BU Graduate Workers Close Out First Week on Strike

Graduate student workers at Boston University have been on strike since March 25.
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Updated on April 3, 2024
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  • More than 3,000 Boston University graduate students are withholding their labor, refraining from their teaching duties and research.
  • The graduate worker's demands include fair pay, expanded healthcare, and more benefits.
  • The graduate students have been on strike since March 25 and have yet to reach an agreement with the university.

Graduate workers at Boston University (BU) have entered their fifth day of striking over demands of fair pay, expanded healthcare, and more benefits to help with the cost of living in Boston.

The over 3,000 graduate student workers are part of the Boston University Graduate Workers Union (BUGWU). They are represented by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 509, which also represents adjuncts, salaried lecturers, and residential advisors at BU.

Members voted 90% in favor of strike authorization between February 28 and March 11 and announced their decision to strike less than 10 days later.

In a press release sent to BestColleges on March 25, the union said graduate workers are fighting for several demands, including increased pay and more comprehensive healthcare, to offset the rising costs of housing and other necessities in Boston.

The union also emphasized claims of unfair labor practices against the university. Since bargaining began, the union has filed multiple unfair labor practice charges against the university.

For over eight months, we have been urging BU to bargain in good faith and provide the basic information our members need to bargain, David Foley, president of SEIU 509, said in the press release. BU's conduct continues to signal that they do not value the contributions of the workers that keep this university running, and we are committed to supporting our members as they fight for the fair contract they deserve.

In a March 22 email to BestColleges, Rachel Lapal Cavallario, associate vice president for public relations at BU, refuted the bad-faith bargaining claim, stating, Boston University continues to negotiate in good faith, and referred to the resources page the university put together concerning negotiations with BUGWU.

Since the strike started, there have been two bargaining sessions between the university and the union on March 27 and April 1.

According to the BUGWU Bargaining Tracker, as of April 2, the union is considering 16 articles, or specific sections of the contract, while they are waiting for the university to respond to seven. Six articles have been tentatively agreed to, while each side has rejected two.

Maggie Boyd, a sixth-year doctoral student in the English Department described negotiations as challenging and not particularly encouraging thus far, but remains optimistic that a deal will be reached.

I am still hopeful that BU will recognize the value of the work that we do and the contributions that we make that keep the university running, and that they will, in turn, meet with us and provide us substantive, meaningful proposals that we can then negotiate with, she told BestColleges.

One outstanding major article is the 12-month stipend, which Boyd says especially motivated her to go on strike.

Currently, there's a wide array of stipends. I'm on an eight-month stipend, plus a two-month summer stipend, which means I go two months every year where I'm working, but not receiving any money, which is obviously really difficult, she explained.

Learning Interrupted

In a March 26 letter to graduate students, University Provost and Chief Academic Officer ad interim Kenneth Lutchen said the school has a duty to support all students, including those on strike, and keep university operations running during the strike.

While we recognize BUGWU's right to strike, we are deeply concerned about the impact this activity will have on thousands of enrolled students and are committed to doing everything we can to minimize disruptions to the educational experiences in our community, he said.

...Each student in the union is free to make their own choice about how they'd like to proceed during a strike period, and the University will not retaliate against any student engaging in lawful strike activity.

Boyd said that students have been really supportive and have wanted to be engaged in the strike — learning more about the process and why graduate workers are on strike. Some even want to join graduate workers on the picket line.

I think they're really clear on the fact that our working conditions are their learning conditions and that we can provide them better education if we have better [working] conditions. They've understood it is our incredible care for these classrooms ... that motivates this, she said.

The university has offered guidelines to faculty on how to continue teaching students without graduate students, including employing technology and artificial intelligence (AI) to supplement the work traditionally done by graduate students.

According to BUGWU, a letter to university faculty included the suggestion to use generative AI tools to give feedback or facilitate discussion on readings or assignments.

The union responded, saying, In an email sent out to BU faculty, [the university] is now suggesting that professors use AI to scab for graduate workers! Our students deserve better! Give us a fair contract so we can get back in the classroom!

Garnering Support

Local and national politicians have spoken out in support of the workers, including Massachusetts Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey and U.S. Rep Ayanna Pressley, D-Boston.

Graduate workers are critical members of the Boston University community. They deserve a contract that values both their labor and their humanity, Rep. Pressley said in the BUGWU release.

They are dedicated teachers, mentors, and researchers who pour into our students daily and it's time their contributions are recognized and justly compensated. As a former BU student and hotel worker, I am proud to stand with BU grad workers as they fight for a fair contract.

The Boston City Council also unanimously passed a resolution supporting the workers and a contract that guarantees student workers' fundamental right to a living wage, affordable health care and real improvements to working conditions.