Emails to the whole campus from Phil He and other Northeastern administrators have left a lot of questions. Please read below responses to each of the concerns raise in the emails.

Here are all the emails sent thus far:

  • February 17, 2017 – Phil He, Associate Vice Provost for Graduate Education
  • March 21, 2017 – Phil He, Associate Vice Provost for Graduate Education
  • March 23, 2017 – Phil He, Associate Vice Provost for Graduate Education
  • September 18, 2017 – Phil He, Vice Provost for Graduate Education (he got promoted)
  • October 17, 2017 – Phil He, Vice Provost for Graduate Education
  • October 30, 2017 – Phil He, Vice Provost for Graduate Education
  • November 7, 2017 – Phil He, Vice Provost for Graduate Education
Claims from the administration What they are leaving out…
“The letter introduced many ongoing initiatives by the University to support and continue to improve the graduate education experience here at Northeastern.  These ongoing efforts have recently expanded in the wake of the Trump Administration’s travel ban, which is antithetical to Northeastern’s core values.”  (2/17/17) Why is the university choosing to oppose the Trump administration’s racist actions, yet willing to go to the Trump administration to strip student workers’ right to form a union?
“It was disappointing to see, in the midst of these efforts, the United Autoworkers Union attempting to capitalize on fears that our international students may have about the current immigration uncertainty.  Specifically, the Autoworkers has emphasized as part of its initial union organizing message to graduate teaching and research assistants that international students need a union on campus to protect their interests in light of the recent travel ban turmoil.  It is unfortunate that the Autoworkers are seeking to exploit student fears and use the campus immigration protests as a means to leverage support for a graduate student union.”  (2/17/17) The union is the student workers at Northeastern. While we are members of a larger Autoworkers union, the very one which fought and won the right for graduate workers to form a union, many of us are concerned with the precarity and uncertainty with which we work.

Why is provost Phil He claiming we are “capitalizing,” when it is just us talking? Would he prefer we remain silent and accept injustice?

Unions have won fair grievance procedures and protections for international students across this country, including advocating for the OTP,  preventing arbitrary and potentially racist fees being applied to international students, and guaranteed time off. We know this, which is why we are having this conversation.

“I ask that you treat the Autoworkers’ presence on campus with the same skepticism that you might view any unknown organization that could have a substantial impact on your graduate experience.  If you are approached by a fellow graduate student who asks you to sign an “Authorization Card” to support the union, or asks you for personal information, I hope that you will think about the implications before you sign.  It is important to understand that an Authorization Card is a legal document.”  (2/17/17)

“Many of you are probably already aware of an effort on campus by the United Autoworkers to organize graduate Teaching Assistants and Research Assistants to form a union.”   (3/21/2017)

Student workers at Northeastern united and approached the United Autoworkers for assistance in forming our union.

This is because the UAW has decades of experience in negotiating contracts for graduate workers, and have been fighting for the right of graduate workers at private universities to form a union.

By joining a national union, we will not only be able to use their experience to help us win our union and negotiate a strong contract, we will be part of a national voice calling out for change to the standards which student workers live.

“The Autoworkers are asking Northeastern graduate students to sign Authorization Cards, and to provide student contact information as part of the organizing campaign.  It is important to know that an Authorization Card is a legal document, and that signing it indicates you are interested in having the Autoworkers represent you, as your union. Unions submit signed Authorization Cards to the federal government as part of their request to hold a union election on campus.”  (3/21/2017)

“As you begin the year here at Northeastern it is helpful for you to know that the United Autoworkers Union has started a campaign to organize graduate Teaching and Research Assistants into a labor union.  These efforts have been unsuccessful thus far, but it is very possible that you may be approached by a union organizer about this issue.  Unions such as the Autoworkers often hire graduate students to solicit their classmates and ask them to sign an Authorization Card.” (9/17/12)

Signing a union card is the only way for us to show we support a union here at Northeastern. Once enough of us have participated in the discussion, the union cards will be submitted to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) who will confirm we have a showing of interest, and schedule an election to certify our union.

This is an exciting moment for us, because we are joining with more than 10,000 student workers in the Boston area, and tens of thousands of grad workers across the country who are choosing to form a union to have a democratic voice in the decision making at their university.

“Graduate students select Northeastern for many reasons, including access to the university’s world-class faculty scholars and unparalleled research and experiential learning opportunities. Your own path depends on your individual graduate program, which a union relationship could profoundly change.”  (3/21/2017)

“The university has been urging graduate students to become informed about unions and how a union can impact their graduate experience before signing anything.  Your own educational path depends on your individual graduate program, which a union relationship could profoundly change.” (9/17/17)

There is no evidence to support this claim. There have been two major studies which have shown that either relations with advisors remain the same or improve after forming a union.
“Financial cost to you:  You can expect to pay union dues or an equivalent agency fee to the union, which could be 2% of your stipend.  As an example, the Autoworkers charge dues of 2% for NYU graduate students.”  (3/21/2017) The current dues in the United Autoworkers is 1.44%, which are not paid until we have voted to accept a contract. This means we will know what our contract looks like before we pay a dollar in dues.

