Northwestern graduate student workers vote to unionize after years of organizing

Following two days of casting ballots — and years of grassroots organizing — Northwestern University graduate students voted Thursday to unionize and will join the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America.

“On Day 99 of being affiliated with UE, we got our ballot count,” said Sara Bowden, a fourth-year doctorate candidate in music theory and cognition and a co-chair of Northwestern University Graduate Workers. “Generations of graduate students have been fighting for this effort at Northwestern for years.”

The National Labor Relations Board moderated the election between Tuesday and Wednesday at the Evanston and Chicago campuses. Of the 2,893 students eligible to vote, 1,644 voted in favor of unionization, and 114 voted against it.

Bowden, who was at the National Labor Relations Board office downtown for the ballot-counting process, said the “power of being together” was felt strongly throughout the campaign and while votes were being tallied.

“We aren’t allowed to take pictures, but it was a beautiful image to watch an entire 20-foot-long table filled with yes votes,” Bowden said.

The NUGW-EU is composed of graduate student employees enrolled in degree-granting programs at Northwestern who provide research or instructional service to the university, which includes research assistants, graduate assistants, teaching assistants and fellows.

Under the now-legally recognized union, NUGW-UE will begin negotiating precisely who else will be eligible to vote when they bargain.

Emilie Lozier, one of the elected co-chairs for NUGW and a fifth-year doctorate candidate in the chemistry department at Northwestern, said there are over 3,000 graduate student workers at the university.

Based on a survey sent out to all graduate students last spring, Lozier said the organization collected about 1,900 responses to create a five-point platform with goals centering on competitive pay, professional standards in labs and classrooms, power to address misconduct, comprehensive health care, and financial support for international students.

“We wanted to win the union as our tool to be able to have a say,” she said. “We want to fight for a competitive stipend that actually keeps up with our peer institutions, which is not currently the case. We want to fight for comprehensive health care including dental and vision — and we want to support our massive international student population.”

Lozier noted that international students, especially, often lack support from the institution.

“They uprooted their whole life to come and pursue an academic career in a different country,” she said. “We want to make sure their needs are met as well in the course of this contract.”

The NUGW joins a growing number of organizing efforts across Chicago and throughout the country, including at Yale and Harvard. Recently, students at the University of Chicago also filed for a union election in affiliation with UE.

“We’re in a moment right now where we’re all standing together,” Bowden said. “Graduate workers are standing up, supporting one another and saying, ‘We can do better; we have to do better.’”

A positive working relationship with Northwestern at the bargaining table made the process even more gratifying, Bowden said, pointing to an email sent by Provost Kathleen Hagerty and Kelly Mayo, dean of the graduate school and associate provost for graduate education, recognizing the victory.

In the email to students, Hagerty said in part, “Northwestern deeply values the contributions that graduate students make to its research and teaching missions. ... We thank the voters for casting ballots and respect their decision. We look forward to beginning the process of negotiating a collective bargaining agreement that works for both the University and graduate students within the bargaining unit.”

NUGW filed for election in November after the university chose to not voluntarily recognize the organization’s union with UE, but organizing among graduate workers has been going on for more than six years, Bowden said.

“Many of us, for the first time, walked into buildings today knowing that we are working a union job now,” Bowden said. “It’s an incredible feeling to know that finally all of this work has culminated in concrete protections for graduate students, as well as to preserve the things we love about the work that we do.”

zsyed@chicagotribune.com