How GAGE, the Georgetown graduate worker union, supports inclusion and culture in academia

In 2016, Georgetown increased the required number of hours for Ph.D. students to work on top of their academic duties. This led a group of doctoral students to form the beginnings of what would eventually become GAGE, the Georgetown Alliance of Graduate Employees, a student-worker union that ratified its first contract in May 2020.

“We want a more active and sustained voice in the work that we do at Georgetown and the conditions under which we do it, and an equal say in the impact of these policy changes on graduate work,” said Daniel Solomon, a member of the organizing committee and GAGE vice president.

Faculty play a huge role in the graduate student worker experience. They supervise graduate associates, teaching assistants, or researchers, depending on the academic department and course of study. They oversee the culture of an entire department, center, or lab. And graduate students contribute crucially to all of these endeavors. However, some student workers have also been given inappropriate job responsibilities, such as running personal errands or running labs, lectures, or major initiatives that should be the staff’s or professors’ responsibility.

“One of the priorities for the union is to really create an environment where there’s a common set of expectations about what kind of work graduate students should be responsible for doing and what kinds of work they shouldn’t be responsible for doing,” Solomon said.

Before the existence of the union, graduate student workers at Georgetown had inconsistent support or recourse for these kinds of situations. The union’s contract has stipulations for student workers to pursue informal and formal channels to raise issues. GAGE also plans to use its organizing power to advocate for racial equity by informing the administration of instances of explicit or implicit biases or barriers for underrepresented groups.

“We have a contract that spells out the expectations associated with the relationship between graduate students and their supervisors and graduate students and student workers in the administration. And part of what we hope to do is use that contract as a sort of a vehicle for education, where professors can look to that if they have questions or concerns,” Solomon said.

GAGE also played a role in ensuring that student workers had a voice during the COVID-19 pandemic. Organizing efforts became slightly more challenging in a fully virtual environment, but the impact of the pandemic also underlined the importance of workers’ advocacy for their own rights.

A student worker union should also benefit Georgetown as a whole.

“The working conditions of people who are doing the teaching are foundational to the pedagogy,” Solomon said. “We are only effective teachers if we feel like our material needs are taken care of, and so the more that faculty can do to provide support to graduate student  assistants who may be struggling for a variety of different reasons, the more effective we’ll be at the task of education that we all share in common.”