USC graduate student workers one step closer to unionizing

A prospective union of USC graduate student workers will likely hold a hearing with the National Labor Relations Board starting Wednesday, a union representative wrote in a statement to the Daily Trojan Friday. 

The hearing — which will determine workers’ union eligibility — would bring the coalition one step closer to official union certification and allow the workers to strike in the future.

The University is expected to argue at the hearing that graduate student workers funded through fellowships are not employees and therefore not union-eligible, wrote Megan Cassingham, a spokesperson for the Graduate Student Worker Organizing Committee. Spokespersons for USC were not immediately able to confirm Cassingham’s assertion or the scheduled date for the hearing.

After the hearing, the NLRB will set the date of an election decided by a simple majority of union-eligible workers who are likely to vote in favor of unionization, given that roughly 60% of 3,400 workers signed union authorization cards to trigger the hearing in December.

The GSWOC seeks to join the United Auto Workers union, which represents academic workers from Harvard University, Columbia University and the University of California, among other universities across the United States.

“USC values its good relations with the unions already representing some USC employees, including our food service workers,” wrote Andrew McConnell Stott, vice provost for academic programs and dean of the graduate school, in an email to USC graduate students Wednesday. “But USC does not believe that representation by the United Auto Workers is in the best interest of our graduate students.”

This academic year, the minimum stipend for academic workers is $34,000 annually — an 11.5% increase from the 2021-22 academic year. The stipend is set to rise another 5% next year. 

The Los Angeles County living wage is $45,536 for a single adult with no children, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Living Wage Calculator — well above USC’s minimum stipend.

Stott noted in his statement that since the stipends cover half-time employment over a nine-month period, they are equivalent to a $71,400 full-time position over the same time period. Ph.D. students receive tuition waivers up to $63,468 a year.

“Grad student workers we’ve spoken with are angry about the vice provost’s email, especially the implication that low salaries are OK because you only work part time,” Cassingham wrote. “You don’t really know of anyone in the [electrical and computer engineering] department that is working less than 40 hours a week.”

UC strikers under the UAW banner thrust academic worker compensation into the spotlight in November 2022, making national headlines as they effectively grounded operations across the 10-campus university system to a halt during its finals season.

At the end of their nearly six-week strike — the largest academic worker demonstration in American history — UC academic workers won concessions that will raise their pay from around $23,250 to $34,000 for nine months of part-time work by the fall of 2024. 

UC Berkeley, UC San Francisco and UCLA workers won higher wages to the tune of $36,500. UC wrote on its website that the new contracts make the workers “among the best supported in public higher education in the country.”

“Recent contracts at other universities demonstrate that collective bargaining works,” the GSWOC wrote in an emailed statement to its members Wednesday. “By forming a union, we are joining a nationwide movement that is already raising standards for graduate worker compensation.”