Interview: Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) Graduate Workers Unionizing

Photo: Unionizing WPI graduate workers with WPI- Graduate Workers Union (WPI-GWU) out in solidarity with unionizing baristas at the Worcester Starbucks. Photo by Claire Bayler

ISG interviewed Jake Scarponi, a graduate student worker at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Worcester, Massachusetts. Jake studies Materials Science and Engineering, and is part of the effort to form a graduate student worker union at WPI. 

When did you become involved with the grad worker unionization effort at WPI?

I was made aware of the union effort and the problems facing graduate student workers that led up to it thanks to some of my other graduate worker friends. I didn’t even plan on applying to my program until pretty recently, but as soon as I decided to go back to school, I wanted to learn more, meet some of the union leaders, and see if this had potential to improve life on campus, which it certainly does.

Some people don’t think of graduate students at places like WPI as workers, but many of you are actually employed full-time by the university. What kind of work do you and other graduate student workers do on campus? 

Generally, we’re either Teaching Assistants (TA) or Research Assistants (RA). In the case of people with salaried positions, generally that role is the job through which you receive your funding as a graduate student worker: the school hires you to do that work, and in turn, you don’t pay tuition like a regular student, and you receive a stipend to take care of your most basic living expenses. We also have other benefits like you’d see at any other full-time job, like a health insurance package.

TAs like myself are what we sound like: we contribute to the education of undergraduate students as well as fellow grad students by assisting the teaching faculty. For the classes we get assigned to during the academic year, we hold office hours for our students, answer their questions about the material, grade their assignments and exams, and sometimes even play a role in lectures. In this case, your wages come out of your program’s departmental budget.

RAs, on the other hand, work on their research full-time. They focus on the completion of their degree while simultaneously contributing to the academic goals of their research group and principal investigator (that’s basically your faculty advisor), the scientific mission of the school, and, of course, helping to secure grant money for their lab, department, and university.

If you’re hired as an RA, your funding probably comes out of the grants that are earned by you, your PI [PI stands for principal investigator on a grant, in this context it refers to the faculty advisor], and the rest of your lab group. I should stress that when your lab gets a grant, that money isn’t available in its entirety for your lab to use on equipment or wages. A certain amount always goes towards keeping the lights on and covering administrative costs, among other things–it’s more like money for the school that you get a slice of. That’s an important thing to note when we’re having this conversation about labor organizing and how to make campus a better place to work and learn. The way that WPI chooses to break up that money has a direct effect on our wages, benefits, and how much money our PIs have to work with.

So is that last part connected to why you and other graduate student workers at WPI are organizing a union? Especially for research assistants, it seems like your livelihoods are pretty precarious. 

Absolutely; this is about distributing resources more fairly across campus. We want what anyone else wants: improved working conditions and to be compensated fairly for the labor that we’re doing for the school. A union is how we—not some kind of nebulous intermediary, but us, the workers, as part of a democratic unit—sit down on equal footing with what is basically our managerial counterpart and negotiate for those things through collective bargaining. It’s become very clear that when we leave those decisions up to administration, what they give us is not enough. We need to have a say in how our needs are fulfilled in order to best meet them, and when we have that say, we’ll be able to do our jobs better and contribute to everyone’s experience on campus in a positive way. We have important jobs, and we produce value for the school through our work! We’re also human beings who need to take care of ourselves in order to help our colleagues and students effectively. We love our jobs, but WPI needs to compensate us better in order for us to do them well, and we can get that change through a union contract.

So you’ve mentioned fair compensation; can you expand on the main grievances that you’re hoping can be solved by forming a union and negotiating a contract?

Okay, let me start with housing in the sense that, in order to do the work that we do, we need a place to live. Campus housing for grad students has become pretty limited as WPI continually focuses on growth and accepting larger and larger incoming undergraduate classes. Over time, a lot of dorms that were once reserved for upperclassmen have been relegated to freshmen, even as WPI both builds new housing and acquires more from the surrounding neighborhoods. Maybe that wouldn’t be so important if rent for a one-bedroom in Worcester hadn’t gone up 54% in the past eight years, which brings me to the more direct grievance we have with WPI itself.

