JANUARY: Building on last semester’s momentum, we continued our campus-wide outreach by hosting our monthly happy hour at Two Boots and scheduling several meetings with STEM and Humanities departments.
FEBRUARY: We began organizing in earnest for “Organizing for Equity,” a public event designed to bring together academics, activists, and community members to discuss how the concept of equity fits into their organizing work. The Divinity School kindly agreed to co-sponsor the event, which was to have two segments: 1. a panel featuring Vanderbilt scholars and Nashville community organizers; 2. breakout workshops led by local union leaders and GWU members. Unfortunately, the shutdown of campus in early March due to COVID-19 prevented us from holding this event as planned.
MARCH/APRIL/MAY: See “Urgent Covid-19 Action” to read about how we responded to the campus shutdown and other pandemic-related issues.
AUGUST: An article in Nature mentions the Mental Health Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, the original draft of which GWU authored in Fall 2017.
SEPTEMBER: After talking with many graduate workers about the move from Buttrick to the Library, we have heard several recurring concerns: 1. no clear, universal printing policy as promised; 2. no designated graduate lounge space as promised; 3. heavy undergraduate traffic in our work areas. With GWU’s support, the Carrels Committee has reconvened to take a workspace survey and write a briefing to Dean Geer’s office about the effects of the move on graduate work.
OCTOBER: In addition to launching our new web site, we have begun a new information-sharing campaign aimed at department graduate student associations, professional organizations, and social organizations. We are recommencing our broad unionization education campaign for two main reasons: first, the politics surrounding labor issues has changed significantly since we began organizing in 2016; second, graduate unionization has entered a new phase nationally, with some private-university unions having already won elections and sitting down at the bargaining table with their employers.
OCTOBER: An article in Inside Higher Education mentions the Mental Health Bill of Rights & Responsibilities.
DECEMBER: Two GWU organizers publish a 3000-word feature in Times Higher Education, a London-based higher-ed news site with an international readership, on unionization and the graduate school mental health crisis.
DECEMBER: On a meeting with the deans of A&S and the Graduate School and the library director on December 17, the Carrels Committee, originally organized by GWU, secured the promised Graduate Student Lounge on the 6th floor of Central Library. That is now a card-access-only room where graduate students can gather for breaks, meetings, and work. Universal printing for all 10 A&S programs affected by the workspace move was also secured. (If you still do not have access to free, work-related printing in Central Library OR your home department, you should contact Dean David Wright’s office directly to remedy the issue).
LESSONS LEARNED: At semester’s end, we have taken our outreach drive to the Graduate Student Council General Body Meeting, Community Research & Action, History, International Students Association, English, German, Sociology, Civil & Environmental Engineering, Biological Sciences, and more. We also held our first Spanish-language meeting to talk about international student concerns about unionization, hosted two labor film screenings, and scheduled several future departmental meetings for spring semester. Dedicated outreach with consistent, compelling message is helping us build real momentum in this campaign. We reached hundreds of new people this semester and plan to do the same come spring!
APRIL: We supported the work of the Carrels Advisory Committee by authoring an open letter to Deans Wright and Geer requesting a long-overdue meeting to discuss grads’ concerns about the move from Buttrick Hall to Central Library. More than 60 workers affected by the move signed the letter. Dean Geer scheduled an hour-long meeting with the Carrels Committee shortly thereafter.
APRIL: The campus newspaper, The Vanderbilt Hustler, wrote a profile of our ongoing effort to form a labor union for graduate workers at Vanderbilt.
- LESSONS LEARNED: The Carrels Committee worked hard to make grads’ concerns known to administrators. That work paid off in measurable respects, including convincing the administration to invest more resources to convert Central Library into a more suitable graduate workspace. Unfortunately, such committees have their limits when it comes to holding the administration accountable: numerous important concerns about the move remained unaddressed at year’s end, and graduate students still lost much in the move, including guaranteed access to printing, contiguous workspaces, community space, and a food-prep area with a refrigerator.
