Fight for professional standards in labs & classrooms

You all should know how truly astounding it is that 2000+ of us signed cards authorizing a union election in under one month. Now, in two weeks almost 1000 of us have already pledged to vote YES on election dayWe are the third largest union filing in the country in 2022, only trailing our colleagues at MIT and Yale. It’s a clear message that grad workers at Northwestern have unmet needs, and we’re not stopping until something is done about them. We’ll be sending out details on when and where to vote as soon as they are finalized, so keep your eye out for an email from the NUGW-UE organizing committee with the full election details. In the meantime, the best thing you can do to strengthen the campaign is to join your colleagues and pledge to VOTE YES on election day


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Today we want to talk about a big point of vulnerability for graduate workers on campus: the lack of professional standards in labs and classrooms and the absence of grievance procedures that protect grad workers when the worst happens. Grad workers in laboratories are working 60, 70, even 80+ work weeks running experiments no one else in the world could do without any guarantee of sick days, time off, or injury compensation. Grad workers in classrooms are keeping the engine of Northwestern education running. But when those grad workers are asked to work beyond reasonable expectations, develop curricula, or manage grading/office hours/lab sections with hundreds of students, there’s no compensation for that added labor. These are all issues that distract us from our dissertation research and prevent us from reaching our full academic potential. 


Even worse, when a work dynamic becomes toxic, when harassment occurs, when advisors attempt to steal their student’s work, there is no established grievance system in place at Northwestern to protect graduate workers. 


Across all departments, we share some common struggles that prevent us from researching in an efficient and sustainable way:

  • Unclear job descriptions and workload expectations.
  • TA assignments that can get out of control.
  • Inadequate protection of university holidays.
  • No guaranteed provision of sick days and vacation days.
  • Few concrete protections against abuse and harassment. 


Graduate workers deserve safety and comfort in their work environments, protection when the worst happens, and the same guarantees of sick leave and time off as any other workplace.


What could a union grievance procedure look like? 

Right now, Northwestern does not have an established grievance procedure. If you have a conflict with a professor, you’re expected to try to work it out on your own or within your department. If that doesn’t work out you may get bounced around from TGS staff to different offices across the university, with the university always making the final decision. You’ll have to walk through all of that without anyone there to represent your interests or to ensure that the people making decisions keep your well-being in mind, not just the university’s. Here’s how a grievance procedure at Northwestern could work with a union. 


How does the lack of professional standards and grievance procedures affect graduate workers? 


To protect these individuals from retaliation, we will not be attributing any of the following quotes, which come from current Northwestern graduate students. 


"I’m the unofficial (uncompensated) lab manager and lab technician on top of being a graduate student. I manage the animal colonies, train and supervise new lab members at every level, manage undergraduates, troubleshoot and repair lab equipment, order and restock reagents, and more. During the early days of Covid in 2020 I was considered an “essential worker” because of these responsibilities, so I was required to be in the lab during the initial lockdown. I would be okay with this if I were compensated for this extra work, but because I am a “graduate student” I have no recourse."


"Once my co-TA and I privately pointed out to the professor a mistake he had made while drafting up his midterm. Even after receiving feedback from other professors that we had been correct, he refused to change the exam, demanded that we not award points to the students who actually solved the problem correctly, complained to the department chair about us, and sent multiple unsolicited emails insulting the other work we did as TA's and mastery of the subject matter. The department chair told me that the department could not take any action to help as it would "violate the professor's academic freedom." This same professor additionally ignored messages from AccessibleNU detailing student accommodations, forcing students to disclose these accommodations to us TA's so we could implement them ourselves."


“I had an awful quarter where I had an accident and attempted to continue working. While I was trying to recover, I lost someone close to me and told my advisor that I needed some bereavement time. My advisor assured me that it was okay, but when I came back to work she tried to delay my graduation and add to my workload because ‘I hadn’t been very productive’ in the months when I was sick and then grieving with my family.” 


“As a TA, I've been told to: 1) pull an all-nighter to grade student assignments totaling over 230,000 words; 2) raise the grades of varsity athletes who were being shown clear favoritism by faculty; 3) spend weeks building out a new curriculum on computational methods before my TAship term even started without any extra pay. When I brought these concerns to TGS, they just told me to "talk to my advisor." This is why we need a real grievance process. This is why we need our union."

How a union can empower us to be better researchers…


A grievance procedure is one protection that a union could bring to Northwestern, but we can also establish basic guarantees and protections that are standard in most other work environments. Things like: 

  • Guaranteed minimum time off and paid sick days
  • Extra pay for extra work outside of standard responsibilities, including lab safety designate work or heavy teaching loads
  • Transparent and easy-to-understand coverage for workplace injuries, and accommodations for disabled and chronically ill graduate workers


These demands aren’t about imposing restrictions on graduate workers, but freeing graduate workers from toxic or unreasonable demands on our time. With a union, we will be able to delineate basic job descriptions for graduate workers and most importantly, we will have the power to ensure our time is spent on advancing research. 


Graduate worker unions have won contract provisions guaranteeing access to the equipment, facilities, and institutional support that graduate workers reasonably need to do their jobs (see, for example, the University of Michigan, University of Connecticut, and University of California system). Contracts also protect graduate workers from overwork and burnout by setting clear standards for work hours and time off — while allowing graduate workers to work more than the specified amount for their own research and teaching goals when they choose to do so. Union contracts empower graduate workers to manage our time in a way that is healthy, balanced, and constructive. 


We came to Northwestern to do research. By unionizing we can fight together and make better working and learning environments a priority for the university. We can then focus on becoming the world class scientists and scholars we came here to be. The union secures Northwestern graduate workers a collective voice for all that is more powerful than any one of us acting alone.


Don’t sit on the sidelines.

 Pledge to VOTE YES today.


Have a question about unionization? 

Have questions about unionization or NUGW-UE? Explore answers to common questions on our website’s FAQ page. You can also submit questions to the form below and a member of NUGW will follow-up with you directly. 


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In solidarity,

Your Fellow Graduate Student Workers