That lies in the fact that our pay has not kept up with the cost of living; the reason I’m citing that eight-year rent figure is because we haven’t had a significant pay raise within that span. In fact, we recently had the actual dollar amount of TA stipends over the last ten years laid out to us. It showed that, generally, these stipends have increased most years by at least two or three percentage points. In 2020, they were frozen along with other operating budgets because of COVID. The freeze was maintained for the following year, this time because WPI decided to cover our health insurance premiums. That doesn’t really sound like a raise to me when it came after WPI decided to switch us to a more expensive plan without any major changes in coverage. This year—a year with inflation in excess of 9%—TAs get another 2% raise, and WPI will continue to cover our premiums, which somehow went up again. Not nothing, but not enough, and particularly not enough when you broadly consider where our wages stand and where they have stood for all of those ten years, which is low!

TA stipends are a good benchmark for grad student worker wages, and WPI doesn’t compare well on that front even with other colleges in Worcester. We’ve never had wages that were appropriate compared to the cost of living. For every one of the last ten years, we’ve been considered “burdened” by the Department of Housing and Urban Development based on average rent costs, and it’s getting worse. Besides that, WPI isn’t even keeping our wages competitive. The school risks losing strong talent to colleges with better funding packages, and, more importantly, this is a mechanism that builds barriers in front of underprivileged students. If you can’t survive on what they’re offering and you don’t have anything else to magically fill that gap, being a graduate student at WPI just stops being an option. I think improving our wages is crucial to opening opportunities to people that otherwise wouldn’t have them, which I could talk about for hours.

For similar reasons, we want a comprehensive healthcare plan that covers vision and dental. To me, this sounds pretty basic. Basic enough that I know a student who was surprised we didn’t have it; they needed an updated prescription for their glasses, and suddenly found themselves paying a huge bill out of pocket for something that was totally necessary for them to do their job! When our wages are low, it’s frustrating that our other benefits aren’t great, either. Moreover, there was a lot of tension a couple of years ago with that sudden increase in our premiums, which WPI wasn’t going to cover at first (the increases, that is; they were going to cover the same portion they always had). That change was a decision made with absolutely no input from us and practically no notice before a higher bill appeared. We want our healthcare plan to be better, but more broadly, we should have a say in what it is in the first place!

Unionizing also means that if a union member has an issue related to harassment or discrimination, they won’t have to rely on the school to decide what to do about it. We can file a grievance, and we can go through an arbitration process. This is important! We should acknowledge the power imbalances present on any college campus, whether they’re between students, researchers and their PIs, workers and their supervisors, all of them. If a grad student worker is being taken advantage of or harmed in some way, they deserve to have that wrong righted impartially. I know international students that feel like their relationship with their PI is coercive, that they work under a vague threat of losing their position, which implies potentially losing their visa. That’s not right, and we want a union to be supportive of those students and to have their backs if and when they need to take action and stand up for themselves. We want to be able to put out the best work we possibly can, but that’s not possible if we’re overworked, neglected, unsafe, or mistreated.

All of this is happening in the wake of the pandemic, and as the world teeters on the edge of a global recession. How have factors like the COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing economic crisis affected the graduate workers?

Like I said, WPI froze TA stipends in response to COVID, and it sort of feels like they played with some numbers to keep them frozen for another year after that. We also initially had to pay a not-insignificant fee related to COVID testing. That might sound innocuous, but again, consider the full scope of the issue: our wages are low, now they’re frozen, and we’re not happy with an expensive healthcare plan. Now we’re being told to foot an extra bill when we have no choice but to be on campus for our work? We considered that pretty unacceptable, to the point that there was a bill strike, which is to say we refused to pay this fee.

I think the broad and lasting impact of the pandemic is also an important point of discussion. A huge period of extreme uncertainty for every single person in the country, then corporations start squeezing the public for every penny we have. Monstrous price increases against a backdrop of record corporate profits in so many industries—it feels like the past couple of years have been engineered to make the working class desperate. Desperate for security, desperate to make sure they can take care of their most basic necessities; that manifests for grad student workers as well. Maybe the threat of losing our jobs outright isn’t as severe as for someone working in a warehouse or for an airline, but what if our wages are frozen again? What if our landlords raise the rent? What if a new COVID variant prevents us from progressing in our research? My roommate actually quit his PhD program about a year and a half ago because first COVID, then renovations kept him out of his lab for nine months or so, and going back to an industry job rather than waiting any longer meant he could actually feasibly take care of himself. These have been scary times, and there are things WPI can do for us to make them less scary that it hasn’t been doing. Those are generally the things we want out of a union contract.

