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  • Constantino Themelis

BU Graduate Students Hit the Picket Lines

Updated: Apr 23

Monday, March 25, marked the first day of a strike by the Boston University Graduate Student Union (BUGWU). Their demands include an increased wage to reflect the cost of living in Boston, a more comprehensive healthcare plan, protections for international students, workload protections, and affordable housing options from BU. Although it seemed to move quickly, with the strike being authorized on March 12 and the picketing happening only two weeks later, this moment has been years in the making.

The graduate students held an election to unionize in December 2022, which resulted in them joining a union group for educators and service workers, called SEIU 509. SEIU 509 is the Massachusetts chapter of a greater national union that represents service workers, healthcare workers, and educators providing legal support and advocating for the rights of workers. The two sides have been bargaining since June 9, 2023, and remain far apart on a myriad of different issues. 

One of the more pertinent issues is the compensation for graduate students who do teaching assistant work. BU has committed to a 7% increase in salary over the next year as well as a 13% increase over the next three years. BUGWU has refuted this attempt for a middle ground by the BU bargaining team in stating that BU had already committed to a 3% stipend payment increase. This means that the 7% increase was, in actuality, a 4% increase from BU’s previous commitment. Through a monetary understanding, the increase for students with twelve-month stipends would be about $1000 more a month, or $82 more a day, according to BUGWU’s Instagram post. This is far from BUGWU’s demand of an approximate 50% increase in stipend payment which would amount to about $60,000. The graduate student union is looking for a wage that more accurately reflects the cost of living in the Boston area. MIT’s Living Wage Calculator puts the cost of living for a single adult at about $46,000.

The current stipend payment that BU offers for Ph.D. students is $40,977 for 12 months and $27,318 for 8 months. The difference in stipend length is another point of contention, considering that for four months of the year, some BU graduate students go unpaid. BU has proposed adding an extra month of payment to the eight-month stipend, which would bring the total salary to about $31,000. BUGWU has rejected that proposal, arguing that the increase is not substantial enough to reflect the cost of living in Boston.

Other issues include BU graduate students being required to work exclusively at BU, as well as caps for weekly working hours. Due to the working hour caps, many graduate students work overtime in unaccounted hours, leading to unpaid labor. Childcare subsidy, MBTA transit subsidy, dental plans, gender-affirming care, and international student protections have been proposed as articles of a potential contract. The issue remains complex and ongoing, and a tracker of the bargaining process can be seen here

The wedge between students and administrators was recently widened by a new policy established by the university which requires graduate students to fill out timesheets for the work they did or did not complete during the week. The policy also asks faculty and undergraduate students to report missing graduate students. Boston University also added that they will withhold wages from graduate students who are engaging in the ongoing strike. BUGWU has urged graduate student union members, faculty, and undergraduates to not fill out the timesheets, stating on their Instagram, “We refuse to self-report strike activity!”

BU administration has been pressured by local politicians like United States Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Representative Ayanna Pressley (D-MA). During the first day of picketing, Warren said she wants the administration to “bargain in good faith with the people who do a lot of the hard work at BU.” Pressley, who also attended the first day of the strike, gave a speech stating “BU, do you see us now? BU, do you hear us now?” riling up the protestors in attendance. 

The situation has widespread effects across the entire BU community. The administration has acknowledged the right of the graduate students to strike as genuine and continues to demonstrate their good faith in bargaining. However, the strike has resulted in a shortage of teaching assistants, or TAs. TAs do the bulk of undergraduate grading, especially in larger 100-level classes. Professors are continuing to teach classes, as the university stressed that classes will continue in an email out to all undergraduate students, saying, “...we are working hard to ensure your education proceeds as smoothly as possible.” 

Furthermore, an extended period of striking could have an impact on already fiscally burdened graduate students. Maggie Boyd, a PhD student at BU experienced a health emergency while at BU two years ago and was left to pay a large bill out of pocket.“I was constantly stressed about how I was going to afford it...We have so little pay on a standard basis that it’s very hard for us to form savings to use in emergencies.” the student said

It is important to note that according to BU’s webpage as of April 1, “The only remaining item on which the University owes BUGWU a counterproposal is their proposed Commuting Benefits article – BUGWU currently owes the University responses on 22 additional outstanding items.” This implies that BUGWU is expected to respond to the administration’s proposals before additional negotiations are considered. Both sides want to achieve an agreement that can allow work at BU to return to normal. However, with many disagreements and compromises to be made, it seems as though this strike may be sticking around campus.


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