Issues and Improvements: What’s Happened at Other Universities Where Grad Workers Formed Unions?
While we continue to organize to form our union, we are also assembling knowledge and feedback from the grad student population. Below are some issues that come up repeatedly in conversations and on surveys, along with some examples of how unions at other universities have been able to win improvements.
Health, dental, and vision insurance isn’t a luxury —it’s essential. In the past, Caltech has made changes to our healthcare plan with little to no input from graduate employees. Collective advocacy has historically been successful in pushing back on increases to premiums and out-of-pocket costs, but without a union, Caltech has no legal obligation to take student needs into account. Dependent healthcare is very expensive ($2,166 / quarter for spouse + child, not including dental) and there is no paid long-term medical leave. Unionized graduate employees at other campuses have more of a say in shaping their healthcare plans, and have made progress addressing these same issues.
- Columbia grad student workers won full 100% premium coverage for dependent healthcare, lowered their monthly dental premium share, and established funds to assist with medical expenses.
- Before unionization, University of Washington administration prioritized minimizing its healthcare costs, which resulted in cuts for academic student employees. After unionizing, grad employees were able to improve mental health care coverage, lower the employee cost for enrolling dependents, and expand trans affirming care. They also worked with UW admin to identify problems in the plan’s structure, enabling UW to recover $1 million in overpaid premiums.
- In their first contract, UC Grad Student Researchers won full remission of health, dental, and vision premiums, as well as remission of dependent healthcare premiums for graduate employees that do not qualify for Medical. They also secured 8 weeks paid medical leave for an employee’s own serious medical condition, or that of a family member.
“I’m a postdoctoral scholar studying cosmology and early galaxy formation with low-frequency radio telescopes. As a graduate student at the University of Washington, I was a union member and steward with UAW 4121. Thanks to my union, I had excellent health insurance as a graduate student. This meant that I could properly take care of myself throughout grad school—I was free to worry about my thesis and exams rather than stressing about affording healthcare. I knew that if I experienced harassment or unsafe working conditions, I would be protected by a legally-binding contract and a union that prioritized my well-being over the institution’s reputation. At Caltech, the administration lacks accountability because academic workers do not have power to bargain or enforce a fair contract. Caltech workers deserve a seat at the bargaining table.”
Unions create upward pressure on wages across industries in the US, and higher education is no different. Caltech announced unprecedented wage increases for grads after CGPU began organizing in earnest, and as the Grad Student Researcher, Teaching Assistant, and Postdoc strike across the University of California system was concluding.
In their first union contract, UC Grad Student Researchers won wage increases greater than the past 20 years of wage increases combined
Existing unions in higher education have achieved wage gains that bring salaries more in line with our contributions.
- In their first contract, UC Grad Student Researchers achieved between 25–80% in wage increases over a 1.5 year period. They bargained alongside Teaching Assistants, who won 55–80% in wage increases.
- MIT grad students bargained for and won a 5.5% increase for 2023, followed by increases of 3.5% and 3.25%. The 12/mo salary for a MIT Research Assistant is now $47,936.
- Columbia University may have set industry standards with the first private-sector contract covering all graduate employees at a major research university. They won a 6% increase in 2021, followed by 3% pay increases in subsequent years. The current 12/mo salary for a Research Assistant at Columbia is $46,680.
Childcare and Parental Leave
Caltech provides no guaranteed childcare, but does allow grads to apply for up to $10,000 in childcare assistance. Caltech also provides 6 weeks pregnancy-disability leave and 8 weeks child bonding leave. However, Caltech parents face steep dependent healthcare costs ($2,166 / quarter for spouse + child, not including dental) and struggle to find affordable childcare.
- Recent TA/RA contracts at UC increased childcare cost reimbursement by 27% to $1,400/quarter by 2024, guaranteed for all TAs/RAs. They also won dependent healthcare (see healthcare above).
- In 2021, Columbia grads also won full coverage of dependent healthcare premiums (see healthcare above) and an additional fund to help cover out of pocket costs. They also won an increase in guaranteed childcare subsidies, up to $5,500/year by 2024.
- MIT’s union contract expanded upon existing childcare benefits with a new needs-based subsidy of up to $10,000/yr for grad employees with children.
Caltech does not provide paid medical leave to graduate students. Students on leave are not eligible to remain in Caltech housing and require approval before taking leave and 6 weeks prior to return. Caltech may impose medical stipulations on return, including an independent medical evaluation. Students without funding or an advisor upon return may have their position jeopardized.
“Living with a chronic illness, Caltech threatens my and fellow workers’ needs by cutting healthcare benefits, failing to provide paid medical leave, and forcing us to rely on the institute’s good will for disability accommodations and workplace protections. Unions in higher education have a strong track record of securing good healthcare, paid medical leave, and effective grievance processes.”
