We are an organization by, of, and for Graduate Student Workers (GSWs) who want to unionize in order to improve our teaching, research, and employment experience at USC. Our work as Teaching Assistants, Research Assistants, and Assistant Lecturers not only benefits the university and the California economy, but also has positive impacts worldwide. We work in many different fields and have varied experiences, but our dedication to teaching and research unites us all.
By a 93% margin, graduate workers at the University of Southern California have voted 1,599 to 122 in favor of joining the Graduate Student Workers Organizing Committee-United Auto Workers (GSWOC-UAW), according to ballots tallied today by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The victory caps a multi-year effort, with workers standing strong against USC administrators’ anti-union campaign. GSWOC-UAW will represent 3,000 Teaching Assistants, Research Assistants and Assistant Lecturers at USC.
“We are so energized by this resounding vote in favor of our union,” said Stepp Mayes, a Graduate Student Worker in Civil and Environmental Engineering. “The support for our union keeps growing stronger, and we will be bringing this solidarity and energy to the bargaining table. We are confident that our union will be good for us and good for USC, and we look forward to meeting them at the table soon to bargain a contract that makes us all stronger.”
NOTE FROM CHANGE LINKS: In honor of women’s history month and International Working Women’s Day, a socialist holiday that began in the US, just like May Day, we are focusing on the testimonies of women Graduate Student Workers from their website:
Claire Crawford, Political Science and International Relations
I am a teaching assistant in the Political Science and International Relations department, where I study how sound and song can expand our notion of the political and power through my study of Black liberation movements. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) graduate students began to organize in various departments to confront the university’s institutionalized whiteness and our departments. As time has passed and demands have fallen on deaf ears, BIPOC students’ realities remain the same. I support unionization because a student union creates space and institutional support to push against the structures of violence, privilege, and oppression that we BIPOC students are confronted with every time we interact with USC.
Katie Orban, Molecular Biology
I’m a research assistant in Molecular Biology. During my time at USC, many of my fellow graduate students and I have been harassed by staff and faculty in positions of authority. Almost none of us have reported the harassment we face, in part because of the perception of the university’s harassment investigation procedure as biased toward our harassers. I believe we need a graduate student union because a union has its own investigation procedure that I would trust. Graduate students deserve to be treated with respect in a harassment-free work environment.
Maddie Thayer, Classics Department
I’m a graduate student in the Classics department, and my research focuses upon the Latin literature of the early Roman empire. I’m a strong advocate for an independent graduate student union because it will allow us to negotiate directly with the university on behalf of our shared interests. United across our programs and schools, together we can fight for better working conditions and a more inclusive environment for ourselves and for future graduate students at USC.
Jane Kassavin, Latin American and Iberian Cultures
I’m a graduate student studying Latin American poetics and an Assistant Lecturer in the Spanish department. As a student worker with numerous chronic health conditions, I have both had to pay thousands of dollars in health insurance premiums that have worsened throughout the years (including during the Covid-19 crisis), and have also struggled to secure accommodations that make both teaching and research more sustainable for me. A union would give us a voice to bargain for both health insurance and working conditions that better meet our needs, and give us the freedom to pursue our research without worrying about our physical and mental health (and enormous bills related to them). I strongly believe in the necessity of this process to dismantle harmful ableist systems within the university, and to make graduate school more accessible to those with disabilities and chronic illnesses.
Michaela Telfer, Comparative Literature
I’m a graduate student in Comparative Literature and an Assistant Lecturer in the Thematic Option program. Due to changes to the academic calendar, the schedule for the pedagogical training that every graduate writing AL is required to complete was changed in August 2020 so that every AL would be working for the entire month instead of half of that month. However, the university would only pay us for half a month of work, insisting that required employee training is not meant to be compensated labour, but a learning experience. Forming a graduate workers union will allow us to ensure that every graduate worker is paid fairly for all of the work that they do as employees of the university.
Annastasia Haynie, Physics and Astronomy
My name is Annastasia Haynie and I’m a graduate student worker in the Physics and Astronomy department. Our department relies heavily on graduate students who are classified as half teaching assistants, half research assistants, but there is little difference between this position and full teaching assistants. Half TA’s are expected to complete far more than 50% of a full TA’s workload during a normal week and grade the same number of exams as full TAs. When students went to the department with these issues, they were told to “just grade faster”. I support unionization because I believe that graduate students should be paid fairly for the work that we do and should not be expected to complete large amounts of work that is outside of our position descriptions. By forming a union we can negotiate for clear distinctions between graduate student worker roles and how we should be compensated for our work.
Antonia Crane, English
I’m a CNF writer and graduate student worker at USC. Forming a union with my coworkers is an important step to ensure equity and fairness in the area of wages, healthcare and our collective future as educators and researchers. By building trust and cohesion in our workspace, we can negotiate for valuable post-pandemic needs like paid bereavement leave, affordable, reliable healthcare that covers and includes our LGTBQIA+ partners, and pay raises that reflect our current economic landscape.
