Fordham University Graduate Student Workers Form Union with Communications Workers of America
Student employees at Fordham’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences seek voluntary recognition by the university after a supermajority signed cards in favor of forming a union
New York, NY. — Today, graduate student workers at Fordham University’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences announced that an overwhelming majority of them have signed cards indicating their desire to form a union with the Communications Workers of America (CWA). Their union, Fordham Graduate Student Workers (FGSW), is seeking voluntary recognition from university management in order to begin bargaining a fair contract that will create a formal grievance structure, raise workers’ pay, secure affordable healthcare, ensure paid leave and reasonable accommodations for parents and caretakers, cut burdensome student fees, and establish protections for international students.
The union will also hand deliver a letter demanding recognition to President Fr. Joseph McShane’s office. Additionally, they have filed for an election with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) should university management refuse to voluntarily recognize the union.
“I began teaching during the height of the pandemic and faced immense overwork that often forced me to put my own research to the side so that I could play a part in keeping the university functioning,” said Ciaran Coyle, a Teaching Fellow in the Philosophy department. “Instead of overtime compensation, fee suspensions, or funding extensions, graduate workers received empty statements from administrators expressing appreciation for our shared sacrifices. I realized that as graduate workers, we will lack adequate support and our contributions will be undervalued unless we have a fair collective bargaining agreement.”
Pay for Fordham graduate student workers starts at less than $26,000 per year, which is currently at least $15,000 below a living wage in NYC. They perform critical tasks such as teaching core classes, running labs, tutoring students, supporting faculty’s work, providing administrative assistance, and more. Despite playing an essential role to keep the university functioning, graduate student workers at Fordham have faced unpaid overtime, rising expenses, and lack of adequate healthcare.
Further fueling the drive to organize was the minimal support for international students in recent years.
“During my time at Fordham, I have found that graduate students have virtually no say in their working conditions beyond a departmental level. Decisions get made about our pay, our work, and issues that affect us directly without us at the table,” said Amal Zaman, a Graduate Assistant in the English department. “As an international student, I have been particularly frustrated about a lack of services and support. When the Trump-era announcement was made that international students would be deported if they did not attend in-person classes during the pandemic, Fordham’s administration was silent. It’s time that our voices are heard and we are given the respect we deserve.”
Fordham University graduate students add to a growing trend of organizing within higher education institutions. In 2017, Tufts University graduate students in the School of Arts and Sciences voted to form a union affiliated with Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and in 2020, teaching and research assistants at Georgetown University – a Catholic and Jesuit institution like Fordham – secured a three-year union contract with pay and benefit bumps. Just last month, Columbia University graduate student workers ratified their first contract with the university.
“In 2018, when Fordham’s adjunct faculty formed a union, our President Fr. Joseph McShane called it 'the ethical choice' and noted that support for organized labor 'has deep roots in Catholic social justice teaching.' We hope and expect that Fordham leaders will live up to these Catholic and Jesuit traditions once more, and support our effort by voluntarily recognizing our union so we can begin bargaining a fair contract,” said Benjamin Van Dyne, a Teaching Fellow and 4th year graduate student in the Theology Department.
Fordham Faculty United/SEIU Local 200 United, consisting of more than 800 Fordham University adjunct and full-time, non-tenure-track faculty, was able to successfully ratify their first contract and won a 67-90% raise for a majority of adjunct faculty over a three year period. McShane and Fordham’s administration initially fought the traditional NLRB process for these workers. They ultimately agreed to be neutral and move forward with a free and fair election, because of Fordham’s “Jesuit traditions and historic connection to first-generation and working-class students,” as McShane wrote in his letter to the Fordham community. Fordham Graduate Student Workers are expecting to be afforded the same respect and dignity.
“We came together to form a union because too many of us are struggling to afford to live in our own city. We put off seeking medical care due to unbearably high co-pays and deductibles, and some cannot afford childcare. These worries can pull us away from our work,” said Marshawn Brewer, a Graduate Assistant and Philosophy PhD student. “This is bigger than any one individual grievance. As a union, we want to be properly compensated for the work that we do, the hours we put in, and fair working conditions,” he added.
Student employees at Fordham’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences work in a number of fields, including clinical psychology, biology, economics, and history. Yet, unlike many other employees at Fordham and at peer institutions, they have limited power over their working conditions.
“Graduate student workers have dedicated their lives to their fields of study, teaching, and critical research, but these jobs do not provide a living wage, affordable healthcare, or support for working parents,” said Carolyn Cargile, a Writing Center Fellow and PhD Candidate in English. “We love our jobs and the work that we do, but what we have now is not enough, and we are tired of being overworked and underpaid. By coming together to form a union, we can ensure that we are compensated and treated fairly by the University so that we and other students after us can continue doing this work.”
About CWA: The Communications Workers of America represents working people in telecommunications, customer service, media, airlines, health care, public service and education, manufacturing, tech, and other fields.