Protection from Abuse, Harassment, and Discrimination
A recent CGPU workplace conditions survey found that 46% of respondents have experienced some form of harassment, discrimination, or abusive conduct, and that less than 10% believe Caltech effectively handles cases of abuse and harassment. Caltech’s own 2021 climate survey found nearly a third of Caltech students had observed hostile or intimidating behavior on campus. Nature has documented how this is a worldwide problem in higher education.
Unions enable us to stand up for one another and create greater accountability for Universities to reach a fair resolution when abuse, harassment, and discrimination occur. For example, the UC student researcher contract:
- Ensures researchers have access to representation and/or trained, knowledgeable peers who can provide advice and guidance
- Establishes enforceable timelines for the University to respond to grievances
- Requires interim measures to ensure researchers can continue to work free from abusive while an investigation is ongoing
- The ability to appeal to neutral, third party arbitration if a fair resolution cannot otherwise be reached.
- Allows for informal resolutions, but holds the University to higher standards of accountability
Union contracts can also advance equity through policies going beyond individual cases. For example, the UW union contract establishes a joint committee between the union and university to administer an equity survey, improve workplace climate, and recruit, retain, and develop students from underrepresented groups. UW also won a peer lead sexual violence and sexual harassment training process.
“We had a serial abuser in a lab who had been reported numerous times by both undergraduate and graduate students, yet was allowed to continue his behavior for years with no recourse. A graduate worker reported continued harassment to the university a bit before we had a contract, and the university ignored the survivor for months and finally told her to just “suck it up”. Once we had a contract, multiple workers were able to file a grievance together to hold this harasser accountable and force the university to actually do something. After years of reports, it was the grievance process that forced the university to implement protective measures for the survivors and to remove the harasser from the workplace.”
Science is an international endeavor, and we all benefit from a strong international community. International grad students face additional costs associated with visas and relocation, and are more vulnerable to discrimination and/or exploitation. A survey by Nature found that international grad students are more likely than domestic grad students to face threats of termination and to not be properly credited for their work.
Unions at other universities have won protections from unfair termination and strong protections from abusive conduct and discrimination (see other sections on this webpage). Unions have also fought for more fair and reasonable visa and immigration policies, like expanding and extending OPT and preventing the “fixed duration of status” rule from going into effect (see also International Researchers page).
- MIT won a $1,200 reimbursement for visa-related costs. Their contract also includes new protections for international grads, like timelines within which the International Student’s Office must respond to inquiries.
- Harvard grads won a $100,000 annual fund to reimburse some of the costs associated with immigration and maintenance of legal working status within the United States.
- UC’s recent contracts guarantee days off for visa-related appointments and guarantees remission of the Non-Resident Student Tuition fee for PhD candidates.
You can read more on the international researchers page.
Disability justice, accessibility, and accommodation
Caltech is legally required to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. In practice, however, 18% of Caltech climate survey respondents with disabilities experienced barriers with accommodations from faculty, and researchers have little recourse if supervisors do not comply with the law. Unions can help educate RAs/TAs with disabilities about their rights, enforce and improve existing policies, and assist researchers in obtaining reasonable accommodations.
- UC student researchers and TAs won an enforceable right to reasonable accommodations, including interim measures. They also established a joint committee to identify best practices for funding access needs.
- MIT, NYU, and Harvard codified the right to reasonable accommodation in their contracts, making it eligible for a union grievance process.
Protection from overwork and exploitation
We work hard and are extremely dedicated to our research. Many of us choose to work 50+ hour workweeks, including nights and weekends. But our dedication to science should not become exploitation. Burnout and extreme stress due to overwork helps no one.
- University of Washington research assistants cannot be assigned more than 20 hours of work a week that is unrelated to their dissertation/degree progress. This protects researchers’ right to work hard on their own schedule, while also protecting from exploitation or extreme overwork.
- In 2007, UC Teaching Assistants won enforceable protections against being assigned more than 20 hours of work for a 50% TA appointment. This helps ensure that even while working as TAs, grads have sufficient time to work on their research and make progress towards their degree.
Workers compensation and safe working environments
Grads deserve a safe workplace, to be notified of safety hazards, and to not fear retaliation when voicing safety concerns. We also deserve the same rights to workers compensation as other employees should we be injured on the job. Unfortunately, Caltech actively fights workers compensation claims made by grad employees.
- In their first contracts, Grad Student Researchers at UC won protections against retaliation for reporting workplace safety issues, enforceable commitments to health and safety, and Mandatory PPE at no cost. They also won eligibility for workers compensation.
- At MIT, grads defined MIT’s responsibility to ensure safe working environments, including during fieldwork. Also clarified MIT’s responsibility for processing workers compensation claims.
Authorship and Intellectual Property
Ensuring that graduate employees receive proper credit for the research we produce is critical for our careers. MIT grad employees won contract language that establishes a review process in the event that a graduate researcher is not properly credited for their contributions to a paper or patent. It also codifies the provision of the same intellectual property rights for MIT grads as MIT faculty and staff.