OCTOBER: Following Dean John Geer’s announcement that over ten A&S departments and programs would have their workspace moved from Buttrick Hall to Central Library at the end of the fall semester, GWU drafted and circulated a list of demands for graduate workspace: 1. 24/7 accessibility; 2. FERPA-compliant meeting spaces; 3. cost-free printing and scanning services; 4. graduate common area with kitchen and dining space; 5. workspace with natural light; 6. carrels with adequate storage space. Notably, the demands did not ask for anything additional to what we already had in Buttrick Hall; we simply demanded that the administration not allow the move to decrease the quality of graduate workspace (and improve it if possible). In response to grads’ demands, the administration immediately delayed the move until 2019 and called two town halls to listen to our concerns. GWU distributed flyers to maximize grad turnout at the town halls. We also produced a survey about the move to which 74 affected students responded. Our survey found that all but one of 74 respondents opposed the move. After two lively town halls during which administrators made clear that they would not relent to this near-unanimous opposition, GWU led the effort to organize an independent “Carrels Advisory Committee” that would meet with administrators throughout the year to ensure that the move did not yield negative outcomes for graduates. The Carrels Committee included representatives from all A&S departments affected by the move as well as two at-large seats for GWU and the Graduate Student Council (GSC).
DECEMBER: The “Mental Health Bill of Rights & Responsibilities” was ratified by the GSC and acknowledged by the administration as a set of “guiding principles” for on-campus mental healthcare going forward. Even after acknowledging the MHBoR&R, however, the administration maintains that the policy changes reported by grads that inspired GWU to author the first draft of this document never occurred. (You can read our response to this claim in our annotations of the administration’s letter on mental health. See the “Public Communications” sub-tab under the “History” tab.)
- LESSONS LEARNED: The carrels move taught GWU that our commitment to forming a union could make a direct, positive impact on our colleagues. We also observed how strong graduate students can be when we raise our voices collectively about issues that affect our working conditions. Without A&S grads’ strong pushback against the workspace move, the administration would likely not have delayed the move until the 2019-2020 year and would never had to meet with the Carrels Committee to hear grads’ concerns. It is very likely, too, that no significant financial investment would have been made to make the library a more suitable workspace for professional graduate work, given that the originally announced plan was to move us at the end of the Fall 2018 semester. Still, GWU believes that grads’ efforts to challenge this decision (before which zero affected students were consulted for input) would have been stronger and more effective had we all belonged to a formally recognized labor union that had an enforceable employment contract with the administration.
FEBRUARY & APRIL: GWU held actions to support a graduate student who was not receiving pay for services rendered on a research project funded by an external grant. We organized a food-donation drive for the student in February, then followed up in April with an action during recruitment week to reaffirm our support.
MARCH: GWU continued our campaign to restore the previous standard of mental healthcare for graduate workers by hosting a “Mental Health Day” in front of Library Lawn. Numerous graduate workers shared testimonies about their mental health during graduate school as well as their experiences seeking care at the PCC. GWU organizers also shared some recent studies about the relationship between mental health and workplace organization. You can read more about the event under the “Actions” tab on our home page.
- LESSONS LEARNED: Organizing Mental Health Day was a formidable challenge, but we pulled it off together and built a stronger organizing committee in the process. The small, dedicated group that came together to put on this event was to become the organizing core of the 2018-2019 academic year.
SEPTEMBER: GWU heard from numerous graduate students over the summer that their access to mental healthcare at the Psychological Counseling Center (PCC) had changed significantly. Whereas in past years, graduate students had been told at orientation that they would have access to one-on-one therapy at the PCC whenever they needed it, now it appeared to many students that the PCC was implementing a new clinical review process that would re-evaluate patients’ needs for on-campus therapy after six sessions. Consequently, many graduate students were surprised that they were being referred off-campus for therapy and finding that our student insurance could not mitigate their mental healthcare costs. Some reported facing costs that would have amounted to 20% of their annual incomes, forcing them to discontinue therapy. The students reporting these changes to their therapy access emphasized that they valued their care at the PCC and just wanted their previous access restored. GWU authored a petition demanding just that. More than 350 graduate and professional students from across Vanderbilt’s schools signed the petition, prompting the administration to call a Mental Health Town Hall on September 11 to hear grads’ concerns. Dozens of students attended to raise their concerns, many courageously sharing personal testimonies about their need for regular, low-cost, on-campus therapy. The administrators present at the Town Hall said that no policy change had taken place and that they had been following existing policies. Additionally, graduate students learned during the Town Hall that the administration had never conducted a cost analysis of how off-campus referrals would affect graduate student finances, highlighting the everyday economic anxieties that therapy-seeking grad students faced. To their credit, the administrators present at the meeting were receptive to graduate feedback and took mental health on as an administrative priority for the remainder of the year, incorporating some of what they learned into the Student Care Network revamp that launched in 2018-2019.
