Have You Heard of the Grad Student Union?

By Alex Ahmed

I must have asked that question hundreds of times. August 31st was the final day of orientation for new graduate students, and we were passing out the flyers I’d designed for the occasion. If people were interested in learning more, I had a little speech prepared to explain what the union is: we’re fighting for better wages and benefits for grad students who work for the university as teaching assistants and research assistants.

I had just finished a conversation explaining that union organizing provides the security of a contract for graduate student workers. I turned around to see my friends talking to two well-built white men in dark collared shirts and pants—unusual. They had made a beeline for our table, which we’d lugged to the quad outside Curry from an office on the other side of campus. Our pamphlets, flyers, and buttons were arrayed over the top. As I joined them, the men were asking if we had permission to be out here. They told us that we needed to be a “registered student organization” and have all of our materials approved through the Student Affairs office, in order to “solicit” on campus. I had never heard of this rule. The closest thing we’ve found is a Miscellaneous entry in the Undergraduate Student Handbook prohibiting the sale of material on campus without permission, which we weren’t doing.

They asked if we were students, demanded to see our student IDs—we provided them—and said that we needed to “pack up” immediately. We had some questions of our own: do we only need approval if we have a table? (Apparently not, they said, even if we’re just standing around.) Who are you with?, we asked. (“NUPD,” one of them said, as he flashed his gun and badge at me.) Are you all just passing through, or did someone call you in? (They got a call from someone higher-up, but wouldn’t say who the someone was.) The officers expressed some regret that they were shutting us down, saying that they support what we’re doing—they have a police union, after all! Nevermind that police unions, like the police themselves, are indefensible tools of the state, perpetrators and enablers of racist and transphobic violence. The NUPD, unsurprisingly, is no exception.

It goes without saying that this was selective enforcement, and likely a response to our flyering the prior two days of graduate orientation. It goes without saying that our behavior was protected under United States labor law; specifically, Sections 7 and 8 of the National Labor Relations Act. I pointed this out to the officers, but they didn’t seem to care. And it goes most of all without saying that the Northeastern administration decided to send plainclothes officers to shut down our union outreach as a deliberate act of intimidation. Not their first, and definitely not their last.

Why the aggression? Why spread information through anti-union emails, some of which falsely implied that international graduate workers would put their visa at risk if they signed a union authorization card? Why hire an anti-union law firm—as the administration has done in the past—to combat union organizing? Why cancel our meeting room reservations, with the charge that we are an “external organization,” which is so petty and hilarious that I can’t even get mad about it? Why bounce pro-union grad students from networking events that have historically been open to all?

The Northeastern University administration’s behavior is consistent with a grander scheme of treating its workers poorly, particularly its dining hall workers; of the neoliberalization of higher education; and of the suppression of working-class people of color while simultaneously championing “diversity” and “inclusion.” And let’s not forget that our increasingly corporatized academic system is built to extract as much labor as possible from its most vulnerable workers, while powering a program of expansion and gentrification that destabilizes surrounding communities.

This great hypocrisy is starkly visible to me as a trans woman of color. After I came out, News@Northeastern quickly jumped on the opportunity to interview me and put my smiling face up on their website. The article aggrandized the university’s resources and “community” while diminishing my negative experiences. And, years later, as I fight for something that I truly believe will help marginalized grad student workers, Northeastern fights back at every turn.

The union matters to me because I want a formalized grievance procedure available to all graduate workers. Right now, graduate students who work as research assistants and teaching assistants do not have a contract; we are beholden to our faculty advisors on critical workplace issues, like time off, sick days, and hours worked per week. So, if my advisor says that I shouldn’t take a trip to visit my family over winter break (because I might lose progress on my research, heaven forbid, even though the campus is closed), there isn’t a whole lot I can do. And this isn’t just about time off. If informal discussions have failed to resolve an issue, a grievance procedure grants us access to third-party arbitration. This is especially important in cases of sexual harassment, a significant portion of which go unreported. Rape culture and misogyny perpetuate an environment where one in ten female graduate students report being sexually harassed by a faculty member. This is unacceptable.

