Dietrich College needs a union

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

Dietrich College needs a union. As is the case across the country, graduate students in Dietrich College are systematically exploited by their university. Examples of this exploitation abound: whether it’s English department Ph.D.s making less than a $30k annual stipend despite teaching a first-year writing service course or graduate workers being excluded from both $1,500 inflation payments given to all other faculty and staff, grad students are deprived of the material security they might otherwise secure with a union.

Additionally, unionizing Dietrich College specifically would get around the issue of needing to unionize the entire university despite different degrees of need across colleges and departments. Although all grad student workers should be protected and represented by a union, it can’t be denied that a grad student making less than a $30k annual stipend has greater material need than one making $10k more per year in another college. Moreover, the need for a Dietrich College union is made more exigent given the unfortunate reality that many of the liberal arts disciplines contained in the college are projected to make significantly less upon graduation than their hard science peers in other disciplines like robotics or computer science. Stated differently, advocating for and earning additional benefits and compensation now helps offset our already-insufficient earnings.

What is more, advocating for a Dietrich College union should be viewed as inseparable from legitimately-inclusive DEI efforts. As a first-generation student of color from a working-class background, I can attest that poor financial earnings relative to other career options actively discourage marginalized folks of various life experiences from applying to graduate school. After all, in what other professional context would someone with a B.A. and, in many instances, an M.A. have a yearly income of below $30k? Thus, even if some grad students might be able to live relatively comfortably right now due to prior earnings from a past career or familial support, we must all recognize that not everyone has that privilege, and choosing to accept the status quo precludes a more diverse set of students from entering and working in the academy. Cross-racial and cross-class solidarity between current and future students, then, is imperative.

To be sure, organizing is difficult and always involves a degree of risk, but smaller-level organizing within the English department has filled me and many of my peers with optimism about a better future with better conditions. In the face of peers enduring horrific living conditions, members of the department organized to form the English Graduate Student Collective. This collective was able to successfully negotiate with the department and raise the minimum wage for TA and RA work to $17-20 per hour from the previous base of $12-15 per hour. Moreover, we were also able to secure a $60,000 “Focus Fund” spread out over three years to cover unexpected expenses. Such a fund assists students by offering them a safety net when the department’s grad students might otherwise need to work additional hours, thereby detracting from their studies, or drop out entirely. All in all, this departmental precedent demonstrates that wins are not only possible from organizing, but have already been attained.

Ultimately, graduate student workers in Dietrich College must come together to discuss unionization as a strategy for advancing our interests. Unionizing Dietrich College might also pave the way for university-level organizing and bargaining. Care for current and future graduate students alike demands such conversation and action.