Chants resounded from more than 500 protestors as Northwestern University Graduate Workers (NUGW) rallied for fair wages, comprehensive health coverage and more support for international students at Silverman courtyard last Monday afternoon.

“NU, NU, you’re no good! Pay your workers like you should!” protestors repeated.

NUGW has come a long way since being founded in 2016 after the National Labor Relations Board granted organizing rights to college graduate students. This January, the union collected thousands of ballots in a vote that certified the union with United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), requiring the University to legally recognise NUGW and participate in negotiation.  

The union is currently engaged in a months-long bargaining process with Northwestern’s administration over a slate of 32 union demands, ranging from grievance procedures to health and safety regulations to scope-of-work specifications. Tentative agreements have been reached on 23 of its 32 proposed reforms, according to NUGW.

The union had been steadily winning concessions through regularly scheduled bargaining meetings until Northwestern’s administration canceled a Nov. 14 session. University spokespeople claim the administration simply wanted more time to look over NUGW’s proposals. NUGW co-chair Esther Kamm said the administration has had these proposals since Oct. 19 and argues this is part of a strategy to blunt NUGW’s momentum.

NUGW co-chair of the organizing committee Emma Kennedy said the rally was organized to show the University the economic proposals are not just demanded by the small group of 25 graduate students at the bargaining table, but that they represent the interest of hundreds of NU community members.  

Strength through the collective

Kennedy said being in the field of academia, especially as a graduate student, can be isolating. Having the union, she said, allows her to find a space on campus where she can unite with other graduate students in their common status as workers.

“We all have individual reasons for why we chose to work in the union, why we chose to fight in this way,” Kennedy said. “But I think the really wonderful thing about a union is it's a collective. It's us coming together to build collective power.”

Second-year Ph.D. candidate Daniel Loebell added that having a union means there’s an organization to back students up when the department or faculty are not always cooperative. He said the union helps its constituents by offering support and being there to back them up in times of need.

For second-year Ph.D. candidate Matej Jungwirth, this means he has a community advocating for his needs while he himself isn’t always able to be present at meetings as the father of a young child.

“Having a union is a good way of overcoming the collective action problem for a group of students that do not have a lot of free time,” Jungwirth said. “And that's my biggest appreciation of the union – that they're advocating and fighting and putting the time in for folks like me.”

Beyond that, Jungwirth said the union helps graduate students be heard.

“Without a union we’d be forever like isolated, small voices shouting into the wilderness,” he said.

Challenging the stipend

The minimum annual stipend for graduate students this 2023 to 2024 fiscal year is $36,960, according to Northwestern’s website. Kamm said small stipends can make pursuing academia difficult.

“Grad school as it exists now can be really inaccessible to young researchers who may not have the financial privileges to go without benefits or a living wage,” Kamm said.

Kamm’s co-chair Kavi Chintam said many graduate students live off of savings from full-time jobs they had before coming to Northwestern. Now that she’s in her fifth year, she said her savings are slowly going down and her spending habits have had to adjust.

“I think for like a single able-bodied person with no family [the stipend] is sufficient to live off of but I do think you're generally living paycheck to paycheck,” Chintam said. “I don't think I know a single grad worker who saves the money every month.”

Organizing committee co-chair Stella Fors said that she has not had any money to save since beginning graduate school and added that it can be difficult to find housing because stipend wages do not meet the rent requirements of many apartments.

Chintam noted that graduate students with children, disabilities or caretaking roles face extra responsibilities that the stipend does not support.

“The most marginalized among us are often the most vulnerable and so having strong protections is really important,” she said.

As a parent, Jungwirth was motivated to use his research background and collect data on graduate students with children. He said bringing statistics to the bargaining table strengthens the case for support better than personal stories can. In a survey by him and fourth-year Ph.D. candidates Charles Logan and Murielle Standley, he collected data from 33 graduate students with children to explore the burden graduate students who are parents face due to insufficient institutional support.

The survey found that the burden of costs from childcare and insurance for a caregiving graduate student are particularly severe for low and middle income households. Many respondents said they don’t purchase insurance because of its high price. The study also found that the Childcare Grant and subsidized rates of Evanston childcare providers often only cover two months of child care, excluding the opportunity for graduate students to spend on informal nannying and babysitting.

Jungwirth added that one of the biggest conclusions from the research is that it’s nearly impossible to make ends meet for graduate students that are single parents.

“[The Graduate School] is forcing us to raise our children in poverty, forcing us to make a choice between enrollment and affording housing and care needs for our children,” a survey respondent said.  

Advancing health access

Before pursuing her Ph.D., Kamm worked at a small nonprofit that offered comprehensive health coverage despite its modest operating budget. She said it’s been difficult transitioning to Northwestern’s health plan, which doesn’t cover vision or dental care.

Loebell said many graduate students do not pay for vision and dental insurance because it’s too expensive. Emma Rose Newmeyer, a third-year graduate student in the Chemistry Department, also criticized Northwestern’s benefits package.

“Thinking that for five years you’re not going to have some type of vision or dental issue just doesn’t make sense,” she said.

In the survey on caregiving graduate students, 27% of respondents indicated they were either using Medicaid or their partners’ workplace insurance. Around 18% of respondents indicated they could not afford any healthcare.

Newmeyer said Northwestern is capable of improving its health plans for graduate workers, saying that the $130 million budget surplus from last year alone could cover the raises and benefits that are needed.

Bridging the continental gap

Monica Sreesai, a second-year anthropology Ph.D. candidate, spoke about the unique financial burdens faced by international graduate students. Originally from India, Sreesai struggled to pay for immigration fees and airfare on her way to America.

In her speech, she called for the University to fully compensate for these travel costs up front and noted that some international students must take out loans before even getting to Northwestern.

This need is reflected in the NUGW contract’s article on Employee and Tax assistance that has yet to receive a University response. The article includes a section on relocation fees, asking for $1,000 for graduate workers relocating to Northwestern from the U.S. at the beginning of their employment and $2,000 for graduate workers relocating from abroad. It stipulates that the fee must be paid no later than two weeks prior to the start of their first quarter on campus.

The NUGW bargaining committee and University admin reached a tentative agreement on the International Employee Rights article of its contract, but there are other articles that have yet to be addressed. For example, NU has not yet responded to the Tuition and Fees article which includes a section about covering 100% of immigration related fees – such as visa applications, Student Exchange and Visitor Program SEVIS I-1901 fees and more.

Loebell said the graduate stipend does not allow for emergency trips back home. He and Matej added that the University does not provide much support to graduate students in navigating grant applications and tax filings.

Looking into the future

Fors said the next step for NUGW is escalation. The University canceled its Nov. 14 bargaining session where it was meant to sit down with the NUGW bargaining committee. NU has also not yet responded to NUGW’s economic proposals introduced over a month ago.

The union is preparing for the two bargaining sessions set to occur before the end of the quarter – Nov. 30 and Dec. 13 – where Fors said they hope to hear the University’s counter proposals to NUGW’s economic proposals.

The organizing committee is already planning its next event to capture the University’s attention for demands, Fors said, especially because every day NUGW’s demands are not met is another day graduate students have to live under their current conditions.

“We can't afford more time. How much more time will we have to wait so we can afford to go to the doctors' or the grocery? It's a privilege that grad workers can't afford,” Fors said.

Jungwirth said that the University’s delayed response to NUGW’s demands communicated a sort of apathy.

“You’re asking someone to spend another month with unpaid child care or financial burden,” Jungwirth said. “I think it’s offensive and disrespectful to people who are joining in on this and asking the University to respond to something and just getting stonewalling and silence.”