Boston University Coalition of Student Activists held a meeting Friday evening to bring attention to graduate students’ plans to form a union and to discuss other issues. More than a dozen people attended the meeting in the office belonging to BU Student Government.
Organizers behind the graduate student unionization movement, including a few representatives from the Service Employees International Union Local 509, began the meeting by explaining graduating students’ need for a union.
They said graduate students are also workers who invest their time and effort into university programs. Several speakers said that graduate students, as teaching assistants or research aides, deserve better working conditions, and unionizing would help them accomplish that goal.
Some of the issues they mentioned including the size of a stipend in relation to the cost of living in Boston, transparency in professional development and the quality and degree of health care coverage for graduate students.
Speakers said many graduate students feel these issues are not being addressed properly, and therefore they are at a disadvantage as working students.
Marcelle Grair, a representative from SEIU Local 509, said the union of approximately 3,000 members can help to improve the quality of education at universities around Boston while helping graduate students receive compensation.
“Grad student workers getting a contract puts the teaching and learning back in the hands of folks who actually have the experience and put so much energy into making the learning experience really great for you,” she said during the meeting.
Ben Simonds-Malamud, a sophomore from Northeastern University, said after the meeting that he is interning at SEIU Local 509. He said the issue of graduate student unions is about making an impact on students’ education.
“It’s always great to see a campaign where you’re working with an issue that’s directly on your campus and directly impacting your classes and your education,” he said. “So even though I have no real connection to BU, it’s still exciting for me to see.”
Kimberly Barzola and Marwa Sayed led the second part of the meeting, where students discussed what it means to be an undocumented person in the United States. They also spoke about the push to make BU a sanctuary for undocumented students, especially when other universities around the country are doing so.
The two College of Arts and Sciences seniors are in the process of drafting a petition that they hope will get the movement going.
Barzola said the purpose of this petition is to “reiterate any commitments that the university already has to protect undocumented students.”
“And then if that’s not the case, [the petition is] to really make concrete commitments to protecting students and to make the case for any of these policies that our president-elect has proposed,” she said.
Barzola and Sayed said they thought BU is not backing up its words on the issue, which has gripped much of the nation after Donald Trump’s election.
They called the post-election email BU President Robert Brown sent to students redundant, meaningless and disingenuous. The two students said they are disappointed to see the university making little commitment in protecting the minority groups that Trump spoke about during his campaign.
“We mirrored a lot of that language [from Brown’s letter] in the petition itself,” Barzola said. “We’re taking your words to heart. We hope that you take our words to heart.”
For Barzola and Sayed, the idea of making BU a sanctuary is quite personal.
“I am the daughter of undocumented folks who came from Peru, and it’s something that sits with me every day,” Barzola said after the meeting. “I feel it’s like my duty.”
Sayed said this movement is about using one’s privilege to act before potential hate crimes toward minorities increase.
“I don’t have to deal with what a lot of the things that people who are targeted by this kind of talk or legislation are,” she said after the meeting. “For me, it’s mostly coming out of a place of solidarity and a place of love for humanity. If you don’t speak up now, there will be no one left to speak up.”