Johns Hopkins University graduate students rallied on campus Wednesday to announce plans to unionize and demand better working conditions.
They’ve joined forces with SEIU Local 500, the group behind the successful unionization effort of American University graduate students, as well as those of part-time faculty across the region.
In front of the Milton S. Eisenhower Library on Johns Hopkins’ Homewood campus, more than 50 people chanted: “Hear us shout, JHU, Hopkins grads are workers, too.”
The student workers said they work unreasonably long hours for low pay in positions filled with uncertainty and don’t receive affordable health insurance. They’re demanding an avenue to voice their frustrations and bring about change.
“We're declaring that we are grad students, but we’re also workers at the university, and we’re going to form a union because it’s the best way for us to have sustainable improvements to our working conditions here,” said Joanna Behrman, a fifth-year graduate student and organizing committee member.
The students have not yet signed union cards, or set a timeline to do so, but the organizing committee amassed more than 200 signatures of support before Wednesday’s rally. There are about 2,400 graduate students on the Homewood campus, and just under 9,000 across the institution.
In an emailed statement, Hopkins spokesman Dennis O’Shea said the university has emphasized listening to graduate student concerns and took steps recently to improve their experience.
The university has expanded health benefits, instituted a new parental leave program and made investments in career services.
“We believe that at the heart of our graduate students’ educational experience are the relationships they develop with their faculty advisors,” he wrote. “These advisors are teachers, sounding boards, research collaborators, and mentors. This unique relationship has no analogue in the professional world.
“Johns Hopkins welcomes the discussion on campus about how to continue to improve the graduate student experience.”
Pro-union momentum is building among graduate students at private universities across the country, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
The National Labor Relations Board ruled in 2016 that “student teaching assistants” and “student research assistants” at private universities are employees under the National Labor Relations Act, giving them the right to form a union and collectively bargain. Columbia University’s graduate students recently unionized, as did those at Loyola University Chicago. Public universities, meanwhile, have long been home to graduate student unions.
“It’s all part of a movement in terms of recognizing that faculty in higher education has changed,” said Christopher Honey, SEIU Local 500’s communications director .
Peter Weck, an organizer with Teachers and Researchers United at Hopkins, said the depth of graduate student workers’ load is overlooked. Universities increasingly have been steering teaching duties away from tenured or tenure-track faculty and over to graduate students and adjuncts.
“We teach. We grade the tests. We run the experiments. We write papers. We work for Hopkins,” said Weck, a third-year Ph.D. student. “Our labor is essential to the day-to-day operation of the university.”
The group gathered Wednesday wanted to send the message: Teaching conditions are student learning conditions.
“But do we have a say in our own working conditions?” Weck said. “Ask the grad worker here, at one of the world’s premier medical institutes, under a mountain of debt for trying to treat a chronic condition. Ask the grad worker forced to choose between pursuing their passion and raising a family. … There’s a lot that stands in the way of us doing our jobs the best that we can.”
They are working with National Nurses United to gain enough supporters to bring the idea of forming a union to a vote. The nurses say they are overworked and underpaid, and that a shortage of nurses is putting patient care at risk.
Abaneh Ebangwese said the nurses stand in solidarity with the graduate student workers.
“You know what’s right and you’re fighting for it,” the registered nurse told them. “We’re trying to do the same.”
But the nurses who spoke also delivered a warning: Organizing at a powerful institution such as Hopkins might be difficult, and will take patience and resilience.
The nurses filed in June a formal charge with the National Labor Relations Board against Johns Hopkins Hospital for allegedly impeding their unionization efforts.
The group accused hospital management of keeping nurses from discussing the union by barring them from visiting their peers in other departments while they were on breaks. They also alleged that the hospital hired anti-union consultants, who were “allowed free rein in the hospital to promote an anti-union agenda.”
A spokeswoman told The Baltimore Sun at the time that the hospital takes the allegations seriously and respects the nurses’ rights to support or oppose a union.
Weck acknowledged the power imbalance — and the need to shift it. He said open communication and the goodwill of administrators will not be enough.
“As Frederick Douglass said,” Weck told the group, “‘Power concedes nothing without a demand.’”