Boston University Graduate Workers Vote to Authorize Strike

Graduate workers voted 90% in favor of authorizing a strike.
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Published on March 20, 2024
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  • Graduate student workers at Boston University held a strike authorization vote from Feb. 28 to March 11.
  • The vote passed with 90% approval.
  • Workers' demands include additional workplace protections, increased pay, and improved healthcare.

Graduate workers at Boston University (BU) have voted to authorize a strike over demands that include increased pay, more comprehensive healthcare, and better working conditions.

The over 3,000 graduate student workers are organized as 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 Feb. 28 and March 11, according to the union.

Although a strike is not imminent, the vote gives union leadership the authorization required to call a strike if necessary.

Major demands from the union include more workplace protections, including safeguards against harassment and discrimination; improved campus accessibility; increased pay tied to the cost of living; and better, more affordable healthcare, including dental, vision, and gender-affirming care.

BUGWU also claims that BU is using unlawful bargaining practices and has filed five unfair labor practice charges against the university.

"We are extremely disappointed in BU's unlawful conduct and refusal to provide the basic information our members need to bargain effectively," SEIU 509 President David Foley said in a press release sent to BestColleges.

"Graduate workers play a vital role in contributing to BU’s success and in shaping the experience of students across campus. Their work as teachers, mentors, and researchers are an invaluable part of what keeps the university running. They are sending a clear message to BU: We are prepared to take action to secure a fair agreement that reflects the value of our work and addresses our needs."

In a statement, Dr. Kenneth Lutchen, BU provost and chief academic officer ad interim, said that the university's negotiation team has met multiple times with BUGWU and they have "listened to our students’ concerns about cost of living, quality of life, and campus issues."

"We continue to listen to our students and to bargain in good faith, and we are confident that we will be able to bridge our remaining differences," the March 6 statement read. "... Should the union initiate a strike, we (the faculty and the administration) will need to ensure that the education of our students — undergraduate and graduate students — is not interrupted."

Since June 2023, there have been 14 bargaining sessions between the university and BUGWU, the most recent on March 5. There are currently bargaining sessions planned for April 1, May 2, and June 4.

Fighting for Increased Pay

According to the union, graduate workers are paid stipends between $27,000 and $40,000. They are fighting for more pay to match the cost of living in Boston, which, according to the MIT living wage calculator, is an annual pre-tax income of just over $62,000.

"This isn’t just about fair pay; it’s about ensuring that the workers who keep the university running can lead dignified lives without the constant worry of financial instability," Meiya Sparks Lin, a graduate worker in the English department, said in the press release.

"This year, my rent was raised by $350 per month, and as the cost of living continues to rise here in Boston, this work is increasingly unsustainable for many of us. We are prepared to take action to change our working conditions and win a strong contract."

BU has offered an increase in 12-month Ph.D. student stipends to $42,159 next year and an overall increase representing 13% over three years, according to Lutchen's statement. The university has also proposed moving graduate students from eight-month stipends to nine-month stipends, increasing their pay from the $28,106 they proposed in the first year of the contract to $31,619.

Students say it's not enough.

“Last fall, I had to pay a $14,000 lump sum to cover the health insurance premiums for my family of four," Blair Stowe, a graduate worker in the theology department, said in the release.

"How can BU expect me to make this work on a stipend of $26,000 a year? I am not the only parent feeling this way, and our problems are not individual failures — they are a result of the university failing to provide what we need."

Joining the Wave of Student Unionization

Graduate workers at BU started organizing for a union in October 2022, signing union authorization cards and filing for an election with the labor board. A union election was held in December 2022, with 98.1% of voters voting to form a union. The union has been negotiating a contract since 2023.

In the past year, several other universities have seen their graduate workers unionize, including Syracuse University, Northeastern University, Stanford University, and the University of Southern California.

Additionally, graduate workers at the University of California (UC), Temple University, and the University of Oregon have all voted in favor of strike authorization within the last year.

While graduate workers at the University of Oregon reached a tentative agreement and voted to ratify the new contract, workers at Temple and UC campuses went on strike for multiple weeks until agreements were reached.