College workers advocate for living wage by unionizing

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NIA KITCHIN / THE FLAT HAT Organizers, student workers and student groups gathered on the Sunken Garden to discuss the need for a union and higher wages among College workers to a crowd of onlookers.

Friday, Nov. 1, student organizers at the College of William and Mary gathered on the Sunken Garden to rally on behalf of the newly established William & Mary Workers’ Union. 

Undergraduate and graduate students spoke about the importance of establishing a union for College workers to a crowd of around 30 individuals. The crowd grew during the event, as some custodial workers, professors and supportive parties who were not employed by the College joined the rally. Members of the College’s Young Democratic Socialists helped with canvassing before the event and were credited by union organizers with tabling and organizing in the weeks prior to assist in spreading the word and encouraging workers to join the union.

The Workers’ Union became public four days earlier, Oct. 28, following 11 months of planning and development. Union Executive Secretary Jasper Conner said the group first came together in November 2018 and has since held weekly meetings in anticipation of going public. While improvements to healthcare coverage, enhanced parking accessibility and greater equity between graduate students of different programs are among the union’s major priorities, members are primarily focused on obtaining a living wage for graduate students and the College’s contracted workers.

“The biggest and broadest demands are for a living wage for all employees of William and Mary and all those contracted to work for William and Mary,” Conner said. “We understand a living wage to be $28,000 a year, annual, if you’re working full time … functionally, for most humanities grad students, that’d be like a $4,000 pay raise.”

“The biggest and broadest demands are for a living wage for all employees of William and Mary and all those contracted to work for William and Mary,” Conner said. “We understand a living wage to be $28,000 a year, annual, if you’re working full time … functionally, for most humanities grad students, that’d be like a $4,000 pay raise.”

Union President Jim Rick spoke at the rally about how organizing as a collective group is the most effective strategy in approaching these broad issues. Rick indicated that while most of the current union members are graduate students, the organization is designed to advocate for the rights of all College workers. 

“Our strength is chiefly in our numbers and in our unity,” Rick said. “When we approach our employers as individuals it can be easy for our concerns to be put on the backburner or for them to drag their feet even if they’re not necessarily intending to. But when we come together and approach this collectively, we can add a sense of urgency to our concerns. And it helps that so many of our concerns are the same across anyone who works for wages.”

Conner said that the union grew from concerns over the College’s treatment of graduate students, specifically those studying in humanities departments. In a press release published Oct. 29, Conner referenced an incident in the anthropology department as a key instigating factor for the union’s activism on campus. 

According to Conner, graduate employees within the department were delayed in receiving compensation by five weeks in summer 2019 because of a processing error. Since the College’s summer payment schedules are organized by single lump-sum payments, Conner said that graduate workers, many of whom live paycheck to paycheck, may have struggled to afford basic necessities as a result of the delay. 

According to anthropology Ph.D. student Jennifer Ellis the late compensation has still not been explained to the graduate students fully. She said that after this incident, the anthropology graduate students realized that this was representative of a larger structural issue of their cohort not being treated fairly, and they decided to act.

“I joined the union because we were getting screwed over a lot and not getting the answers for it,” Ellis said. “… It’s part of the university not caring as much about grad students and grad workers and other workers. There are these big structural issues that we’re all concerned with and they start with being treated fairly.”

Conner also argued that the substantial disparities in benefits enjoyed by graduate students in the College’s different graduate programs suggests that the administration has enough funding to subsidize them more generously. According to Conner, graduate students in the College’s STEM programs receive more university-sponsored coverage options than those in the humanities and social sciences, especially with vision and dental insurance provisions. 

“One of the first things that happened when we started getting grad students together was that we realized that a lot of sciences were having their health insurance paid for by the university, and none of the humanities were having that,” Conner said.

“One of the first things that happened when we started getting grad students together was that we realized that a lot of sciences were having their health insurance paid for by the university, and none of the humanities were having that,” Conner said.

Despite initially focusing on graduate student workers, Conner said the union has since expanded to encompass undergraduate student workers, non-tenured faculty, custodial staff and maintenance employees. Since going public last week, Conner noted that their petition supporting the union has accrued over 500 signatures from students and staff.  

According to Rick, the union has already surpassed the membership totals required to be a recognized national union. However, they are worried about more than financial compensation as they see broader problems with the state of academia. Rick said that since universities are increasingly adopting more business-like behaviors, graduate students are often treated as consumers rather than scholars.  

“It’s not all about the money for us,” Rick said. “Now don’t get me wrong, being paid is important and we are certainly out here trying to win a more equitable share of the commonwealth of our commonwealth. But there’s more at stake here than that. There’s the entire state of our institution of public education.” 

College spokesperson Suzanne Clavet said that while the College welcomes dialogue with graduate student workers, Virginia state law ultimately prohibits the administration from interacting with the Workers’ Union in any official capacity.  

“We appreciate these students coming forward and are happy to discuss any concern with them,” Clavet said in an email. “It’s important to stress that Virginia law prohibits William & Mary, or any state agency, from engaging in collective bargaining or recognizing unions as negotiating on behalf of employees. The university values and respects the hard work of all of its employees and the countless contributions they make to the university. This of course includes our graduate students who are an important and vital component of any university.” 

Despite limitations in the College’s ability to engage with the Workers’ Union, the organization is an official chapter of the Virginia Public Service Workers Union and resembles graduate student unions created in the University of California system. According to Conner, the union is uniquely capable of facilitating dialogue at the College that could cement the university’s status as a national leader on students’ and workers’ rights. 

“This is an elite institution,” Conner said. “Its graduates go on to do big things. … UVA pays all of its workers 15 dollars an hour. We don’t. We should be leading in these matters, as a matter of justice and also as a matter of, ‘Isn’t the whole thing that we’re better than UVA?’” 

At the rally, Conner expressed his frustration with the fact that he qualifies for food stamps while working at a prestigious university. He said that the sentiment of suffering for a short time in order to earn a comfortable salary after graduating was unrealistic due to the lack of job security that earning a Ph.D. in some fields occasionally brings. 

 “This is not some luxury struggle where we’re trying to get our fancy soaps and stuff, this is a struggle to put food on our table, to get our kids an education, to be able to eat dinner is reasonable,” Conner said. 

As the rally wrapped up, Conner encouraged everyone in attendance to join the union and come to its weekly meetings. He emphasized that they had the lowest dues around and then asked the crowd who was interested in joining, to which a few people raised their hands and received sign-up sheets. Finally, the crowd was also encouraged to donate to the union’s GoFundMe, which according to Union Social Media Coordinator Leah Kuragano had already raised $600. 

“We need you all to come and take on a little bit of work,” Conner said. “And then if we all do a little bit of work then no one has to do a lot of work and we can get a lot more done.”

“We need you all to come and take on a little bit of work,” Conner said. “And then if we all do a little bit of work then no one has to do a lot of work and we can get a lot more done.”