Former Northwestern University Graduate Workers (NUGW) co-chairs Sara Bowden and Emilie Lozier marveled at the thousands of ‘‘yes’’ vote cards at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) office in downtown Chicago.
The main focus in their eight months as co-chairs was the two elections to affiliate and certify NUGW with United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), the reason Bowden’s August 2022 wedding was bookended with NUGW meetings.
“You don't just want an election out of nowhere,” Bowden, 25-year-old fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in Music Theory and Cognition at the Bienen School of Music, said. “It was years of preparing thousands of graduate workers for this particular moment. It was a moment that required intense dedication to the cause.”
NUGW-UE won the January 2023 election to certify it as the bargaining representative for Northwestern graduate workers with 93.5% of the 1,758 votes casted. As a result, federal law requires Northwestern to legally recognize NUGW and participate in negotiations for a binding contract with the union.
While their tenure as NUGW co-chair ended in February, Bowden continues their previous position as a department organizer and is a member of the union’s Contract Action Team, which will help the Bargaining Committee rally students and create a contract to bargain. NUGW’s current co-chairs Esther Kamm, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in the History Department, and Kavi Chintam, a chemical engineering fourth-year Ph.D. student, will focus on negotiating a graduate workers’ contract with Northwestern.
The eight months of connection
Bowden said their eight-month co-chair tenure, which culminated in the election to unionize with UE, consisted of constant Zoom meetings, relentless Slack pings and what Bowden described as the year of connecting with people through conversations.
“Time spent learning about other people's lives, backgrounds, why they're in graduate school and what they need to be a successful graduate researcher has been and always will be worth it,” Bowden said. “I’ll always value the connections I made this year.”
Bowden and Lozier took office in June 2022. Throughout the Fall, they planned in-person events like a large card drop rally, led general member meetings and held an internal vote to decide whether to unionize with UE. They then collected 1,300 voting cards to demonstrate that a supermajority percentage of graduate workers – any graduate worker who performs research or instructional services – wanted UE affiliation for the purposes of collective bargaining. NUGW asked for voluntary recognition as a union from Northwestern, and when the University declined, the co-chairs led an NLRB-facilitated election to unionize with UE.
“It was an exceptional moment that required exceptional dedication, and many graduate workers put a lot of things in their life on hold to make this happen,” Bowden said.
As NUGW was moving into a time of affiliation and election that would make it a legally recognized union, Bowden and Lozier’s predecessors Rose Werth and Julie Ming Liang, asked them to run as the union’s next co-chairs.
Ben Zucker, doctoral candidate in the Music Composition and Technology program and NUGW membership chair at the time, first invited Bowden to an NUGW meeting in 2018 and watched them immediately go “above and beyond.”
During the affiliation election, Bowden drove all the way to Hyde Park to pick up a single graduate student and bring them to the Evanston campus so they could vote with 15 minutes left before polling closed.
“Seeing someone in a challenging graduate environment where they could’ve so easily been dispirited but took all of that and turned it around to thrive has been really incredible,” Zucker said.
Zucker characterized Bowden’s scrappy energy as fitting for a union leader and said coupled with their sense of maturity created a perfect balance as the union grew into a formal entity. Zucker said Bowden and Lozier were comprehensive, attentive and energetic as co-chairs.
“Sarah stepped into an important position in a really important time and it’s hard to imagine any of this happening without them,” Zucker said.
Now separated from the role of co-chair, Bowden said they have more time to focus on their teacher’s assistant duties for music theory and dissertation about marching arts. Their degree progress slowed down during their time as co-chair, but they plan to complete their Ph.D. in the next two years.
“Have I made progress toward my degree? Depends on who's asking,” Bowden said. “Yes, in terms of understanding the University's institutions. There's so much knowledge.”
When not working on their degree, Bowden takes Chicago footwork dance lessons, plays instruments with their spouse, performs in two bands and spends time with their two tuxedo cats: Moon Pie and Cinnamon Toast Crunch.
“I'm a dancer. I have a lot of joy in movement, and it also helps me manage my ADHD. I love to dance and love to play with my two wonderful cats,” Bowden said.
But it’s Bowden’s passion for the marching arts that's remained constant in their personal life and academic career. The level of teamwork involved in marching band is what drew them to NUGW.
“Marching band requires an intense focus and kind of radical defense to produce a joint enjoyable performance,” Bowden said. “That's what organizing is: It's a way of returning the loving care that was given to me by a generation of organizers who cared about building something incredible.”
Kamm said Bowden’s marching band expertise has embedded itself into their leadership style.
“You can see the kind of energy and practice with bringing people together works in unison in Sara’s personality,” Kamm said.
While Bowden plans to leave elected leadership roles up to first-, second- and third-year graduate students, collaboration will continue to be a driving force in their life.
“No matter where I end up, labor rights will always be important to me,” Bowden said. “I look forward to organizing in academia, the marching arts and classrooms beyond.”