Boston University graduate students revive union campaign, citing low wages amid high cost of living

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Boston University graduate student workers plan to try to form a union, according to a press release sent Monday, which says many of the institution’s more than 3,000 graduate students are struggling to afford life near campus.

An earlier campaign at the private university stalled under the Trump administration, when the National Labor Relations Board — then made up of all Trump-appointed members — seemed poised to block new graduate student unions in 2019. The university administration also objected to the earlier effort. .

Now that this proposed rule has been scrapped and Joe Biden is more pro-worker, BU organizers are back in the fight.

Doctoral students generally pay no tuition fees and receive stipends based on their work as teachers and researchers. In the last academic year at Boston University, those stipends were at least $24,521 for eight months, or $36,782 for full-year work.

Weston Koenn, a graduate student from Los Angeles, leaves the Boston University student union building as he walks through the studentless Boston campus on July 23, 2020. (Charles Krupa/AP)

Alex Lion, a fifth-year graduate student in biology and part of the organizing effort, says these stipends are relatively low compared to other local institutions and leave many BU graduate students earning significantly less. than a living wage. (An online calculator hosted by MIT researchers estimates that the annual living wage in the Boston metro area is about $47,000 for a single adult with no children.)

Lion said a low and erratic salary has sometimes pushed her to extreme savings over the past four years: sharing an apartment with four or more roommates, skipping meals or bus rides, or “neglecting[ing] get medical attention. »

“We think we’re not appreciated for the work we do for the university,” Lion said.

Another organizer, Greer Hamilton, a fourth-year graduate student in the university’s school of social work, said she worked “two to three jobs” off campus for months when she had to go without allowance – but that many international students are not. t allowed to do the same under their visas.

The student organizers hope to join Local 509 of the Service Employees International Union. Their goals include workload limits, better salaries and year-round stipends, more affordable health care, and specific supports for international graduate students.

Boston University officials declined to comment on the labor campaign, citing a policy of not commenting on labor issues. (Boston University holds the broadcast license for WBUR.)

Organizers said they were ready to push for a union no matter who leads BU, whose endowment is now valued at more than $3 billion. They announced the conduct on Sept. 2, five days before longtime BU President Robert Brown announced he will step down from the post at the end of this academic year.

But Lion says a sense of momentum in greater Boston and beyond played a part. BU graduate students have observed successful campaigns at Harvard, MIT, and Tufts over the past five years and are aware of a growing “national movement” toward organized workplaces.

Lion says today’s union leaders at BU are “energized” and hope to form the union – and negotiate a first contract – within the next year.

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