The movement for unionization of Dartmouth graduate students began around October 2021, when a small group of graduate students met for the first time to attempt to achieve something none of them had any experience doing — organizing their workplace.
Dartmouth graduate students are tasked with a wide range of important jobs in running the university, including teaching undergraduate courses, grading papers, writing grants and running experiments or performing other types of research. Teaching and research projects are the two major ways the university brings in money (by charging for courses and bringing in large external grants for research projects which generate valuable patents and intellectual property). Graduate workers are critical to both processes.
The Upper Valley area around Dartmouth College suffers from an ever-worsening housing crisis and, like many rural areas, a severe lack of public transportation. Grad worker pay has lagged woefully behind cost-of-living increases. Like many other universities, Dartmouth denies its graduate workers adequate healthcare (including a lack of either dental or vision coverage), adequate mental health resources, and childcare options. For many, pursuing a graduate degree is mutually exclusive with starting a family or maintaining mental and physical health. International student workers face additional obstacles including visa status issues, tax complications, thousands of dollars in additional fees, relocation costs, and difficulties in acquiring housing and personal transportation. Dartmouth has also had multiple heinous cases of advisor abuse, spanning overwork and verbal abuse to sexual abuse of graduate students by their academic advisor.
The early organizers — who soon dubbed the union GOLD (Graduate Organized Laborers of Dartmouth) — began organizing around these issues. While we were learning how to do list work and office-to-office canvassing, we also hosted weekly events we called “solidarity gatherings,” where graduate workers from across the school would come out for pizza and drinks while we had a group discussion on one of the topics we wanted to fix. We learned about a wide range of individual struggles, as many people shared their own personal stories with their coworkers. We also used this time to discuss our general strategy going forward.
After months of organizing and building solidarity through these methods, it came time for our union to make a decision regarding national affiliation. In the summer of 2022, we held a period of union-wide discussion on the pros and cons of various national unions followed by a vote. Particularly among the organizing committee, the choice became clear very quickly. The approach to unionization we had come to believe in and practice daily was the same rank-and-file, solidarity-based approach that UE believes in as well. Our vote ended with an overwhelming majority supporting association with UE.
After a few months of organizing with our new parent union, it became clear to the organizing committee that union support was widespread and momentum had built to a critical degree. In October of 2022, we publicly launched our union and began asking our coworkers to sign cards. We held a launch rally on the main green in the center of campus which was attended by hundreds of graduate workers and other supporters. Four of our core organizers gave passionate and hearthfelt speeches about their own struggles during their time here, from economic immiseration to sexual abuse by supervisors to trying to raise a child on our meager pay. The very same day we began signing cards, over half of our 800-person unit signed up.
Over the following months, we continued to build support and gather card signatures. We decided to wait to file for an election until an NLRB decision regarding the status of “graduate fellows” was released. Graduate workers are paid through various different means — including both external and internal grants — and certain grad workers are labeled “fellows” based on this. At Dartmouth, this distinction is essentially meaningless, often changing without our knowledge, as both the pay and job requirements are exactly the same regardless of specific pay source. After waiting long past the NLRB’s expected date of release for this decision and with a supermajority of workers signed on cards, we decided to file anyway in February 2023. Soon after, the regional NLRB released a decision excluding graduate fellows from the bargaining unit at MIT. Luckily, we thought, we were still able to negotiate a stipulated agreement for an election which would include fellows and began a relatively straightforward campaign to turn out the vote.
One week before the election was scheduled to take place, Dartmouth attempted to subvert the election with a tricky legal tactic. They went back on the agreement and attempted to exclude many grad fellows from our election, openly planning to challenge the votes of grad fellows — which accounted for over half of our bargaining unit. Their plan was clear. Whether or not the NLRB supported the exclusion of fellows in our case, by challenging so many votes in the election Dartmouth would be able to drag GOLD into a years-long legal battle to verify every individual challenged vote.
The GOLD organizing committee and UE staff quickly hatched a plan. We decided to organize a campaign of intentional abstention from voting by all of those who would have their ballots challenged, instead attending a rally for voting rights on election day. If only unchallenged voters voted, there would be nothing Dartmouth could take us to court over after the election was won. This plan required us to contact nearly every grad worker and explain the entire situation, as well as letting them know whether they should vote or abstain — all within one week.
Over that week, we set up canvassing sessions throughout every day and phone banking sessions every night. With core organizers and many new volunteers all working at full capacity, we managed to pull it off. The election was won with 261 yes votes to 33 no votes, an 89 percent margin and, critically, only 13 challenged ballots. This means over 400 people were organized to abstain and understood both the plan and their role. The rally was well attended and full of righteous anger. With this victory under our belts, we are now moving on to bargaining with more momentum than ever.
GOLD-UE members were assisted by Field Organizer Valentina Luketa and Project Staff Royce Brown and Katie Shy.