at the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, and also works on the organizing committee for the union. The tipping point for him was when UNC Student Stores became privatized. 

At an employee forum meeting, someone asked a question about shifting the focus of Student Stores to only profit-making, removing services geared toward the community. The administration, according to Pedroza, responded that there would be a balance of interests.

“At that point, it became very clear to me that there kind of needs to be a union of workers on campus to make sure that this 'balancing of interests' comes out more favorably to the campus workers,” Pedroza said. “Not just have the interests be very skewed in the favor of the administration.”

Pedroza said the anti-privatization campaign would be central to the union. 

“We’re very concerned that the more and more things get privatized, that’s going to mean fewer benefits, lower wages,” he said. “We also worry that (those cuts) can have an effect of driving down wages and benefits on campus at large, regardless of whether your employer is the University or a private contractor.”

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