1. Who is VGWU?
  2. Why a Union?
  3. Our Success
  4. How does a union work? What have other student workers achieved?
  5. What are some practical benefits of unionizing?
  6. How do you form a formal union? Why is that important?
  7. Can international students join VGWU?

Who is VGWU?

VGWU is entirely composed of Vanderbilt grad students from across colleges and disciplines who are committed to working towards a better and more just university for ourselves and our colleagues. Our internal decisions are made democratically by our members. All Vanderbilt grad students are welcome to join.

In practice, VGWU’s democratic structure works as a collection of committees that organize on the issues that matter to members. Groups of students in related programs (Biomedical Sciences, Peabody, Engineering) or with shared concerns (disability accommodations, international student issues) form committees to organize around those issues. This lets those most affected by a given issue take a lead in identifying priorities and proposing solutions while prioritizing face-to-face organizing by regular grads (like you!) within your own labs, cohorts, and other social networks. Meanwhile, our coordinating committee, general membership meetings, Slack channel, and socials offer space to connect across colleges and identity groups, offer necessary support and solidarity to department- or college-level campaigns, and help to identify those issues that are best addressed university-wide.

Why a Union?

Why do you need a union? Unions can do things that other forms of organizing – with your department grad student association, GSC, or affinity/identity groups – can’t, and can lend strength and support to those other groups. Most importantly, a grad worker union can win a contract that guarantees you a particular set of working conditions – conditions you and your coworkers bargain for and get to democratically approve. Grads at other universities, from Columbia to the University of California system, have already done this and won big improvements to working conditions and benefits. We can do this too – if we work together!

All of us – including noncitizens – have a federally protected right to work towards a union. And because we organize as workers without whose labor in labs, classrooms, and offices the university could not function, a union gives you and your colleagues a particularly powerful way to work for change, especially as grad students who usually have very little influence within the university. 

Our Success

Successful organizing is all about getting a supermajority of your co-workers to sign on to create change around a workplace issue that matters to you all. If you can build consensus and get a supermajority of your colleagues to take action on an issue, then you will win! This strategy has already proven effective for many of your colleagues across campus. Keep reading to see what they have won and how they did it!

  • Stipend Raises for Arts & Sciences
    • In the fall of 2022, the graduate school unveiled their long awaited plans for new grad housing. But, to our surprise, grads found that the very housing meant specifically for us was completely un-affordable. With the cheapest option coming in at over $1,600 for under 300 square feet of space, grads were outraged that the administration seemingly didn’t know how much their own grad workers were paid. Through a series of rallies, a lot of public attention and news coverage, and a coordinated resolution with our friends in the Graduate Student Council, the College of Arts & Sciences announced stipend increases up to $34,000 for all humanities and $35,000 for all natural science grads–and increase of several thousand from the previous base for AY 2021-2022 of $31,500.
  • Dental and Vision Care Coverage
    • Frustrated by unaffordable dental and vision plans offered by the university, grads organized a petition in 2022 that received over 1,000 signatures. After delivering the petition twice to the administration, they announced that they would investigate providing full dental and vision coverage to grads at no cost for the 2023/2024 AY.
  • BioMed Raises
    • In the fall of 2021, grads in the Biomedical sciences departments were informed that they would not be receiving raises promised to them. In response, they called a mass meeting on Zoom with over 50 grads. They wrote a petition which quickly received hundreds of signatures, demanding that they receive their promised raises. Within a week of its delivery to the admin, Biomed grads had their raises back.
  • Physics and Astronomy Petition
    • Unsatisfied with their poor benefits and pay, grad workers in Physics & Astronomy eventually decided to formalize their needs into a petition to their department administration. They took their time to have conversations about this petition with all of their colleagues, getting a super-majority of over 50 grads (of about 60 total) to sign on before sending it to their department administration. These organizers then set up a meeting with the admin where they won:
      • $600 reimbursements for student fees they were charged this past year.
      • A guarantee that student fees would be covered by the department in future years, effectively resulting in a pay raise
      • Weekly catered lunches put together by grads and paid for by the department
      • The opportunity to TA for more hours each week to bring in extra income
  • Law School Raises
    • It started when a group of Law School grad workers came to other organizers in VGWU for help in getting data on hourly pay rates across Vanderbilt. With this data, these Law School RA’s found that not only were they not being paid a wage high enough to afford basic necessities in Nashville, but that they were also being underpaid compared to many other grad workers – just $13.50 / hour! After some conversations with their co-workers about their low pay, these RA’s organized a meeting with the Law School admin. They made their case and the admin agreed to the raise, bringing the minimum hourly rate at the Law School in line with the rest of campus.
  • Peabody Student Fees
    • In the fall of 2021, grads in Peabody learned that they would have to pay hundreds of dollars in “student service fees” each semester. They talked with their colleagues in other colleges and learned that most other departments on campus were covering these fees for their grads. Armed with this knowledge of their unfair treatment, they organized a petition that quickly received hundreds of signatures from Peabody grads demanding that the fees be covered by the Peabody admin. Within days of the petition getting submitted, the administration had capitulated, announcing that they would pay for the fees.

