Years of Organizing Lead to Big Win for Northwestern Grad Workers

June 3, 2023

Northwestern University Graduate Workers (NUGW) was founded in 2016 following the NLRB Columbia decision that ruled graduate student workers at private universities can organize and bargain collectively. After two different business unions got involved on campus in 2016 — neither stuck around — and an early card campaign fell short of the threshold to trigger an election, NUGW pivoted to an independent, issue-based campaign, focusing on grassroots organizing during the era of the Trump-appointed, anti-union NLRB.

Our first major win was in 2017 when we pushed Northwestern to fulfill its claim of providing a full five years of funding. After a successful petition and in advance of a planned rally, the university announced that it would provide five full years of funding, enacted immediately. A second win was in 2018, when Bienen School of Music workers in the Doctoral of Musical Arts program organized within NUGW to combat exorbitant continuation fees. These fees were to be paid each year a worker continued in the program, starting at $1000 and increasing each year to allegedly incentivize on-time graduation, but instead merely increased the financial burden on workers. We were able to greatly lower these fees after a petition comparing other universities’ charges was circulated. Also in 2018, international workers were burdened with a new annual fee to aid the International Office in complying with the increased severity of the federal government’s immigration rules. NUGW was able to eliminate the fee after another successful petition.

In 2020, we revised our mission statement to commit to being “an antiracist, feminist labor union fighting for better working and living conditions for all graduate workers.” As an organization, we committed to centering “the needs of historically excluded and underrepresented students, particularly Black, Indigenous, people of color, queer, trans, undocumented, low-income, first-generation, parenting students and students living with disabilities or chronic illnesses.” This statement has guided us in the issues for which we fight and the manner in which we approach our organizing.

The onset of COVID-19 in 2020 galvanized organizing, as many of the injustices graduate workers face were brought to the forefront. STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) workers, for example, were forced to resume laboratory work rapidly and with minimal protections after being deemed “essential workers.” To that end, graduate workers from STEM, humanities, and social sciences came together to “sick out” for a day. Northwestern failed to meet NUGW’s demands of strengthening COVID-19 protections for workers, granting emergency leave, and offering a universal one-year extension for all. The only demand that was met after an additional “tweetstorm” and virtual sit-in and rally was the introduction of fully paid medical leave for graduate workers for two quarters, a monumental win despite a lack of movement for the other demands. 

We pressured our employer to disburse the federal CARES Act funding they accepted, leading to a one-time $2000 payment. But with rising costs across the board and many people delayed and disrupted by the pandemic, grad workers knew we needed better than one-time solutions. These minimal responses from Northwestern made it clear that we needed a union and a contract to ensure our rights. 

From 2021 to the spring of 2022, momentum built up from graduate workers’ frustrations with Northwestern’s lack of support during the pandemic. During this period, we dedicated ourselves to the fundamentals of organizing: having conversations with coworkers about their issues and how a union would solve them. Our university has two separate campuses about 15 miles apart, and every department within those campuses operates slightly differently. The structure of the workplace keeps us isolated in our own labs or buildings. Organizing allowed us to break through that isolation and build connections across differences.

In the spring of 2022, we surveyed a majority of grad employees at Northwestern (2000+ responses), and developed a five-point platform calling for a competitive stipend, comprehensive healthcare, professional standards in labs and classrooms, support for international students, and a real voice in our workplace. Our data showed that Northwestern grad workers were not satisfied with the status quo and wanted a union to improve it.  

By last fall, we had the support in our workplace and were ready to seek support from the labor movement. After a long research process (we’re students after all!), NUGW voted to affiliate with UE because of its independence and militancy. UE General President Carl Rosen and two freshly-affiliated UE siblings from the University of Chicago spoke at a rally on October 6, 2022 to kick off our second card campaign. After signing over 1,300 cards on day one, we passed 2,000 barely one month later! We phonebanked, visited labs, and had hundreds of conversations to get a majority of our coworkers publicly pledging to vote yes by January. We saw grad workers from across the university connecting over common issues and discovering the unique struggles (and joys) each worker faces. Only 99 days after we began signing cards, we won our election 1,644 to 114 — meaning 93.5 percent of voters said union YES! Now, we are on the way to the bargaining table, with our first elected bargaining committee meeting with the university in early June. Our collective is strengthening, our hopes are blossoming, and our approaches are evolving. We are energized by our win and ready to fight like hell for the contract we know we deserve!

NUGW members were assisted by UE Field Organizer Valentina Luketa and Project Staff Zara Anwarzai, Maddie Dery, Royce Brown, Townsend Nelson, and Katie Shy.


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