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Coalition of Graduate Employee Unions: A Recap and a Plan to Win

Being able to attend CGEU as a delegate was a transformative experience that reminded me that organizing for change on our campus should be a “constant mode of engagement,” in the words of one panelist.  I came away from the conference with an ability to situate our experience at Rutgers within a larger struggle, and to honestly take stock of where we are and where we need to be. This reflection made me think about three themes that guided the conference: what is the collective? What are the goods? What are the actions?

What is the collective?

At Rutgers, we have a very different situation than many other graduate student workers because we are part of the faculty union. As TAs and GAs, this gives us the strength of numbers, but it also brings up questions of autonomy and governing structure. It also follows that we need to mobilize full time faculty on our behalf if we want to achieve anything. How do we do this?  

Also, fellows, whose work (in the form of research) is central to how Rutgers is able to maintain status and national and international standing, are not considered workers by the university. While we represent them in a general sense, not being able to negotiate on their behalf means that they are vulnerable. They form part of the collective, but not part of our membership. What can we do for them? How can we use our own gains to help them? How do we organize and mobilize them?  

Most importantly, as we build a shop steward system, we need to formalize the structure of the TA/GA steering committee with bylaws and regular facilitators/chairs and reach out to Newark and Camden. Consistent and democratic governance and a standardized way of coming to decisions will help us in terms of ensuring both continuity and efficiency. How do we do this?

What are the goods?

The informal conversations with other graduate student workers can help us find out what other institutions have found to be winnable.

Examples of gains at other institutions:

  • Health Care! For all grads
  • Job security clause
  • Summer funding
  • Remission of fees for fellows or ability to have more flexible deadlines for payment
  • Reduction of student fees
  • Emergency fund for graduate students (Grad Assistance Fund)
  • Child care stipend for new parents
  • Remission of visa fees for foreign students
  • Paid training in cultural competence and sexual harassment

What Does Victory Look Like? (Generated at our last TA/GA Steering Committee Meeting)

  1. COL Raise Annually
  2. Increase of GA Lines
  3. Increased Pay for Fellows—organize fellows?
  4. Improved PDF- more expansive uses (books, professional attire, research, publication, grant writing support)
  5. Retirement contributions- HR
  6. Guaranteeing funding for X years
  7. Research Support
  8. Travel Support increased
  9. Salary Increases (6 years at at least $1000/year)
  10. Better healthcare for fellows
  11. Tuition remission for grad PTLs
  12. Transparency in Appointments
  13. Summer Funding for Classes
  14. Training awareness—funding, healthcare, TA
  15. Fees remission
  16. Advisor accountability (bill of rights)
  17. Well-being

What are the actions?

Collective actions that were at the conference discussed ranged from the theatrical and symbolic, to the silent and strategic. Additionally, we talked about ways to disperse and control information and how to build coalitions with other stakeholders on campus such as undergraduates and blue collar workers.

Symbolic: Monopoly game, dare administrators to live on our budget, get union flags made, valentines to the state (I heart Rutgers, Governor Christie, don’t break my heart), deliver a “syllabus” to Barchi as well as regular progress reports, caroling at administrators’ houses (solidarity sing along), puppets.

Strategic: create syllabus inserts to tell undergraduates about who you are on campus as a student worker, build context, normalize a culture of union membership (give newly admitted students signs to put on their office “TA at Work”), Disrupt the university brand, target parents of new students and prospective graduate students.  

Social Media and Media Outreach: Update Facebook, twitter, regularly. Reach out and form connections to local media and radio stations.  

Broadening our Scope: investigate Rutgers relationship to prisons and the political economy of other issues on campus, reach out to other student groups for undergraduates, begin a conversation on campus about our union’s relationship to other struggles—Black Lives Matter, BDS campaigns, among others.  

Moving Forward:

As we mobilize toward a new contract campaign, we need to think about these three questions: what is the collective, what are the goods, and what are the actions. At Rutgers, this next year will be about formalizing a structure for action and about writing ourselves into the narrative---about making ourselves visible. And we will have to do this in an institution that is increasingly corporatized and whose object is to make us into casualized workers in and through a budgeting system (RCM) that diffuses administrative responsibility and “hides the boss.” A panelist talked about how one goal of collective action of student workers should be to “create the battle line” and make the boss visible and accountable. I think that that is where we should start: by doing the hard work of making ourselves visible to the broader community and by creating the battle line.  

Let's do this!


Deirdre Doughtery

Department Rep

Graduate School of Education


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