OCTOBER: After the Town Hall, GWU authored a “Mental Health Bill of Rights” that proposed ten mental healthcare-related policy demands to the administration. We then passed the bill to the Graduate Student Council (GSC) for consideration. The GSC supported the idea and agreed to organize a committee comprised of students from every graduate and professional school to reach a final draft of the bill. The result was the “Mental Health Bill of Rights & Responsibilities” (MHBoR&R) which can now be read on the Student Care Network web site. (Update: On August 30, 2019, the MHBoR&R was mentioned in a Nature article about mental health in U.S. graduate schools.)
- LESSONS LEARNED: The mental health issue taught us a lot about the interconnectedness of workplace issues faced by U.S. graduate students. Not only did we learn about the pervasiveness of mental health issues in graduate schools across the country, we also learned how deeply connected mental health issues are to other issues such as stipend pay, insurance, workplace organization, and the overall sense of economic precarity felt by many early-career academics. Mental health became the signature issue of the 2017-2018 academic year: our first year-long, issue-focused campaign.
FEBRUARY: Nashville’s local NPR affiliate reported on our emerging graduate unionization campaign.
GWU continued to collect signatures as the Spring semester began, but we soon realized that the strategy was flagging. Met with substantial resistance from school administrators (who told graduate students in public communications that they were better off without a union), and faced with the reality that graduate workers on our campus needed more time to learn about the unionization issue before we could take an informed vote, GWU suspended the card-signing drive and began an independent, issue-focused campaign that aimed to rally students behind particular grievances that had emerged from months of discussions about our working conditions.
We began with a proposal that we knew was popular around campus: adding dental and vision coverage to our student insurance plan. We distributed a petition that soon went viral, collecting signatures from 259 graduate workers representing dozens of departments and programs. Our petition got the attention of two administrators, Provost Susan Wente and Dean Keivan Stassun, who made time to meet with us about the issue. During the meeting, Stassun and Wente told us that adding dental and vision to our insurance, if that was a priority, would require cutting other benefits, such as professional travel support, for graduate students. Our takeaway from the meeting was that seeking substantive improvements to employee benefits for graduate workers will be a zero-sum game until we have a strong union that can participate in setting the terms of a binding employment contract.
Late in the summer of 2016, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that graduate student workers at private universities had the legal right to unionize and were entitled to collective bargaining under the National Labor Relations Act. Overturning legislation from 2004, the NLRB’s decision opened the floodgates for graduate student unionization drives, and within days campaigns began to appear on campuses across the country. Shortly after the ruling came down, graduate students at Vanderbilt began to meet and discuss the possibility of forming a union. It was out of these discussions that Graduate Workers United was born. Beginning from a core group of graduate students in the humanities, we grew the organization first through discussions with friends and colleagues, and then through a series of meetings organized around the question: What would improve working conditions at Vanderbilt? It was in these meetings, attended by graduate students from departments across the university, that we began to articulate a shared vision for what a union could do at Vanderbilt. Among the issues discussed at these meetings were graduate worker pay, insurance (specifically adding dental and vision), travel support, childcare options, mental healthcare, recreation and parking fees, the professional grievance process, and more.
Convinced that there was popular support for a graduate student union at Vanderbilt, we partnered with organizers from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and began a blitz-style card campaign intended to collect the signatures necessary to call for a campus-wide vote on unionization. Over the course of the fall semester, we collected over 220 cards from students in over a dozen departments. This effort expanded and diversified our organizing committee and raised the profile of the union campaign on campus.