Graduate student workers pursuing Ph.D. degrees at the Johns Hopkins University officially voted to unionize this week with a 97% majority. Of 3,335 Ph.D. students registered with the National Labor Relations Board, 2,053 voted yes and 67 voted no, a turnout of 64%.
The union, which calls itself Teachers and Researchers United, better known as TRU, is affiliated with the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America.
“We are so excited to unite so many graduate workers. This is a clear sign that we face real issues at Hopkins and are able to solve them together,” said Alex Peeples, a graduate worker in the history department, in a news release.
The move comes as part of a national trend of graduate student workers unionizing at their respective universities, such as Northwestern University, where 56% of graduate student workers voted in favor of a union last month. Graduate student workers are also unionized at American University, Brown University, Columbia University, Georgetown University, Harvard University, New York University and more.
With the union vote over, TRU will move into contract bargaining with Hopkins. TRU’s main platform asks Hopkins for livable wages, on-time payments, improved support for international students and safe workspaces, among others. Graduate student workers are paid varying hourly wages and stipends across Hopkins, with some earning below the equivalent of $11.66 per hour, which the City of Baltimore determines to be a livable wage.
Following the vote results, Hopkins Provost Sunil Kumar and Vice Provost for Graduate and Professional Education Nancy Kass sent an email to the university community stating that they look forward to negotiating a first contract with TRU.
“As the birthplace of doctoral education in America, we recognize this as an opportunity to ensure JHU continues to build on its legacy of not only providing world-class doctoral education and training but developing innovative new approaches to supporting our Ph.D. students in achieving personal and professional success,” the email reads.
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Janvi Madhani, 25, works at Hopkins as a researcher while pursuing a Ph.D. in physics and astronomy. She said she voted in favor of the union. A member of TRU’s coordinating committee, Madhani earns only $34,000 in her work, so she said she’s had to move to new housing that’s a 20-minute walk from campus. Driving to campus becomes a question of whether she can afford parking.
“It’s difficult. The cost of living is at least $40,000,” Madhani said. “With inflation rising, you really have to think about how to buy groceries and when to buy them.”
Alishah Chator, 28, studies computer science and is a graduate student worker who conducts both research and teaching roles. Throughout his seven years at Hopkins, there has been only one raise in his department, when his pay was boosted from $35,000 to about $42,000, he said.
Although Chator, who is a TRU organizer for his department, makes above the living wage for Baltimore, he said he still has to spend 50% or more of his pay on housing. When he receives untimely pay from Hopkins, it becomes difficult to make ends meet, as he does not earn enough to build savings, he said.
“It’s been a mix of things,” said Chator on his experience as a graduate student worker. “The opportunities and the ability to do research has been really cool, but the thing that gets frustrating at times are the obstacles you run into.”
Chator said the decentralized nature of Hopkins has made it hard to effect change individually. With TRU, everyone is coming together and trying to solve university-wide issues in a unified manner, he said.
“The campus just feels a lot different now,” Chator said. “We are one body.”