Arts and Sciences graduate students ratify first contract in unanimous vote

Tufts Ph.D. candidates Anna Phillips, Andrew Alquesta, Ryan Napier, Ashlynn Keller and Alia Wulff pose for a portrait in the Mayer Campus Center following the vote to ratify the new graduate student contract on Oct. 18. Courtesy Cory Bombredi

Graduate students in the School of Arts and Sciences (A&S) unanimously voted to ratify their first contract with the administration Thursday, making Tufts the third private university in the United States to have a recognized graduate student union under contract. 

Voting took place from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the Mayer Campus Center, after which the votes were counted and the results were announced. The union did not disclose how many ballots were cast, though 270 graduate students were eligible to vote, according to Ryan Napier, a Ph.D. candidate in English and member of the union bargaining committee.

Two representatives from Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 509, Matt Dauphin and Cory Bombredi, along with several graduate students, helped administer the vote. Anna Phillips and Alec Drobac, both Ph.D. candidates in physics, counted the ballots.

According to a document summarizing the terms of the contract provided to the Daily, article 18 of the contract includes an increase of 12 to 19 percent in the minimum stipend for graduate workers in each department over the next four years, beginning in fiscal year 2019. Article 21 details the benefits available to graduate students, including 12 weeks of paid parental leave and the option to request a sixth year of health insurance.

The contract makes Tufts the first private university in the United States to provide paid parental leave for its graduate student workers, according to Andrew Farnitano, a spokesperson for SEIU Local 509.

The contract expires on June 30, 2023.

“Before, all of this was informal,” Napier said. “Now they’re legally required to pay certain things and provide certain protections and benefits, and we have a formal grievance process that we can go through if we feel that our contract is being violated. Whereas before, you could complain but nobody had to listen to you.”

Napier added that the contract only protects graduate students in their capacity as workers, and that the protections listed in the contract do not necessarily extend to their work as students.

“We have certain rights now that we didn’t before. We have certain avenues, ways to interact with the administration if we don’t like the ways some things are going. We have union representation that will help us get the things that we need,” Andrew Alquesta, a Ph.D. candidate in English and member of the union bargaining committee, said.

The graduate student union began drafting their contract with Tufts in December 2017, according to Farnitano. During the subsequent contract negotiations, which concluded on Sept. 21, the union, represented by an 18-student bargaining committee and Dauphin, met with Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Robert Cook, Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences James Glaser and two lawyers representing the university, according to Napier.

“It’s awesome to have somebody in your corner,” Alquesta said. “SEIU did a phenomenal job representing us, and I go forward with confidence that if I or any of my colleagues have some sort of problem, I know that SEIU has my back.”

The bargaining committee consisted of graduate student-worker representatives from departments within the School of Arts and Sciences, with the number of representatives on the committee based on the number of graduate students eligible for the union, Napier explained.

According to Napier, the Tufts administration was cooperative in negotiating with the newly formed union, unlike other universities in similar negotiations. The administration initially took a stance against unionization, as reported in a May 18, 2017 Daily article.

“Tufts obviously doesn’t want there to be a union, but they have been better about this than a lot of other schools,” Napier explained. “Tufts actually came to the table and negotiated with us, and maybe that doesn’t seem like anything, but that is big that they actually did that.”

Tufts’ Executive Director of Public Relations Patrick Collins told the Daily in an email that the administration is pleased to have concluded negotiations and expects that the contact will benefit students, faculty and staff.

“Although complex and lengthy, our negotiations were characterized by a spirit of professionalism and cooperation,” Collins said. “We value the contributions of our doctoral students to the educational mission of the university and look forward to working cooperatively with the union toward the implementation of the agreement in the months ahead.”

Phillips, a sixth-year graduate student, said that she has been working on the unionization effort at Tufts since 2016, shortly after a National Labor Relations Board decision granted graduate students at private universities the right to unionize.

Phillips noted the difficulty of generating long-term commitment to the cause since many graduate students do not expect to be at the university for more than a few years.

“It poses challenges for the unionization effort that we are a transitory unit,” she said following Thursday’s vote. “But I’m glad to have seen it all the way through. It’s really exciting to see two years of effort pay off.”

“It’s very fulfilling to see that the people who voted unanimously agreed with the work that we put in. They like what we did for them,” Ashlynn Keller, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology and a member of the graduate student union bargaining committee, said.

With this vote to ratify, A&S graduate students join their peers at New York University and Brandeis University in inking contracts with their respective administrations. Graduate students at other private universities, including Harvard University and American University, are also in the midst of formal contract negotiations.

From here, the union will set up a standing committee of graduate students who will liaise with administration, opening up a line of communication with the university administration, according to Alquesta. The committee will also inform graduate student workers of their rights as part of the union.

“The contract is no good unless you have an organization that can help let people know what their rights are and enforce them and be organized,” Napier said.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published as a breaking news story on Oct. 18. It has since been updated.


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