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### Advocacy by Vanderbilt Graduate Students for Formal Campus Union

Vanderbilt University postgraduate students have amassed numerous union authorization cards from peers, according to leaders—a significant advancement towards obtaining official recognition from the institution by the year’s end. In late [ppp0], campus organizers formally affiliated with the United Auto Workers, a union boasting over 400,000 active members, aiming to unionize an estimated 2,200 postgraduate student employees.

At a midday rally organized by Vanderbilt Graduate Workers United on February 14 outside the Jean and Alexander Heard Library, students highlighted inadequate compensation, unsafe work environments, and precarious employment conditions. The organizers commenced the distribution of union authorization cards in late January, initiating a complex and protracted process that could secure union protections for student employees, including the right to engage in collective bargaining with Vanderbilt. These cards indicate a student employee’s willingness to participate in a union vote. The cards are submitted to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), an independent federal body responsible for resolving labor disputes and conducting elections. The identities of signatories are kept confidential from the employer—Vanderbilt is prohibited from inquiring about the signatories. Upon reaching a sufficient number of cards, the NLRB administers a formal union election.

Kelly Cunningham, co-president of Vanderbilt Graduate Workers United, informed the Scene that organizers anticipate gathering signed union authorization cards from approximately 60 percent of eligible student employees. The submission of cards by only 30 percent of student employees could prompt an official union election supervised by the NLRB. Organizers are aiming for a supermajority before initiating the election process, a strategy designed to bolster momentum and underscore the union’s strength.

“We are optimistic about holding an election before the year’s end,” stated Cunningham, a philosophy Ph.D. candidate who also instructs undergraduates. “This is about ensuring a livable wage and fostering fairness and equality.”

Around 50 individuals attended the Valentine’s Day rally at Vanderbilt’s Library Lawn. Supporters displayed signs with slogans such as “You Can’t Spell Union Without ‘U’ and ‘I’!” and “Vandy’s Stipend Breaks My Heart.” There are lingering uncertainties regarding the actual size of the campus bargaining unit—the group of employees potentially covered by a union contract—a determination that ultimately rests with the NLRB.

In a memo to faculty dated October 31, the Vanderbilt administration, which would negotiate with a postgraduate student union, stated, “We do not consider graduate students as employees and do not believe they meet the definition of employees under the National Labor Relations Act. Consequently, we do not view unionization as suitable for our graduate students.”

The memo outlined recent efforts by the administration to enhance postgraduate students’ compensation and healthcare benefits and provided guidance on discussing unionization with students while adhering to labor regulations. Chancellor Daniel Diermeier had previously opposed student unionization at the University of Chicago.

In response to inquiries about union activities, Vanderbilt issued a written statement to the Scene, stating in part, “Graduate students receive a comprehensive financial aid package comprising tuition waivers, stipends, professional development funds, and other financial assistance. We anticipate a forthcoming meeting with the Graduate Student Council, the elected representative body for postgraduate students, to share positive updates on stipend increases.”

A ruling by the NLRB in 2016 catalyzed a wave of postgraduate student unionization efforts nationwide. This decision, prompted by student organizers at Columbia University, officially extended the protections of the National Labor Relations Act to graduate research and teaching assistants at private universities. Subsequently, Columbia, Harvard, New York University, Yale, Northwestern, Georgetown, and Brown established postgraduate student unions, many affiliated with the UAW. Graduate students at [ppp1] also formed unions in August. Princeton responded to unionization endeavors by [ppp2]. Student-employee unions have a longstanding presence at public universities like [ppp3] and [ppp4]. The U.C. system employees secured union representation in late 2022 following a strike involving 48,000 workers.

Vanderbilt’s robust [ppp5], highlighted in the school’s November report, featured a \(9.7 billion endowment. The report also disclosed \)937 million in cash and cash equivalents. Postgraduate students point out that base salaries in most departments range from \(28,000 at the Peabody School of Education to \)38,000 in the biomedical sciences, levels that contribute to a cost-of-living crisis among students at one of the nation’s wealthiest institutions situated in one of the city’s most expensive areas. A 25 percent increase in base stipends would cost Vanderbilt approximately $20 million annually.

International students, who rely on university support for visas and are legally restricted from additional employment, face a particularly imbalanced power dynamic in postgraduate work. Other postgraduate students are explicitly discouraged from seeking secondary employment and encounter limitations on their Vanderbilt work hours, although many still seek off-campus jobs to make ends meet.

Rent and fees at the Broadview apartment complex, a residential building in Midtown, start at around $1,550 per month. As of February 15, it is 57 percent occupied. While Broadview is marketed as student housing, some postgraduate students view it as a symbol of an out-of-touch employer.

Financial constraints have been compounded by professional and academic pressures. In 2022, there were calls for improved mental health support and healthier workplace expectations, particularly for Ph.D. students, following a series of postgraduate student suicides. The VGSU, a volunteer coalition of postgraduate students at the forefront of unionization efforts for several years without formal union protections, successfully advocated for enhanced dental coverage in 2023 through petition campaigns and public outreach.

Upon amassing a sufficient number of signed authorization cards, postgraduate student organizers will petition for an election with legal assistance from the UAW. At that juncture, Vanderbilt could opt to voluntarily acknowledge a postgraduate student union or compel a campus-wide vote. A majority vote among postgraduate students is required to establish a union.

“We have achieved numerous victories through collective bargaining,” remarked Ethan Link to the audience on February 14. Link, an organizer with the Laborers’ International Union of North America, which has represented dining and maintenance workers at Vanderbilt since 1972, emphasized the significance of dignity and respect safeguarded by unionization. He encouraged the postgraduate students, acknowledging their initial step towards unionization, and expressed solidarity with Vanderbilt’s nascent postgraduate student union.