USC graduate student workers vote on forming a union

Graduate student workers hope for better benefits, higher wages and workplace protections.

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Eligible graduate student workers at USC are casting their votes to potentially unionize as the Graduate Student Workers Organizing Committee, or GSWOC. Voting took place on Wednesday and will continue into Thursday night at a voting location set up in the Wallis Annenberg Hall.

The group’s main goal is to negotiate for higher wages, benefits and workplace protections and to ensure that any improvements are enforced by a legally binding contract, according to the website.

“I feel like graduate student workers deserve a strong union,” said Melissa Ann Chadburn, a Ph.D. student in the creative writing department. “They deserve bargaining capacities for job security, for finances. I think that we need security, especially in a thriving community like Los Angeles.”

Despite pushback from USC, students like Lauren Kelly, a Ph.D. student in the history department, said they voted yes to forming a union because they need better support through collective bargaining.

“I’m really excited to have a union to advocate on our behalf and have a contract that will protect us,” Kelly said.

Some graduate workers said they are feeling optimistic now that they are almost at the last step to form a union. While the voting is still ongoing, they said their hopes are high for better benefits coming from USC, including for international graduate student workers.

“As an international student, some of the issues that I find important are the fact that [we] have an added precarity of dealing with visa issues, immigration-related issues and also in general with financial insecurity,” Kritika Pandey, a sociology Ph.D student, said.

Pandey noted that international students were not eligible for tools like stimulus checks.

“For many international students, the pandemic was a really hard time in terms of financial precarity,” she said. “And that is not something that I think USC did a lot to support at that time.”

According to the GSWOC website, one of their priorities is to create a more equitable learning environment for graduate students. They explained that this issue spans outside of USC, as more institutions are creating unions throughout the country.

GSWOC has published articles with more in-depth information about why they are advocating for unionization. They said the school administration is partly responsible for the drive to unionize because they ignored or downplayed so many of their concerns.

“The university is really irregular in how it pays us and sometimes overpays, sometimes underpay,” Kelly said. “And there’s really not any transparency about when those issues are happening.”

In 2020, graduate student workers started the process to finally form a union through United Auto Workers, or UAW, which is one of the largest unions in North America. Chadburn said that affiliation has not sat well with USC.

“I think that there’s been a lot of anti-union rhetoric by email, specifically by the provost who has really tried to appeal to USC’s elitism or something by consistently referencing United Auto Workers,” Chadburn said. “Like, ‘Do you want the United Auto Workers to represent you?’ If they’re good enough for all the UCs and Harvard, I think they’re good enough for us.”

Pandey agreed that the school’s response to the unionization effort was disappointing.

“I had even hoped that it would not go forward and USC would voluntarily recognize our demand to unionize, but that didn’t happen,” Pandey said. “I feel like USC’s stance has been very clearly anti-union.”

USC officials said that the school does “not believe that bringing in the UAW as the exclusive bargaining representative of our graduate students is in the best interest of our students or the university,” according to a statement sent February 3.

“One of the advantages we have as a private university without a union is that we can be flexible and nimble in responding to individual situations, attempting to meet the needs of students as they arise,” Andrew McConnell Stott, Vice Provost for Academic Programs and Dean of the Graduate School, said in the statement.

As for some of the issues that are unique to international graduate student workers, Stott said in the statement that USC treats “international students equally with domestic students and provides them equal stipends.”

He continued to note that USC differs from other institutions. “Importantly, unlike the UAW contract at UC campuses, we provide international students tuition remission fully equal to domestic students,” Stott said.

Despite the growing tension between the school and the graduate student workers, Pandey said the goal “is not to create conflict” and they hope to work with the university “to build a more equitable USC.”

“The question is here to just demand … better living wages, better work conditions,” Pandey said. “So we hope that the USC [administration] will be amenable to that, for sure.”