Melissa Chadburn, English
I am a Graduate Student Worker in the English Department at USC. I support unionization because I believe in our collective rights and negotiating power to bargain better medical benefits. Time and time again I have received a bill for medical appointments, but no one could tell me what each service would cost prior to the appointment. I felt powerless and unable to budget for my healthcare needs.
Rita Barakat, Neuroscience
I’m a graduate student researcher and teaching assistant in the Neuroscience Graduate Program (NGP) at the University of Southern California (USC). I believe that it’s extremely important for graduate students to be able to collectively organize and negotiate with higher academic institutions in order to ensure that discrimination and harassment of any kind is effectively mitigated. In addition, I feel very strongly about the importance of clear communication at all levels of power within academic institutions, and I am confident that unionization would support efforts towards fostering more transparent and open communication channels.
Ana Silverstein, Molecular Biology
I’m a Graduate Student Researcher in Molecular Biology. Managing the cost of living in this area with our salary has been one of the hardest obstacles for me and my peers to overcome, especially for those of us who are first generation students pursuing higher education. Our budgets are tight, and they’re made tighter by low salaries, and excessive student fees that are nearly required for our success; like parking permits, which is the 2nd largest source of revenue for the university and costs close to 5% of our salary. We deserve to live comfortably while working for this university. Forming a union is the best way for us as student workers to have a voice and create the power needed to advocate and negotiate for necessary change.
Layla Vasquez, Neuroscience
I am a graduate student researcher in the Neuroscience Program at USC. I believe unionizing is the necessary foundation to guarantee equity among all departments and the key to improving inclusivity and diversity within the academic community!
Megan Cassingham, Chemistry
I am a Graduate Student Researcher in the chemistry department studying hybrid organic-inorganic materials. Forming a union is the best way for all Graduate Researchers across USC to stand in solidarity against persistent issues of discrimination, harassment, and fair compensation. The most effective way to have our needs met and ensure equitable working conditions in perpetuity is to lead the charge together to uplift and strengthen each other within our own union democracy.
Missy Rogers, English
I support unionization because graduate workers provide USC with critical labor as instructors and researchers. Collective bargaining gives us power, protection, and mutual advocacy.
Ana Howe Bukowski, Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism
I’m a doctoral candidate, TA, and RA in Communication at USC Annenberg. As graduate student workers, we are all vulnerable at USC, a private institution that has repeatedly put profits over protections. Forming a graduate student union will help us remain united in securing proper working conditions, cost of living adjustments to our salaries, support for students with dependents, and help address systemic issues and discriminatory practices at the administrative level. With a strong union, we can push for fair representation and have our concerns heard.
Maria Labourt, Sociology
I am an international student worker in the Sociology Department. This last year, as we recover from exceptional difficulties brought up by the pandemic, the US has experienced a 6.2% inflation rate (October 2021). I come from a country where inflation has been a big issue for the last decade, and I know the only way to mitigate its effects on the most vulnerable is through organizing and collective bargaining. We, students workers, rely on a modest stipend while we work long hours seven days a week. Forming a graduate student worker union is essential to advocate for a rise in pay that matches the high cost of living in Los Angeles.
Michelle Risacher, Cinema and Media Studies
My name is Michelle Risacher and I am a MA student in the Cinema and Media Studies department. I work as both a teacher’s assistant and reader, yet my TA position pays nearly triple what my readership does despite the fact that both positions require about the same amount of labor in terms of grading. I support unionization as it will allow us to clearly delineate the job responsibilities of a TA from a reader to ensure that we are paid fairly for our work. Forming a graduate student union is the first step to rectifying inequities concerning wage compensation at USC.
Isabel Wade, Art History
My name is Isabel Wade and I am a graduate worker in the Art History department. Throughout my six years at USC, I have had to navigate through obstructive, hostile, and confusing encounters with administration regarding myriad financial issues regarding stipend payment schedules, unclear university fees, and student health insurance policies. Furthermore, my stipend has not increased to reflect inflation over the past six years, resulting in an overall decrease in pay. On numerous occasions, USC has, with little warning, changed payment schedules and the dates on which workers are paid, which has risked graduate students not having money for basic needs including money for food, rent, and transportation, a heightened concern during a global pandemic. My colleagues and I have on numerous occasions advocated for ourselves, without support from the University, to demand transparency about when we will be paid and why we owe unexplained bills not covered by our fellowships. No worker should be left to beg for answers about when they will receive what they are owed. I am organizing to form a union with graduate student workers because USC must reform its administrative policies and honor the basic rights of all its workers, ensuring we earn a living wage. A union will provide the necessary support and advocacy that we need to ensure a fair and equitable work environment.
Stacie Chadwick, Linguistics
I am a graduate student worker and PhD student at USC where I study phonetics and phonology in the Linguistics department. In the school where I did my Master’s degree, I saw how critical a student union was in making sure my fellow students received fair pay and treatment when the global pandemic hit. In an ever changing world, it is important to support each other. When disaster strikes it’s nice to know that there are people out there who care for your well being and have your back. I have seen the success of a union as a support system, and I know it will be beneficial here at USC not only in times of crisis, but also in the general improvement in our day to day lives.
