Boston University graduate student workers celebrated a sweeping win at the election polls Dec. 7, with 98% of 1,442 voters electing to unionize with Service Employees International Union Local 509.
“It was an absolute landslide of a win,” said Toni Armstrong, a third year doctoral candidate and member of the Boston University Graduate Student Workers Union organizing committee.
Armstrong said unionizing with SEIU Local 509, a union of over 20,000 Massachusetts educators and human service workers including current BU adjunct and salaried lecturers, means graduate workers can begin bargaining for their first contract.
“A union means that our emotional, intellectual and physical energy can go towards our teaching and our scholarship instead of figuring out how to live,” Armstrong said.
According to the BUGWU website, the union is for “anyone in a graduate program who receives payment or compensation from BU.”
Living wages, comprehensive healthcare coverage, international student rights, workload protections and housing justice are among the key issues graduate students will bargain for when negotiating a contract with BU, Armstrong said.
Arcadia Ewell, president of the BU Graduate Student Organization, said she works 12-hour days between her responsibilities, and said she receives an annual stipend of $38,000 and lives paycheck to paycheck.
“It’s no surprise that PhD students are in a mental health crisis right now,” she said. “Students are facing incredible workloads, incredible stress loads, incredible impostor syndrome, incredible isolation, and then they’re dealing with financial pressure on top of that.”
Graduate student workers at BU are paid between $25,000 and $45,000 sometimes with no funding in the summer, according to the BUGWU website. The MIT Living Wage Calculator estimates the cost of living for a single adult in Boston is $46,918 per year.
Matt Brewer, a teaching fellow at BU, said while graduate student workers have been fighting for better conditions for years, the COVID-19 pandemic in particular was the “impetus” for recent efforts that made the difference.
Brewer said a common concern was rooted in graduate students in different departments currently receiving different levels of funding, but said there is no “one size fits all.”
Armstrong said graduate students should be supported to give the students they teach “the education they deserve.”
“I’m fighting for a union, not just for me, but for all of the people who will come after me,” Armstrong said. “I want to see the next generation of scholars be better supported in every way possible, so that they can do better scholarship, and that is what I am building a union for.”