Your unionization effort coincides with a huge wave of labor activity that we’ve been seeing since the pandemic started and workers were forced to bear the brunt of it. Locally, we’ve seen the historic nurses’ strike at St. Vincent Hospital, and the successful unionization campaign of grad student workers at Clark University. How has the recent resurgence in labor organizing affected or influenced your unionization effort?

I think the momentum of the labor movement in the US has dispelled a lot of corporate mythology against unions. When more people know someone in a union, it’s easier to see that this is simply workers exerting their collective power to ensure they’re treated fairly by their bosses. It’s also encouraging to see that labor organizing is still protected reasonably well by the law; companies like Starbucks and Amazon have made some very nice headlines with their egregious union-busting behavior, and they’re still losing the fight against unions while racking up legal charges from the NLRB.

This drive in union activity has put a lot of things into perspective for me on a personal level, too. I did a fifth year at WPI starting in the summer of 2020 simply because I didn’t have a job lined up yet. In the summer of last year, I took a job with a pretty terrible salary, especially considering my qualifications and the nature of the work. In the first month or two that I was there, three people in my department of about 15 left for better opportunities, and my coworkers let me know that this kind of turnover wasn’t out of the ordinary. The company actually responded with adjustments to everyone’s salary, and mine went up by 14%. That sounds great, but it still wasn’t competitive! To be very blunt, I was insulted; this, to me, was an admission by my company’s executives that I wasn’t being paid enough, that they were both willing and able to pay me appropriately, but that they wouldn’t do anything about it unless they absolutely had to (in this case, they were desperately trying to retain talent, which still leaves all the time). Even when they did finally do something, it frankly wasn’t even the bare minimum. 

Your bosses simply do not want to pay you more! If they could pay you nothing, they’d do it! I definitely think more highly of a body like WPI’s administration to a degree, but at the end of the day, they’re economically motivated to pay us as little as we’re willing to accept for as much work as they can get out of us. All we want is a way to counterbalance that motivation and make our relationship with them more fair. The labor movement right now in this country is demonstrating that unionization is the way to do that. I think WPI for the most part has our best interest at heart until it comes down to nuts, bolts, and budgets. When it comes to those things, it feels like we’re being treated as numbers on a spreadsheet. That goes for everyone paying outrageous tuition rates, too. I don’t know how you can justify that when certain people are paid so lucratively and so much money is dumped into construction and oddly redundant new programs.

I should definitely note that there have been quite a few high-profile wins in campus labor organizing recently. We’re joining the UAW, which also includes Columbia’s and Harvard’s grad student worker unions. The latter got their first contract passed in 2020, complete with a 10% raise! MIT recently passed the union vote successfully, as did our friends right down the street at Clark, like you said. Victories like these are so exciting for us and we’re so happy for them!

Since so many of your concerns are so immediate, I’m wondering if there are ways that graduate workers have already started to fight for better conditions?

I mentioned earlier that there was a successful bill strike over our COVID testing fee, and that was all done without the strength, support, and protection of a formalized union! I think we should be cautious when talking about strikes of any kind because they’re generally a last resort which we’d have to vote on first, but the bill strike was a great success that shows the power we have in collective action. Again, when our health insurance premiums suddenly went up, the uproar over that change led to WPI deciding to cover our premiums in full. When we fight, we win!

I also mentioned that TA stipends are going up by 2% this year. I still think this is a nominal increase, considering the increase in our living costs and how low those stipends are to begin with, but the announcement of that raise went out less than an hour after we said publicly that we had enough authorization cards to launch the union vote. That timing is too suspicious.

Obviously, WPI would rather its workers not be unionized. At Clark University, the administration is refusing to meet with the new union, in hopes that they will just be able to outlast the effort and deny them a first contract. How is the WPI reacting to your attempts to organize a union?