Some locals have voted to make their dues higher because they want more resources to grow their power, but that is a choice we will get to make in the future. Other universities, such as UW, UC and UConn all pay the standard dues rates.

“Limited flexibility: Many, and possibly all, terms and conditions of your teaching or research assistant work will be subject to negotiation with the union.  In practice this can mean that you will have less influence over your teaching or research assignments, which could be subject to a collective bargaining agreement between the union and the university.”   (3/21/2017) Once we win our union, we will elect a bargaining committee of student workers from Northeastern to negotiate our contract, with the support of UAW experts.

This will be done after the bargaining committee collect bargaining surveys we will fill out, and have presented bargaining goals, which we will vote on.

All of this means that we will be the ones deciding some, or possibly all, aspects of our work through negotiation.

“In addition, during the time that agreement is being negotiated (which can take well over a year), and possibly thereafter, any changes to those assignments could also be subject to negotiation.”  (3/21/2017) Negotiations often take more than a year because the universities choose to violate the law and refuse to bargain. We would hope Northeastern would be better than those workplaces, and would choose to bargain in good faith.
“For example, if you and your thesis adviser or faculty mentor wanted to make changes, you likely would have to consult the union first.  The union would then need to decide if negotiating to address your personal concerns was in the best interests of the rest of the collective bargaining unit (i.e. everyone else in the union, including those in other disciplines and programs).”   (3/21/2017) There are no existing graduate union contracts that make academic progress a topic of bargaining, which is what would be required to create this example.

Also, since we are the union, we decide what topics we choose to take on. It’s disappointing the university would use this example, which has no basis in fact, rather than talk about the improvements won in better quality healthcare, higher wages, protections from sexual harassment and discrimination and child care provisions won at other universities, like most recently the University of Connecticut.

“You lose your individual voice in your graduate experience: The Autoworkers will negotiate a collective bargaining agreement with the university, using a team of negotiators who will decide what to prioritize for the larger union group.  It is not clear how many students would be in the union, but currently the Autoworkers are trying to represent thousands of graduate students in a single union at Harvard.  What is certain is that other members of this large group will likely have varying interests that differ from what is important to you, meaning your specific priorities can easily go unaddressed.”   (3/21/2017) Once we win our union, we will elect a bargaining committee of student workers from Northeastern to sit across the table with administrators to negotiate our contract, with the support of UAW experts.

This will be done after the bargaining committee collect bargaining surveys we will fill out, and have presented bargaining goals, which we will vote on.

All this will mean we will be the ones deciding some, or possibly all, aspects of our work through negotiation.

We should also look at what has happened to us with our current individual voice. We have had teaching loads increase, people have been sexually harassed and swept under the rug, we have had minimal wage increases, and have no real ability to stop this from happening.

This is because, individually we have a little bit of power through our contribution to the success of the university. With a union, we combine that power to win the changes we want to see in our vision of a better Northeastern, just as has been done at more than 60 universities across the country.

One-size-fits-all agreement:  It is important to consider how your particular interests can be represented in an agreement designed to cover a large group.  It is possible that any agreement would control important issues that concern you:

  • what types of teaching or research assignments you will have, including priority for assignments;
  • changes in assignments;
  • your work and class schedules;
  • what types of mentoring relationships you will have;
  • what your participation in co-op and other experiential programs will be, if any; and,
  • your stipend level (which could increase, decrease or remain the same, particularly when taking into account the cost of union dues or agency fees).”  (3/21/2017)
Currently, the university has total control over these things, and make changes to all of them whenever they want, however they want.

We are forming a union because, once we are certified and collectively bargain a contract, we will have a democratic voice in determining these working conditions.

This means they cannot refuse to give us a raise if we won one in our contract.  We could also negotiate language that requires they give us notice before making changes to our assignments. We could also win Job Security which means, if we were offered an assignment, they would be required to give it to us. All these provisions were won at the University of Connecticut.

The university is trying to scare us that things would not be in our control, ignoring the fact that currently they are not in our control.

There are no guarantees in collective bargaining:  Unions often promise more money with a union contract, but there is no guarantee that will be the case.  In the research world, where funding levels are determined by a variety of factors that are beyond the control of the university and the union, nobody can ensure that research funding will increase.  Stipends could also decrease or not change at all as a result of negotiations.”  (3/21/2017) We will be the ones voting on our contract, and this means the terms of our employment will need to be acceptable to us. If we are comfortable in any of those circumstances, we are free to vote to accept.

However, currently, the administration can make changes whenever they want, without any input from graduate students.

