On Unionization: GSC C/GPU Endorsement

May 10, 2023

The Graduate Student Council Board of Directors believes that Caltech graduate students should form a union through the current effort of Caltech Grads and Postdocs United (C/GPU). We make this recommendation after thoughtful deliberation, and with the best interest of the graduate students whom we represent in mind. Forming a union is the best way for Caltech’s graduate students to protect the improvements granted by the administration only after the unionization effort surfaced; to fight for stipends and benefits that keep pace with inflation and the rising cost of living; and to address workplace harassment and abuse.

The GSC collects annual quality of life survey data from the graduate student body, which we use to assess the most pressing needs facing graduate students and to identify advocacy priorities. Significant fractions of the graduate student body are struggling to find affordable housing, working substantially more than 40 hours per week, skipping meals and forgoing medical care to save money, while suffering from stress and anxiety. International students and student parents bear even greater financial burdens than domestic students without dependents. Additionally, graduate students are denied peer representation during mediation with administration, and many students who face bullying or discrimination in the workplace are not finding recourse or justice. We present this information to the administration each year and advocate for improvements, but have been frustrated with the historically slow pace of progress. Notably, the most significant changes on many of these issues only came after the administration faced a unionization effort that they are in explicit opposition to. We were successful last year in obtaining a large stipend increase, which, despite falling short of the expected living wage for the 2023-24 year1, is the largest raise on record (17%, compared to the second largest raise of 6.5% in the 2006-7 year). However, we have been advocating for raises with the same vigor for more than 10 years. The exact reasons why we received an unprecedented raise are only known by the administration, who may have been motivated by skyrocketing rents and historic inflation rates, but who may also have felt that an increased stipend (and the appearance that administration is working in good faith with student leadership) could quell the union’s momentum—a union-busting strategy employed at Princeton, University of Pennsylvania, and Duke University following the emergence of grad unionization campaigns at those institutions. It has been our experience that, just as our advocacy requests can be granted on a whim, they can be ignored without consequence. Under the National Labor Relations Act (29 U.S.C. § 151–169), a union would give Caltech’s graduate students a true seat at the bargaining table, and allow us to bargain for multi-year contracts that ensure our wages and benefits keep pace with the rising cost of living for years to come.

Those that were at Caltech a few years ago will remember the petition run by Caltech for Affordable Healthcare (CAH) in 2020, when our health insurance deductibles and out-of-pocket maximums doubled, as the plan got significantly worse. GSC healthcare subcommittee chair at the time, Ashay Patel, has spoken up about the Institute’s outright disregard of student advocacy efforts to prevent the healthcare cuts:  

“I only found out [about the cuts] when the then student rep on the Faculty Health Committee emailed grad students that cuts were going to be made, against his recommendation—an email for which the student was reprimanded. Caltech for Affordable Healthcare formed as an emergency response to push back against these cuts, writing a petition with input from 200+ grad students that garnered signatures from over 40%+ of us in just two weeks. Administration flatly refused to acknowledge the petition.” 

CAH ultimately secured a less costly plan after a year of constant pressure, but Caltech continues to disregard many of the recommendations made by CAH and the GSC Healthcare Subcommittee to improve our plan. With a union, Caltech cannot refuse to come to the bargaining table, but would be legally required to negotiate with student advocates in good faith. 

Another major issue in which the GSC has invested much advocacy effort with little success is workplace bullying and abuse. In the last two months, when trying to advocate for a graduate student in mediation with the administration, we were barred from discussion. The Graduate Deans and the Caltech Office of General Counsel told us that Caltech students are not entitled to peer mediators, advocates, or even witnesses in meetings with administration, as a matter of Caltech policy, despite the student’s requests for peer advocates and willingness to sign the necessary legal paperwork. This policy also prevents the GSC from carrying out our mandate to “provide effective and legitimate representation for the graduate students… before faculty, administration…”, as recognized by the Faculty Board and the Board of Trustees in our Articles of Incorporation. Unionization will not only enable student advocates to better protect each other through collective action, but will also enable us to establish the right to third-party mediation in a legally enforceable employment contract, a right which many unionized graduate students already enjoy at universities such as UC, NYU, Columbia, and UConn

The desires of the GSC to improve working conditions for graduate students are necessarily opposed to the desires of administration at times. Recent statements by Provost Tirrell that the administration has been “working directly and collaboratively with us to enhance our environment and professional growth” and President Rosenbaum that members of the administration have been “consistently responding to concerns” directly contradict the experiences of many GSC members who feel that our requests for improvements across several areas of graduate student life have been ignored for years, despite the fact that we volunteer several hours of our free time each week to advocate for better conditions. Without the guarantee of a legally enforceable contract that is voted on by the students and bargained for with administration in good faith, our efforts will never be enough. We believe that graduate students need a democratic organization with legal mandate to collectively bargain for and protect its members that would have a long-lasting impact beyond the tenure of any GSC chair or committee. We need an organization that can provide resources to students who are injured in the workplace, and to victims of harassment and abuse. We need an organization that has an equal seat at the table with administration where our working conditions are decided. We need to form a union. 

You can support the C/GPU unionization effort by signing a union authorization card here.


The Graduate Student Council Board of Directors

1Our 2022-2023 stipend, including the mid-year supplement, is more than $3,750 below a living wage, and unless inflation is < 2% through 2023-2024 (it is 5% at the time of this writing), the upcoming $45,000/yr stipend will also be below the minimum living wage for LA County.