Dartmouth graduate student union stages walkout as bargaining talks falter

By FRANCES MIZE

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 03-27-2024 6:56 PM

HANOVER — In February, unionized graduate student-workers at Dartmouth decided that if they continued to feel that the college was stalling on contract negotiations, they’d walk off the job.

They weren’t bluffing.

On Wednesday at noon, more than 150 graduate workers gathered on a shoveled-out parcel of the snowy college green — leaving behind labs and classrooms — to gather in protest of what they characterize as slow-going bargaining. Negotiations between the college and the Graduate Organized Laborers at Dartmouth, or GOLD-UE, that began in August have yet to result in a finalized contract.

Graduate students are given a financial stipend by Dartmouth to do research and help teach classes while working toward their degrees. They’re all paid roughly $40,000 a year — up from around $35,000 after a walkout in 2022 — and apply for coverage under the Dartmouth student health care plan.

But benefits, they say, are insufficient to cover their costs, especially as rents continue to soar. In Grafton County, the price of a two-bedroom apartment has increased by 83% over the last five years, according to 2023 data from the New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority. It’s now the most expensive county for renters in the state.

While the Dartmouth College Child Care Center offers subsidized tuition fees, graduate students aren’t allowed to send their children there, said Lia Michaels, a single mother and a doctoral student in the Molecular and Cellular Biology Department. To enroll her 1-year-old daughter elsewhere, Michaels was left “scrambling to find child care that I can afford,” she said at the rally.

Michaels spends more than $2,000 on child care a month, eating up around two-thirds of her monthly stipend from the college.

The college’s child care center is reserved for “anyone who is employed by Dartmouth College (or is considering a position) and is eligible for Dartmouth employee benefits,” according to its website.

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In July 2022, the union, made up of more than 800 graduate teachers and researchers, voted to affiliate with the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, which has organized 25,000 graduate workers across the United States. Dartmouth has since been among the Ivy League schools that are home to graduate student unions, including Harvard, Columbia and Yale.

Dartmouth contends it has been “actively engaged” in negotiations with GOLD-UE since January, and continues to “bargain in good faith,” Jana Barnello, a college spokesperson, wrote in an email.

“We have successfully reached tentative agreements on several non-economic items and are presently in discussions regarding the union’s economic demands. Dartmouth has also responded to many of (the union’s) economic proposals and looks forward to discussing those that remain, including compensation,” Barnello wrote.

It’s common for initial contract negotiations to take upward of 18 months, she added: “We acknowledge their concerns and value their perspectives. Dartmouth is committed to working with GOLD-UE to reach a mutually beneficial agreement and is appreciative of the efforts of the GOLD-UE bargaining committee.”

The union has been bargaining for its first contract since last August, fighting to secure $55,000 stipends — a $15,000 bump — cost of living adjustments and better benefits. The graduate workers are offered limited vision insurance, and don’t receive dental insurance, dependent health care or a retirement plan.

As the union and the college negotiate a contract article by article, the union alleges Dartmouth had initially said they would return with counter offers on “economic proposals” by March 7. That hasn’t happened, and the college canceled another bargaining meeting that was scheduled for last week.

“They said their administration was unable to come to a decision on how to respond to our economic proposals,” said Rendi Rogers of the delays. Rogers is one of the union organizers, and a doctoral student at the Geisel School of Medicine. “It’s all been pretty frustrating,” she said.

The union is still expecting the college to come back with economic counters at their next bargaining meeting, scheduled for this Friday. “But we haven’t heard confirmation that they’ll show up with those counters,” Rogers said.

If all else fails, GOLD-UE can leverage other tools of persuasion. The union had willing members sign a strike pledge at the rally, and will be talking about the possibility of a strike vote at a general body meeting on April 1, Rogers said.

Manish Mohapatra is working toward his doctorate in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences.

“We’re out here today because we’re mad,” he said.

Mohapatra, from the Indian state of Odisha, noted grievances specific to international students — who make up around 40% of graduate students at Dartmouth — such as lack of support in obtaining driver’s licenses and the fact that college doesn’t cover the cost of obtaining a visa, which can cost upwards of $500.

“Dartmouth is doing the bare minimum,” Mohapatra said.

The walkout comes a little more than a week after Dartmouth said it would not engage in collective bargaining negotiations with the college’s men’s basketball team after their high-profile and historic vote to unionize earlier this month.