Grants and other research funding has changed every year. Often, PIs will build assumed increases in costs for student workers for higher healthcare costs or wage increases.

This is a normal practice, and at other R1 universities with graduate student unions, they have allowed for consistent increase in funding for research.

“You could be called out on strike:  The union may call upon you to take part in a strike.  In the event of a strike, your pay stops.  Being out on strike can also interrupt your academic and research work.  While the university would never want to see a strike take place, it cannot prevent one if the union demands it.” (3/21/2017) 99.9% of union contracts are resolved without the need to go out on strike.

But if action by the university necessitate a strike, we would vote whether we want to go on strike.

Because the UAW knows the importance and risks of a strike, it’s required that at least ⅔ of voters vote yes to a strike.

Even if we voted to go out on strike, it would be up to each of us to decide, for ourselves, if we want to participate in the strike. No one is forced.

“…the University has been approached by a number of graduate students in different colleges who have expressed their wish to revoke an Authorization Card they signed because they felt misled by union organizers.

Please understand that the University does not have a role in the Authorization Card process, and is unable to advise or instruct you on how you can revoke a card that you signed.  If you have questions about how to revoke a signed card, you should contact the United Autoworkers Union or the federal agency here in Boston that oversees unions and union organizing:  the National Labor Relations Board.”  (3/23/17)

If people wish to have a conversation about their card and what it means, organizers are always happy to do so. If you are not sure who is organizing from within your department, you can always contact us at nugradunion [at]
The Realities of Union Democracy and Local Control

The Autoworkers would like you to believe that the union organizers on campus are part of a grassroots organic movement, and that any union will be a locally controlled organization at Northeastern.  The reality, however, is quite different.

The graduate union website was built by the United Autoworkers and, as with most graduate union organizing efforts, student organizers are likely paid by the Autoworkers to reach out and connect with students.”  (10/17/17)

The website was built and managed by Northeastern University graduate student Sam Maron.

Yes, he is paid for his work. Part of the reason we chose the UAW is because they recognize some key elements from their experience in organizing graduate workers:

  • The best organizers of graduate students are graduate students. Therefore, if a group of people are committed to organizing their work place and are willing to work 20 or more hours to help build their union, they deserve to be paid.
  • Building and maintaining a union takes a lot of work and time, and it is reasonable to pay people for their hard work.
  • There is a small number (4) who are paid out of an organizing committee of dozens of volunteers
“You can also expect that any local union group here on campus will be subject to control by the International Autoworkers located in Detroit, or some regional “mega-local” affiliate of the International Union if they are successful in an election.

The Autoworkers has a practice of not granting a charter to local graduate unions which would otherwise give them independence and a stand-alone union local designation.  For example, the graduate union at New York University is part of UAW Local 2110. The front page of the Local 2110 website does not even acknowledge graduate students as part of its membership, and instead highlights “teachers, secretaries, administrators, editors, computer operators, librarians, museum curators, typesetters and graphic artists, among many others.”

The same is true at UMass Amherst, where graduate students are part of UAW Local 2322.  Local 2322 is another “mega-local” that represents custodians, bus drivers, clerical workers, health care workers, mechanics, cooks and many other individuals in three states who have nothing to do with higher education.”   (10/17/17)

Since no commitments, either independent nor “amalgamated” local has been made, there is no basis for the presumed expectation.

The reason that workers form amalgamated locals is for two major reasons: Power and Resources.

Hiring staff can get expensive, and sometimes with locals, they don’t have enough resources to hire a staff person. By joining with other units, you can share a staff to ensure you have the resources you need.

It also is helpful in the case of taking on major fights. As an example, if we were to be part of an amalgamated local that included, as an example, Harvard, us, BC and many of the other student workers in the Boston area as one local, we could work together and help each other in our fights to improve conditions for student workers in the Boston area.

This has proven true at both locals they list in their examples: janitors, custodial staff, and adjuncts have stood side by side to take on major fights and win real improvements in their workplaces.

One thing is always true, regardless of local type: We vote on the issues that affect us. Other members of the local do not vote on our contract.

Its disappointing the administration is making these claims: why is the university administration making such claims without examples to back them up? Is this the type of academy we would expect from an institution of higher learning?

“What Does a Mega-Union Mean for You? Being part of a large local union, or an International Union, means you can be subject to control by union officers and representatives who have no connection to Northeastern. You can expect that when it is time to negotiate a contract on your behalf, the representatives of the mega-local, and their lawyers, will be the people making the decisions.”  (10/17/17) All of those officers are democratically elected by the members of those locals, and beholden to the members who elect them.

Unlike at a University, where the administration is unilaterally chosen by other administrators and the board of directors, who may or may not have a vested interest in your pursuit as a graduate student.

All major decisions, such as electing a bargaining committee, voting to accept a contract, and voting to go on strike, would be done by only those in the unit making the decision.