Besides those incremental wins I just mentioned, I think they’ve only just begun to respond. I mentioned that we had TA stipends over the last decade laid out for us. That was in a long email from an assistant dean laying out promises to do better and some other points we take issue with. 

For one thing, the purpose of the union is to hold the administration accountable to do better, rather than take their word at face value. Moreover, there was also an indication that, while TA stipends are set by the university, RA stipends are left between the student, their PI, and the external agency awarding the grant. That’s true, but the framing is manipulative; they’re trying to make it sound like grants won’t go as far if we’re given raises, and that the burden is on us to find more money somewhere. Remember what I said about grants not going just to the lab they’re awarded to? Admin knows how much money they take off the top of those grants, and they want to obfuscate this dynamic and make it seem like changing that part of the budget is out of the question. The truth is, when we negotiate a contract, it’s their job to find the money to pay us appropriately, and when you look at every other graduate student worker union in the country, it becomes clear that they always find the money somewhere, and it doesn’t do undue harm to the rest of the community. 

Why would we be aiming for a union contract that stifles our ability to do research, crunches our lab’s budgets, or hurts the students paying ever-increasing tuition at our school? I read this as an intentional jab towards our organizing effort that’s meant to turn people against us, and to me, that’s deeply insulting. It’s insulting when you consider that WPI has a responsibility they haven’t been fulfilling to make sure we can do our jobs. It’s insulting when you consider that WPI’s existence in Worcester induces an upward pressure in the rent that we pay, but the school won’t raise our wages to reflect that. It’s insulting when we hear bits and pieces coming down the pipeline from our PIs that WPI is slated to reduce the number of credits TAs are funded for, and that PIs will suddenly be the ones to cover our insurance premiums this year. Really? Those credits are important, and even though it’s fake money that the school is paying itself, that’s $3,200 being cut from our yearly tuition funding in the face of a $500 raise for the year. You’re going to tout a nominal raise that’s somehow both generous and apparently the routine norm, but find other ways to cut our compensation and put greater burdens on our PIs? 

They’re trying to make it seem like paying us fairly just won’t work, and that even now they need to tighten belts and cut the fat from their budgets. Indirect costs represent money spent by a PI to cover general overhead expenses. At UMass, PIs are allocated around 22.5% of the grant money they secure for indirects; we don’t have an exact number to quote WPI with, but with the information we do have access to, we’re confident it’s considerably lower, and when I say considerably, I mean it could be less than half of that depending on how you do the math. I’m personally familiar with quite a few complaints from faculty about where the money goes at WPI, and this union represents an effort to reinvest in the productive forces of the school and the people that make it a great place to learn. WPI has no business being hostile towards our union. Our interests are the interests of the people at WPI, not just of the endowment, which went up 29% in 2021, by the way, which is way more than any previous year I could find.

Like you said, it’s likely that the administration will try to undermine your unionization effort by trying to turn other parts of the community against you. To get out in front of that, what message would you have for faculty, other students (undergrads), and other people and workers in the Worcester community? What’s the key takeaway that we should have around this? 

I think I’ve made it clear that there’s a lot of dissatisfaction with the administration on campus, and forming this union is a really good answer to that. Everyone stands to benefit when graduate workers have better working conditions, and no one says organizing has to stop with us. If you think tuition hikes are out of control, if you think your favorite TA, faculty member, dining worker, or residential advisor needs to be treated better where they work, if you think WPI needs to invest in its own community over more real estate, even if you think the university’s response to issues around the health and well-being of its students are insufficient, the answer is organizing. When a small administrative body acts against the interests of everyone else, you make your voice heard collectively, and we’ve seen the power dynamic change and conditions improve at other universities just like ours. Students, faculty, and other workers are the ones who keep this place running at the end of the day, and we shouldn’t forget that. To steal a line from MIT’s graduate student worker union: WPI works because we do!

The Independent Socialist Group will continue to provide updates on the unionization effort at WPI, as well as offer any support we can towards the campaign. To keep up with the effort yourself, follow @WPI_GWU on social media, and ISG to stay up to date.