For me, a union means having a grievance procedure that protects against mistreatment along all of my axes of identity; and it means having a community of fellow student workers who have my back. If Northeastern’s administration is serious about “diversity,” then it should step back and let us organize—because we’re doing this, with or without you.

______________________
Update:

Remember when I wrote “definitely not their last”? After I wrote the first draft of this article, the NUPD and the Northeastern University administration once again worked together to intimidate, harass, and silence graduate student workers. On September 13th, I attended an event open to all PhD students: the “PhD Pop-Up,” hosted by the PhD Network. This recently-instituted office is “designed to build community among PhD students, and to provide them with support and resources.” So why do I feel like they’re doing the opposite?
I was at the event representing Grad Q, the queer graduate student organization I co-founded, as well as the LGBTQ Resource Center, with which we are affiliated. We had received authorization to be present at the event and to have a table there. I was ejected from the event by two NUPD officers, despite that fact that I was speaking almost entirely to other queer graduate students during the event.

I had union flyers on the table along with materials for Grad Q, the Resource Center, as well as other student groups and events from across the queer community at Northeastern. I was standing behind a table for my organization in a place where I had authorization to be. So what was the problem? The NUPD’s story changed several times throughout the whole interaction:

First, it was because the LGBT Resource Center/Grad Q was supposed to be in a different location. This makes no sense as we were in the “Community Services” section (where else would we be?) and there was no signage indicating we were supposed to be elsewhere. Detective Regina Coppa and another officer confiscated the union flyers, saying that “these aren’t allowed on campus.”

They left, and returned shortly afterward; this wasn’t just about the flyers. This was about the unsanctioned political beliefs that I embodied. The NUPD stated that I was “being asked to leave” by Vice Provost Madeleine Estabrook. Then, their story changed again: the organizers of the event were the ones asking me, the co-president of Grad Q, to leave. After my ejection, my fellow graduate organizers spoke to one of them, Vice Provost Sara Wadia-Fascetti. She denied that anyone was asked to leave, insisting, “Let’s not make this something it isn’t.”

I asked them to tell me specifically what rule I was violating. They said that if I don’t leave—if I don’t comply with this “request” from a university administrator—-it is a violation of the student code of conduct. I said no, that I wasn’t leaving, and the officer said, “We’re asking you nicely…”

I knew what that meant.

The Student Handbook states that “it is recognized that all members of an academic community, individually and collectively, have a right to express their views publicly on any issue; however, the University insists that all such expressions be peaceful and orderly, conducted in a manner consistent with the Code and University policies, and in such a way that University business and respectful academic discourse are not unduly disrupted.”

So tell me, exactly, what disruption was I causing? What policy was I violating, aside from the fact that I was being asked to leave by an administrator?

None, obviously. The officers had no legitimate reason for doing this – I was discussing my organization in an event that I was registered to have space in. And I was the only representative of LGBT/queer grad community left at the event after my co-president was ejected for similar reasons.

Make no mistake that this was part of a systematic and sustained effort to disrupt on-campus union organizing through intimidation and threats. This was done without regard for the community and organization that I represent. Yes, I support the union, which is fully compatible with supporting queer and trans students. Northeastern is making clear, again and again, that they have no desire to engage with either concept.

Hear Alex speak on the experience of being intimidated by NUPD at the PhD Pop-up event.
To support GENU-UAW, you can sign this petition demanding that Northeastern “Respect [their] Right to Organize a Union”.

Alex Ahmed is a fourth-year PhD Student in Personal Health Informatics, within the College of Computer and Information Science and the Bouvé College of Health Sciences. Her dissertation research focuses on developing technologies that support the health and wellness of transgender people; more information can be found here. She is also a union organizer with the Graduate Employees of Northeastern University (GENU-UAW). She spends her remaining free time cooking food with friends, playing guitar, and obsessively–some would say excessively–nerding out about Star Trek.

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