USC Graduate Student Government voted to pass a resolution on Monday to support graduate students’ unionization efforts through USC Forward, a group of students, faculty, alumni and community organizers seeking to better working conditions, wages and educational accessibility at USC.
The resolution was passed with an 84.4 percent approval from GSG Senate and will be presented to all graduate students, University President C. L. Max Nikias, Provost Michael Quick and the Board of Trustees. GSG will also publicly declare its support for a graduate student union.
The motion was penned by Senator John Oltean, who represents the Gould School of Law, and co-sponsored by Director of External Affairs Gilbert Felix. Oltean worked alongside members of USC Forward to write the resolution and believes unionization will improve students’ professional lives by holding the University accountable to their working conditions and needs.
“As the diversity of graduate student populations increases, we have more students with families [and] nontraditional students entering this higher education sphere,” Oltean said. “Formal union representation [will] bolster a lot of the recent work that GSG is doing — institutionalizing a complementary organization with codified mechanisms will give us more of a voice and power to relay these concerns to the administration regarding diversity and inclusiveness.”
Oltean and Robert Chlala, a doctoral student in sociology and USC Forward member, have worked to solicit graduate students’ opinions and concerns across all academic schools to recognize the diversity of student needs the union should address.
“The greatest reason to unionize is evident in the daily life situations here,” Chlala said, noting how graduate employees provide integral academic labor to USC as teaching assistants and researchers. “We have limited protections over that work, and in case an issue does arise, we don’t often have the capacity to do anything about it.”
A union would provide more accountability for graduate workers and set up a system where students can elect their representatives and contact them with any concerns, according to Chlala. This will reduce the burden dissertation advisors face, as a union would serve as an arbitrator between graduate workers and the University.
USC Forward began to mobilize for a graduate student union during the Fall 2016 semester, following a National Labor Relations Board ruling in August 2016 that allowed graduate students working as teaching and research assistants at private universities to mobilize. Before that landmark ruling, the NLRB did not consider graduate assistants employees of a university because of their statuses as students.
The organization was present at the monthly GSG meeting, clad in bright orange t-shirts with the motto “Uniting to reclaim higher ed” on their backs. Members loudly cheered when the vote was approved.
Clare O’Connor, a doctoral student in communication, said unionization is crucial to ensure increased basic rights for students who are starting families. O’Connor, who is pregnant, was concerned about the healthcare options for her future child, since USC covers only its students directly but not their dependents.
“A union provides the negotiating power that would allow us to legally require USC to follow through on commitments, like [healthcare],” she said. “One of the most persistent problems for graduate student workers, for TAs and residential assistants, is overwork. We’re supposed to be working 20 hours a week in most cases and do so much more.”
The motion ensures that GSG will be able to present its resolution to USC administrators, but a union can only be recognized legally through the NLRB or voluntarily by the University. Regardless, Chlala and Oltean said they will continue to advocate for unionizing efforts and graduate workers’ needs.
“For us, success comes with operating like a union, operating like a collective body that can collectively voice these issues,” Chlala said. “We have the capability now to put that into practice for graduate workers, and it’s really critical that we seize on that and show that.”