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Laney Graduate Students Vote To Unionize

Above photo: EmoryUnite! Facebook Page.

Laney Graduate School students have voted to unionize after years of advocacy.

Emory University is the first private university to have a graduate-worker union in Georgia and the second in the South.

Laney Graduate School students have voted to unionize after years of advocacy, making Emory University the first private university to have a graduate-worker union in Georgia and the second in the South. EmoryUnite! is now officially recognized as a union under the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), meaning Emory administration is required to enter negotiations with graduate students.

EmoryUnite! announced the results in a Nov. 28 Instagram post. In total, 909 students (92.6%) voted in favor of unionization while 73 students (7.4%) voted against unionization during the election on Oct. 17 and 18, according to the post. Of the approximately 1,700 Laney Ph.D. students eligible to vote in the election, 982 (57.8%) participated.

David Meer (27G), co-chair of EmoryUnite!, said that the group’s organizers are thrilled with the results. He explained that this level of support leaves no room for those against the union to question or challenge the results.

“The people have spoken loud and clear,” Meer said. “We want a union.”

Provost and Executive Vice President of Academic Affairs Ravi Bellamkonda wrote in an email to Ph.D. students on November 28 that the “outcome of the election affects all Emory Ph.D. students in the bargaining unit regardless of whether or how a particular student voted.”

Once the NLRB certifies the election results, Workers United-Service Employees International Union and Emory will begin the collective bargaining procedure, according to Bellamkonda.

“I would like to thank all of you who engaged in this process for making your voices heard,” Bellamkonda wrote. “Emory respects the outcome of the vote, and we are committed to bargaining in good faith with the Union as your representative consistent with our mission, vision and values.”

Next, Meer said that EmoryUnite! aims to write a constitution and create a bargaining committee of a diverse group of 20 to 30 students from all Laney departments. Meer said that he hopes graduate students will start the 2024-25 academic year with a union contract.

The union is about seven years in the making. Graduate students founded EmoryUnite! in 2016 after the NLRB ruled that they had the right to unionize. This ruling came after years of back and forth by the NLRB, which often switched course with changes in government leadership.

After withdrawing their plans to form an official majority union in 2017, EmoryUnite! opted to form a voluntary membership union, which collects membership dues but holds less bargaining power and is not formally recognized by the NLRB.

Jonathan Basile (22G), one of EmoryUnite!’s original organizers, told The Emory Wheel in March that the University administration opposed graduate students’ efforts to unionize in 2017, citing a union FAQ page on Emory’s website that he believes cast unions in a negative light. Basile also explained that EmoryUnite!’s attempt in 2017 came at a time where the political climate was hostile toward unionization efforts under former U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration.

EmoryUnite! organizers began their second effort to unionize on Aug. 25, 2022 and began collecting student signatures in favor of unionization. Over half of Laney graduate students signed the card drive, exceeding the 30% necessary to qualify for filing a petition to schedule an election with NLRB. Additionally, over 100 Laney faculty members signed an open letter expressing their support of the group.

On Aug. 25 — exactly one year after reigniting their movement — EmoryUnite! filed a petition with the NLRB to vote on unionization.

On Sept. 15, the NLRB filed a Stipulated Election Agreement and Notice of Election. Laney Graduate School Dean Kimberly Jacob Arriola announced that the election would be held on Oct. 17 and 18 in an email to Laney students five days later.

EmoryUnite! organizers’ demands to see the University address is an increase in graduate students’ pay. According to Meer, Laney graduate students earn approximately $3,000 less than Atlanta’s living wage, which is about $39,375 for an adult without children. The average stipend for Laney graduate students during the 2023-24 academic year is $36,637.53, a 6% increase from the average stipend during the 2022-23 academic year, which was $34,595.63.

Meer cited a Laney Graduate School survey published in July 2023 which found that students living off their stipend spent about 49.52% of their monthly take-home pay on housing in 2022. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services considers households that spend more than 30% of their income on housing “cost burdened.”

“Emory knowingly doesn’t pay us enough to have housing security,” Meer said.

The results of the October election place Emory in line with a national trend of graduate school unionization. Many of Emory’s peer institutions have also formally unionized in recent years, including Duke University (N.C.), Northwestern University(Ill.), Georgetown University (D.C.), New York UniversityJohns Hopkins University(Md.), Brown University (R.I.), University of Chicago and University of Southern California.

Duke became the first private southern university to adopt a graduate student union in August. Duke Graduate Students Union organizers faced opposition from the university, with Duke Vice President for Government Relations Christopher Simmons releasing a statement in March that challenged the legality of graduate student unionization.

Labor historian and Associate Professor of Modern Latin American History Thomas Rogers tried to form a graduate student union when he was a graduate student at Duke in 2001. He partially attributed the failure to create a union to Duke administration’s explicitly anti-union stance when he was a graduate student. Rogers also noted that there was a lack of interest among students in STEM fields, given that their stipend was already supplemented by labs.

“The graduate dean at the time invited us to a meeting to say, ‘I’ve heard about your organizing activities, and I just want to make some truths known to you, including that we think that it would be pretty easy to recruit into our graduate programs, students who are not interested in unionizing,’” Rogers said. “So it was a pretty clear message that, ‘You are expendable to us.’”

Rogers noted COVID-19 is one reason for the national increase in support for unionization as the pandemic “laid bare the fragility of a lot of jobs.” He also attributed the trend to “ineffable factors that are hard to precisely put your finger on” such as inflation and people feeling as if their word is not being valued.

In an effort to include all Laney graduate students in conversations surrounding the new union, EmoryUnite! will be hosting a celebration and town hall event in White Hall from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 30.

“We want to hear everyone’s opinions and we want to tell the entire world what our next steps are,” Meer said.

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