Graduate student workers vote to unionize in landslide victory

Graduate student workers vote to unionize in landslide victory

The next step will be talking with the university regarding improved working conditions.
Published: April 5, 2023
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Graduate student workers briefly celebrated outside the JMA Wireless Dome after the results were announced.

Graduate student employees organized under Syracuse Graduate Employees United (SGEU) voted overwhelmingly in favor of forming a union, announced on Tuesday, April 4. The win follows two days of voting in the JMA Wireless Dome, as well as months of efforts by graduate student employees to spread the word about their cause. It will now allow for SGEU to properly begin negotiations for a collective bargaining agreement with the university.

Over 700 graduate student workers turned out to vote over the two-day voting period of April 3-4, with the final results being in favor of unionization 728-36. It’s a major victory for SGEU, and it illustrates the fervor with which SGEU has been campaigning for the cause. Sara Jo Soldovieri, a third-year Ph.D student studying inclusive special education, was confident that a win would be in the cards for the group, saying earlier that day that “it’s not if we win, it’s by how much are we going to win.”

The vote count took place at the Gate N entrance of the Dome, where a small group, composed of graduate student workers and their supporters, chatted amongst themselves as a table of workers counted votes from their union election. Excitement ran high as the green voting slips shuffled from person to person; happy tears were shed, and hugs were given.

Following the announcement, the group exited the Dome, cheering and hugging one another. Lauren Ashby, a second-year graduate student in geography, was elated following the announcement, saying that the vote showed “what happens when people come together from all across the campus, from every department, from every school to really make something like this happen because we all care.”

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One of the ways that the group attempted to spread the word about the election was through tabling on campus and talking to students.

The victory has been in the making for a long time. Just two months earlier, SGEU and its supporters marched across campus to deliver their letter to Vice Chancellor and Provost Gretchen Ritter asking for a union election. Since then, they have campaigned across campus promote the election and increase support for the cause. Sam Call, a fifth-year graduate student studying political science, said that while she was happy to do the work, it was tough at times to get the message out.

“It’s difficult to find everyone, everyone’s spread out in different colleges,” Call said. “Some people don’t have office spaces, so we don’t know where we could find them if we wanted to reach out to them…It’s been difficult to try to reach everyone, but that’s why we’re trying all these different ways in order to get the word out.”

Campaigning efforts have also allowed for a community of graduate student workers to emerge. Call talked about how during the organizing efforts, she met other graduate students and compared teaching strategies with them. Soldovieri added that graduate student employees can be spread out across campus, and that the fight for a union brought them together under a common goal.

“We didn’t know each other before this,” she said. “And, you know, now we’ve been able to build this really cool community that supports each other, and that is moving towards big change we wouldn’t have before.”

Following the victory, representatives from SU and the union will meet in order to plan out a potential schedule for negotiating a collective bargaining agreement, according to an email from Ritter. Call hopes that this creates a better working environment for graduate student employees.

“We think this is gonna help so many grad students, international students, parents, people with disabilities, everybody,” she said. “We want this to be a good thing for all the grad workers on campus.”

Soldovieri said some of SGEU’s requests include caps on workload to avoid workers having excessive hours and overcrowded classes that don’t line up with their contract, as well as policies against retaliation to create a safer work environment where people feel comfortable speaking up. She believes that an improvement in working conditions will allow for graduate student employees to do better work.

“I think the thing that the administration does not acknowledge is that we want to be here working,” Soldovieri said. “We want to do this, we just want to be treated fairly. And that is why we have come together, to have a voice over our working conditions.”