Not every campaign has been successful, and those also offer valuable lessons. Perhaps our most notable failure was around COVID policy. VGWU 

How does a union work? What have other student workers achieved?

Having a union empowers people to make positive changes in the workplace. Through the power of collective bargaining, graduate workers across the country have won a seat at the table and the right to negotiate with their college and university administrations. Decisions about what to prioritize in collective bargaining are determined democratically and vary between institutions. Common themes include raising minimum stipends, expanding healthcare coverage and family benefits, and defining workload protections.
For example, graduate student workers at NYU recently negotiated a new contract in which they won significant pay increases, free basic dental insurance, enhanced protections against harassment and discrimination, and new funds for childcare and family healthcare. Graduate student workers in the University of California system recently ratified a contract including: pay increases, expansion of paid parental leave, access to lactation stations and gender-neutral bathrooms, equal rights, and opportunities along with protections for undocumented graduate students.

What are some practical benefits of unionizing?

Once our union is recognized, we elect a bargaining committee of graduate workers, and fill out bargaining surveys to set the priorities in our contract. These may include anything the union’s members feel is important, but often emphasize:

  • Contractually guaranteed annual cost of living stipend increases and timely payments
  • Enhanced dental, vision, and mental health insurance (and lower copays)
  • Improved access to insurance coverage for partners and dependents
  • Expanded funding beyond fifth year
  • Increased travel funding to cover conference costs
  • Tuition and fee remission for fifth year and beyond
  • Standardized teaching requirements (such as smaller section sizes, better section assignment procedures, and workload guidelines)
  • Vacation and sick leave for research assistants
  • Subsidized child care and parental leave (including retaining student status while on leave, which can mean retaining visa status, health insurance, and access to university facilities)
  • Subsidized university housing
  • Subsidized transportation
  • Protections against discriminatory hiring and admissions, sexual harassment, and assault
  • Improved disability access and resources for minorities
  • Establishment of a transparent grievance procedure

How do you form a formal union? Why is that important?

In the most important sense, VGWU is already a union: we are a group of workers who have banded together to work democratically to improve our workplace. 

However, VGWU is not currently recognized by Vanderbilt administration. Formal recognition isn’t needed to win important victories – see our list of wins above! – but it does offer major benefits, most notably the right to bargain for a legally binding contract. We are therefore working towards the goal of formal recognition.

Winning formal union recognition is a complex process regulated by the National Labor Relations Board. Vanderbilt administration can choose to voluntarily recognize VGWU, but we anticipate that formal recognition will require petitioning the NRLB to administer an election in which grads will vote on whether or not they want to unionize. We are currently working towards such an election by building our organizational capacity. Waging successful issue campaigns (like the campaign for dental/vision coverage) and winning real, tangible benefits for grads creates the opportunity to develop our union and demonstrate the power of collective action, and will prepare us to hold an election when we are confident that we have built supermajority support.

Can international students join VGWU?

Yes. You have a right under federal law to join or organize a union, regardless of your citizenship or visa status. It would be illegal for Vanderbilt or your supervisor to retaliate against you for exercising that right.