This means that if a president of a local is not a graduate student at Northeastern, when we vote to accept the contract, they would not be able to cast a ballot.

“With a large, university-wide group of graduate students from all disciplines under a single contract, your ability to advocate for your individual priorities can be lost. With a large mega-local making all the decisions, your individual concerns are marginalized even further.

It is worth considering why you should pay money to a mega-local to support the salaries of union executives and serve the needs of many other working populations when the Autoworkers will not give you local control.” (10/17/17)

Our power comes from all of us joining together and fighting for the issues we care about.

Currently, the administration is free to make changes whenever they want, however they want, without our input.

When we have our union, they will have to sit down and bargain with us, and get our permission to make changes to our working conditions.

With that in mind, what would motivate them to make arguments against our union or for us to be in smaller, less powerful units?

“The Autoworkers Union cannot guarantee students additional protections or special grievance procedures for victims of sexual harassment or assault. In fact, the graduate student contract the Autoworkers negotiated at NYU contains no such procedures, and only requires a posting of the university’s sexual harassment policy. The reality for unions like the Autoworkers is that they must represent all members of the bargaining unit. As a result, the union finds itself in most sexual harassment cases representing a male union member who has been disciplined for sexually harassing a female co-worker.” (10/30/17)

Sexual harassment and assault is widespread on college campuses, especially for graduate students. Unfortunately, Northeastern has a history of mishandling sexual harassment cases. Just last year in 2016, a student sued the school over how her case was handled, in 2014 an accused abuser was allowed to transfer without penalty, and the Huntington News found that Northeastern under-reports incidents of sexual assault on campus.

Universities have the final say in Title IX investigations, and they have a vested interest in protecting the university’s reputation as well as its faculty. The Title IX process, despite being an important source of protection for many students, has been proven inadequate over and over again at protecting survivors, punishing abusers, and achieving accountability.

Graduate student unions at the University of Washington, University of Connecticut, Temple University, and others have won important protections against sexual harassment so they are legally bound by a transparent and independent grievance procedure. This is especially important because Title IX protections have already become weaker under Betsy Devos and the Trump administration.

Please check out this website for more information.

If the union is elected your stipend (and other issues important to you) could be frozen. With limited exceptions, once an election is held the status quo must be maintained until an agreement is negotiated with the union, which typically does not happen until there is a final contract. This could mean that your stipend and other issues that may be important to you such as travel funding would not increase during this period, and could mean a delayed introduction of any new benefits.” (11/7/2017)

This is not true, though often anti-union employers will attempt to interpret the law this way.

Under the law, the administration is not allowed to make changes without negotiating with the union. This means that if they gave raises every year, they would be expected to give a raise this year.

It also means that if employers announced improvements before our union election, they could be required to give us them, because not giving them would be a change.

The other piece that they are missing is that they are also not able to make cuts without negotiating, such as they have experienced at other universities like Harvard this year, where annual raises were cut in half and their prescription copays tripled in some cases.

“Unions often promise more money with a union contract, but there is no guarantee that will be the case. In the research world, where funding levels are determined by a variety of factors that are beyond the control of the university and the union, nobody can ensure that research funding will increase. Stipends could also decrease or not change at all as a result of negotiations.The only guarantee for graduate students is that the unionization process is complex, and not as simple and easy as the union would like you to believe.” (11/7/2017) There have been no promises of raises. In fact, many of us have been very clear that we all will be the ones negotiating and voting on our contract, and while many of us may not be happy with our current stipends, we cannot promise any increases.
The question that is being asked here is simple: Should the administration be the only ones making the decisions, or should we have an equal say in the decisions that affect all of us? If you think we should be part of that process, join the union and get involved.If you are concerned that the university has an inability to be able to provide raises if we won them, or that we could bankrupt the university, you should look at the facts: Northeastern just announced a $1.4 billion fundraising effort and just opened a new $250 million building! The Dining Hall workers union also just received a raise from $21K to $35K! Northeastern has money.

The real question here is “why is the administration fighting this so hard?” The administration’s continued antagonistic emails toward our campaign is proof of that they oppose our union. Of course, if you had all the power and a group of workers said, “we want an equal voice”, what would you do?

Post-election legal challenges may then delay negotiations a year or more: Unions and employers often file legal challenges that can delay the start of negotiations for many months (or longer) following an election. This happened at Harvard after the election a year ago in November 2016. As of today, there is no resolution of the legal challenges and no bargaining over an agreement has taken place.” (11/7/2017) It should be noted that the administration will be the ones filing those “post election legal challenges” should we win our union election, which would require them to bargain with us for a contract. If the administration respected the results and went right into bargaining, it would happen much faster. At UConn they began bargaining within a couple months, and at the New School, they have already begun bargaining their contract, and they won their election this year.