Graduate students prepare for the next steps in unionizing

Following an overwhelming vote to unionize, graduate workers will look to address university misconduct.

Graduate students line up

After an overwhelming vote to form a union earlier this month, USC graduate students are preparing for their next steps in officially signing a contract. The vote results mean that graduate student workers employed by the university can now begin to advocate for better working conditions on a larger scale.

On February 17, graduate workers voted 1,599 to 122 in favor of forming a union with United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America. This win by a 93% margin is a testament to their belief in the lack of workers’ rights from the university.

“We hope that we can get this contract up and running as fast as possible with the university,” said Piril Nergis, a second-year electrical engineering research assistant.

USC’s Graduate Student Workers Organizing Committee reached out to UAW in 2020 to request their help in successfully forming a union. As one of the largest and most diverse unions in North America, UAW has been joined by over 100,000 employees in higher education from multiple universities across the country, including UCLA, Harvard and Columbia.

With the finalization of the vote behind them, GSWOC-UAW now intends to negotiate with USC to obtain better working conditions. Third-year Ph.D. student Ellen Herschel has been involved in organizing and outreach for GSWOC since 2020. She said the next steps in this process are electing a committee to bargain that is “representative of the graduate student body.” They also plan on “surveying all graduate students for the main goals to focus on within bargaining.”

According to GSWOC’s website, graduate student workers at USC “lack secure rights and protections in the workplace” and “struggle with low pay and high housing costs, inadequate health care and increasing uncertainty about [their] futures.”

Nergis said that bargaining could last anywhere from four to 18 months, depending on how cooperative the university is. They said that it’s a common process for universities to stall.

In an article published by GSWOC-UAW in October of last year, USC graduate students detailed alleged examples of misconduct against them from USC faculty. The report included allegations that faculty members had bullied, verbally abused and discriminated against many graduate student workers — some claimed that they had been required to go grocery shopping for their advisors during the pandemic and been told to “shut up” during meetings.

Nergis said that based on preliminary surveys from 960 graduates and workers, the most common form of harassment was in regard to international students.

“It’s very common in our department of electrical engineering for faculty advisors to dangle international students’ visas over their heads to make them work more,” Nergis said.

Since the election, there has been little response from the university. They emailed graduate students, but Herschel and Nergis expect communication to start once an official plan is made for bargaining.

The provost’s office did not provide a statement to Annenberg Media in regard to the voting or the next steps in the process. However, in an email from Interim Vice Provost for Academic and Faculty Affairs Kelvin J.A. Davies to the faculty, he clarifies, “the University must maintain the status quo with respect to graduate student terms and conditions of employment.”

Along with not being able to adhere to any of the graduate students’ demands prior to negotiations, the provost’s office also said that faculty “must avoid” talking with students about “pay, terms of employment, benefits and other working conditions.”

USC’s graduate students were inspired by the efforts of organized academic workers during the University of California strike of 2022. The strike, which lasted six weeks and was also aided by UAW, yielded improved working conditions, including significant wage gains, increased child care and protections against workplace harassment.