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### Surge in Higher Education Union Activity: BU Grad Students’ Strike Threat Goes Beyond Work

The 3,000 graduate student workers at Boston University who are planning to participate in a nationwide surge of union activity in higher education are grappling with pandemic-related inequities, looming student debt, rising costs, and a growing awareness of social injustice.

These student workers, who have joined Service Employees International Union Local 509, have been engaged in eight months of negotiations seeking higher pay, improved health care coverage, and enhanced benefits such as child care assistance. Despite the prolonged bargaining process with no contract in sight, they are considering a strike as their last resort, which could potentially disrupt the activities of the university, housing 37,500 students. However, their concerns extend beyond just working conditions.

David Foley, the president of SEIU Local 509, emphasized that these individuals are organizing to address the challenges they face, including overwhelming debt and the climate crisis. Additionally, there are workers in their 30s who are parents and caregivers struggling to secure jobs that offer livable wages and benefits.

Graduate students at Boston University are involved in research, serving as teaching assistants and fellows, earning stipends ranging from approximately \(27,000 to \)40,000 annually for working 20 hours per week. They claim to often work more hours than compensated for, fulfilling essential roles for the university while being discouraged from seeking additional work to cover the high living costs in Boston.

The potential strike could impact hundreds of classes, with graduate workers encouraging the students they teach to join them on the picket lines. Boston University has proposed increasing PhD student stipends to \(42,159, raising the minimum wage for hourly workers to \)18, and expanding the health insurance plan to include children under age 6 for full-time PhD students. Most PhD programs offer full tuition scholarships in addition to stipends, while many master’s and professional programs provide partial scholarships.

As the university prepares for the strike’s potential effects on classes, Kenneth Lutchen, BU’s interim provost, stated that any disruption to students’ academic activities is unacceptable. The graduate student workers, like Pol Pardini Gispert, a 30-year-old PhD student and teaching fellow in the philosophy department, are struggling to support themselves and their families on limited stipends, highlighting the financial challenges they face.

The landscape of graduate student unionization has been evolving rapidly, with a significant increase in organizing efforts and strikes in recent years. This trend reflects a broader movement of workers across various sectors actively engaging in union activities to address workplace issues and demand better conditions.

In light of these developments, the engagement of young people in union activities has been particularly noteworthy, with a surge in membership among 16-to-24-year-olds. While organizing efforts have been prevalent in sectors like retail and technology, graduate student workers have been relatively successful in securing union representation, potentially due to widespread support within the campus community.

The COVID-19 pandemic has played a significant role in catalyzing these actions, exposing existing inequalities and driving workers to advocate for improved protections and conditions. Issues such as sexual harassment and discrimination protections have been central to these discussions, influencing the push for transformative changes in employment terms and conditions for graduate assistants through unionization.

The surge in graduate worker actions extends beyond employment concerns, with students collaborating with community groups to advocate for broader social and economic changes. Meiya Sparks Lin, a 23-year-old teaching assistant in the English department at BU, expressed concerns about the financial struggles faced by graduate students and emphasized the collective nature of these challenges, impacting all workers within the university community.

Overall, the unionization efforts among graduate student workers reflect a broader movement towards addressing workplace issues, advocating for better conditions, and fostering solidarity within academic institutions.

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