Meg Tiller, Religion
My name is Meg Tiller and I am a graduate student worker in the Religion Department at the University of Southern California. Although this is my third year as a PhD student, I have yet to receive a raise from the University. Furthermore, many graduate students have spouses and children that we cannot add to our health insurance. This has put an even further financial strain on us during a global pandemic. Forming a union is vital to me to ensure that we get paid a living wage for our work. We are employees of the University and should be treated as such. A graduate student union would allow for more opportunities to have a say in our pay and working conditions.
McKenna Peplinski, Civil and Environmental Engineering
At USC, I am funded by working as an RA/TA. PhD stipends have not increased with the cost of living which requires student workers to stretch their income to cover the cost of necessities like rent and food. This means that PhD students are unprepared for any kind of financial stressor, and serves as a barrier to participation for potential PhD students that lack prior wealth, or that have additional financial burdens like supporting dependents. PhD students should be compensated fairly and competitively in a way that accounts for the cost of living. Forming a grad student union will give us the platform to demand stipend increases that more accurately reflect the cost of living in LA.
Ellen Herschel, Psychology
I am a graduate student studying music, creativity, and the brain in the Psychology department at USC. During the COVID-19 Pandemic, hundreds of thousands of individuals lost their jobs, including my spouse who was unemployed for 13 months. Unfortunately, I did not have the ability to add him to my health insurance at USC, placing us in a precarious position of paying more than $600 in COBRA health insurance per month, or choosing to forgo health insurance for my spouse completely. Other universities offer the possibility of adding dependents on to healthcare plans for a small monthly fee, and it is time for USC to meet that standard offered by other universities. While single voices can raise awareness of personal issues, it is in our community where we find strength to support one another through our individual challenges. This power in unity allows us to collectively work for an environment that mitigates harassment, inequity, and discrimination while advocating for diversity and open communication.
Jessica Campbell, Linguistics
I’m a graduate student worker and PhD student in linguistics studying the coordination of movements of the vocal tract in people with speech disorders as well as typical speakers. I fully support a union for graduate student workers because I want to unite with my peers to promote equity in academia. With our collective power we can fight harassment and discrimination and make academia a better place for everyone.
Jenna Dilworth, Marine and Environmental Biology
I am a graduate student worker in the Marine and Environmental Biology section of the Biological Sciences department. Graduate students in our department take on essential roles as teaching and research assistants, making immense contributions to research and the instruction of undergraduates. Additionally, the graduate student workers in the Marine and Environmental Biology section are often the driving force behind efforts to address issues relating to diversity, equity, and inclusion, investing significant time and effort into unpaid work to begin breaking down the barriers that exclude groups that are presently underrepresented in STEM. I support a graduate student union because I want to ensure that going forward, graduate student workers have the power to advocate for a more inclusive environment at USC and be more appropriately compensated for their valuable contributions to the university.
Tori Cassady, Earth Sciences
My name is Tori Cassady and I am a graduate student worker in Earth Sciences at USC. My department relies on graduate students for an incredible amount of work including teaching, outreach work, and research. Yet, our pay continues to fall behind the cost of living in Los Angeles. Even if we get a pay increase, it does not scale with cost of living, especially during the COVID crisis. USC hides from this fact using semantics and distractions from the reality that a small pay increase is actually a pay cut when large cost of living increases are taken into account. Our labor generates an astronomical value for USC while we, the workers, are paid well below minimum wage, and our wages effectively fall every year. Many of us have faced health issues and bills because of stress imposed by academia as well. Despite this, graduate students have little voice over improving pedagogy, new hiring decisions, and protecting ourselves against unfair and/or abusive treatment from faculty or USC. I am strongly supportive of forming a graduate student union because it will give us a legal framework for us to both defend ourselves against unfair treatment from USC as well as advocate for equitable and healthy working conditions including better pay.
Stephanie Navarro, Epidemiology
I’m a PhD student in Epidemiology and a TA in the department of Population and Public Health Sciences. My research focuses on understanding how patients’ experiences with their health care are related to their health outcomes and how these relationships are different for racially and ethnically diverse patients. While some of my greatest joy, learning, and growth during my time in this program has come from being a TA, this has often come at the cost of delayed progress in my own research and timeline as a student. Forming a union would mean that we, as graduate student workers, would have the power to push for standardized graduate student workloads which would allow for graduate student work, such as TAships, to be completed with ample time remaining to focus on individual degree progress as well.
Maggie Davis, Sociology
I am a PhD student and Teaching Assistant in the Sociology department at USC, and I strongly support forming a union. I believe that unionization is the best and surest path to voice our common concerns as student workers and, most importantly, to have those concerns meaningfully addressed by the university. While we all share a passion for our work, we also understand that our current working conditions—unlivable wages, unsafe research and classroom environments, discriminatory administrative practices, etc.—create an increasingly unsupportive and unsustainable working environment. A union would provide us with representation on wage-related issues like recent cuts to advanced fellowship support and funding during the summer months, and help us to advocate for clear Covid-19 policies that prioritize keeping workers safe. The only guarantee for full representation as we pursue recognition of our essential place in the university and the larger academic community is a certified and mobilized union.