Graduate students vote to unionize at School of Arts and Sciences

Tufts graduate students employed by the School of Arts & Sciences voted to unionize and join Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local #509, according to Elizabeth Gemperline, assistant to the regional director of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) Region 1, which includes Boston. Ballots for the mail-in election were counted by the NLRB this afternoon.

NLRB officials counted 129 ballots in favor of unionization, 84 against and 8 challenged ballots, according to the official NLRB vote tally document. 221 out of 281 eligible voters cast ballots.

While graduate students from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts (SMFA) cast ballots in the recent election, their votes have not been officially deemed eligible, according to Tufts’ Executive Director of Public Relations Patrick Collins. James Rizzi, a teaching assistant and Ph.D. candidate in the department of English explained that the university can challenge whether SMFA graduate students can be in the same bargaining unit as students in the School of Arts & Sciences, on grounds that the work of graduate students in the two schools is too dissimilar.

“[SMFA graduate students’] status will be determined sometime in the future, either by agreement of the parties or, if necessary, through a unit clarification petition filed with the NLRB,” Collins said in a written statement.

Graduate students at private universities were granted the right to unionize in an August 2016 NLRB decision. Tufts is among only a few private universities where graduate unionization votes have been successful, according to a May 4 Inside Higher Ed article.

Rizzi said the newly-formed union’s immediate next steps will be to determine the key priorities of members before it is time to negotiate with the administration.

“We will be sending out surveys and having more conversations with the bargaining unit to determine what our priorities are and to make sure we go into negotiations with the clearest sense of what our graduate students want to get out of it,” Rizzi said.

Rizzi said he hopes that those against the union will be actively involved in these next stages.

“I encourage those people who have those reservations to get more involved … to see the process and take part in the process, and lead the union with us in a way that they see as suitable and appropriate for those graduate students,” he said.

Rizzi said he hopes to help graduate students in School of Engineering also unionize.

“[The organizing] committee has been made up of Arts & Sciences [students], but there are engineers involved. We want to help them as much as they’ve help us,” Rizzi said.

Rizzi said that some time later in the summer or toward September, union members will begin negotiating with the administration to set up the terms of a formal contract.

“We will be negotiating the conditions of what our contract will look like: graduate student pay, graduate student health benefits, things like subsidized transportation and parking, parental leave, parental support, class size, mental health services,” Rizzi said.

Collins wrote in an email to the Daily that despite disagreeing with graduate student unionization, the university is committed to a fair negotiation process.

“Although we are disappointed in the outcome and are concerned unionization will fundamentally change the relationship between graduate students and faculty in the School of Arts & Sciences at Tufts, we also respect graduate students’ right to make this decision and to bargain collectively,” Collins said. “Tufts is committed to bargaining in good faith and working with the SEIU during negotiations over the next several months.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article included SMFA graduate students in the eligible vote count, but they were not counted in the NLRB count. The number of eligible voters has been updated. Additionally, the number of challenged votes was misstated. The Daily regrets these errors. 

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