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Northeastern Grad Workers Organize for a Union Despite Harassment and Intimidation

In preparation for a union vote in September, graduate student workers at Northeastern University held a rally which defied intimidation from the administration and campus cops.

Tarang Saluja

July 26, 2023
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In a tremendous show of solidarity, union members and community supporters from across the state of Massachusetts and beyond came to support Northeastern University’s graduate student workers (GENU-UAW) in a “Mass Solidarity Rally for our Rights” as they prepare to vote YES for a union from September 19 to September 21.

This union vote comes after eight years of obstruction, retaliation, and other forms of union-busting from the administration at Northeastern. It was noted that the Northeastern University Police Department (NUPD) was used to harass students for chalking activity and even specifically intimidated marginalized students in their labs. As three students were recently arrested on felony vandalism charges for chalking at University of California at San Diego (UCSD), the rally was also a show of solidarity with fellow graduate students at UCSD. During the rally, the entire surrounding area was chalked in an act of defiance against the administration’s tactics and usage of the police. 

There was an understanding that the campus police were “lapdogs” of the Northeastern administration, stationed on campus to protect Northeastern’s fortune and uphold anti-worker cruelty. Chalked on the walkway were phrases like “NUPD stop harassing our grads” and “Cops don’t belong in labs.” In solidarity with the students arrested at UCSD, another chalking called the UCPD “admin lapdogs and class traitors.” Even the stickers passed out at the rally featured an image of an anthropomorphic surveillance camera, labeled “Northeastern admin,” depicted walking a leashed dog labeled “NUPD.” The dark history of police violence on campuses across America was covered in the “Know Your Labor Rights” booklet distributed by graduate students, providing context for how the police harassment and incessant surveillance at Northeastern reflects a larger pattern: higher education institutions have become increasingly implicated in corporate malfeasance and the police state. In fact, not only did the Northeastern administration arm police with semi-automatic rifles in 2015, but students were also subjected to non-consensual surveillance by means of motion sensors placed under their desks in October. 

Photo by Tarang Saluja

Graduate student workers from University of Massachusetts Lowell, Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Brown, MIT, Harvard, and more were at the rally. Their speeches and statements of solidarity reflected the rising tide of graduate student worker organization as a response to how higher education institutions are becoming spaces of corporate greed and exploitation. Speakers recognized that draconian union-busting tactics are a response to increasingly strong and organized student worker bodies. 

“I say that the university leaders are taking the role of our oppressors; they are repressing labor movements and turning the university into an extension of prison, police, and the carceral system that violates our right to unionize,” said Najifa, VP of the union at University of Massachusetts Lowell, in her speech

Ready to face these challenges, students from various nearby universities pledged to stand together in solidarity against the union-busting from the increasingly corporatized university system. “We will come here again and again from Lowell, whenever you need us, until you win your rights… this is time for revolution,” added Najifa. 

Members of other unions, such as UNITE HERE and SEIU, and other socialist organizations also gave powerful statements of solidarity that drew the connections between the struggles of all workers and also pledged their support. There was recognition that worker struggles, even if from very different sectors of the workforce, were fighting against the same capitalists squeezing wages and worsening working conditions. 

Like all other workers, Northeastern graduate student workers are poorly paid for their labor while their corporatized university accumulates an immense amount of wealth (Northeastern has an approximately $1.5 billion endowment). The workers deserve to have a union and win a living wage, good benefits, and a safe and healthy working environment, especially at such a rich university. “But we are on the whole rent burdened, food insecure, and without meaningful recourse when harassed in our workplace,” said Sophie, a law student and worker at Northeastern. 

Northeastern is determined to prevent students from uniting and fighting for what they deserve and has resorted to shameful and ridiculous tactics. “The university fought our inclusion in the union tooth and nail, claiming that we were not employees, and our work in those positions were resume items, that the benefit of such work is unilateral towards us, not towards the university,” recalled Sophie when describing how Northeastern attempted to exclude many workers from the union. 

Institutions of higher education are increasingly super-exploiting the graduate student workers essential to their existence and operations. Not only do many graduate student workers receive an unlivable stipend, but future graduate student employment prospects are also becoming more precarious as universities remove tenure-lines and become cesspools of job instability that salivate over cheaper academic labor. 

Unionization is the first step towards shifting power over institutional finances and operations to the workers. With union organization, workers can add provisions to contracts and more effectively organize militant demonstrations that give such power to the workers. That is the only way to buck the horrific corporate trends that are making overfinancialized institutions of higher education spaces of misery and competition instead of vibrancy and learning. It is also the only way to transform universities from wealth-extracting hedge funds, which front themselves as education, to institutions that produce knowledge for the people and are oriented to benefit all workers across industries. 

Northeastern workers give us an example of what it looks like to act with solidarity and courage to fight for better. Their fight is everyone’s fight. It is a fight against the corporate trend of treating people like discardable objects rather than human beings. It is a fight against poverty wages as the cost of living skyrockets. It is a fight against the attack on our basic democratic rights to unionize and participate in activities which build collective power. It is a fight against the usage of police to serve capital. With a more organized workforce, we will truly be able to use the power of our labor to win economic and social justice for all people. Stand in solidarity with the Northeastern graduate student workers(@nugradunion on Instagram and Twitter) and support them in their fight for a union and everything else that they deserve. 

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