Clark Graduate Students Intend to Unionize

Everett Beals, News Editor

Patrick Geiger, PhD Candidate and union organizer, addresses a crowd of students at a union rally. Everett Beals ’24 for The Scarlet

Seeking higher pay and better working conditions, more than a hundred graduate student workers at Clark University have announced their intention to form a union. 

Clark University Graduate Workers United (CUGWU), represents a cohort of some 147 graduate workers in Clark’s major graduate programs. 

Organizers recently associated themselves with Teamsters Local 170, a major union in Worcester. This branch of the Teamsters – an international labor union serving a wide variety of professions – represents some 4,500 workers from over 130 associations, according to their website.

In a February 9 letter submitted to University President David Fithian, CUGWU representatives announced that a supermajority of their colleagues had approved of unionization. Graduate students signed union authorization cards – physical paper documents that demonstrate that they favor unionization. CUGWU and the Teamsters would represent the interests of graduate workers in bargaining with their employer, Clark.  

William Westgard-Cruice, a 3rd year PhD candidate and teaching assistant in the School of Geography, explained in an interview with The Scarlet that CUGWU was petitioning to represent a bargaining unit of 147 graduate student workers in Clark’s Graduate Arts and Sciences and International Development, Community, and Environment (IDCE) programs. That includes teaching assistants, research assistants, and graduate students who instruct their own courses. Of that number, Westgard-Cruice said, 109 have signed authorization cards. That’s “about 74 per cent who have signed,” said Westgard-Cruice, a clear demonstration of CUGWU’s supermajority. 



According to CUGWU, more than sixty people attended a rally in support of unionization at the front gates of the university on Wednesday, February 16. A few dozen students – many of whom were undergraduates – as well as a Worcester City Councilor, and members of three different Teamsters units were in the crowd.

Patrick Geiger, a PhD student and research assistant, thanked his colleagues for their work, and expressed his gratitude to the Teamsters and students in attendance. 

Geiger, Westgard-Cruice and Jules Dowling, a 5th year graduate student and teaching assistant, spoke to the Scarlet on February 11. They explained the union’s priorities in the interview.

The rally was organized to demand that Clark administration voluntarily recognize the union. The graduate workers are seeking voluntary recognition first because it is the most straightforward option, they said. The move would “involve Clark agreeing to a process of ‘card check’,” Geiger said, wherein the signed authorization cards would be submitted to a third party to be verified. Given that a supermajority of graduate workers has already approved the union, the card check process would lead to immediate bargaining between the union and Clark.

“The reason we want voluntary recognition is that the workers have already spoken,” Geiger said. Because a supermajority had already signed their cards, holding an NLRB election “would simply be a delaying tactic at this point,” he said.

Unionization isn’t new in American academia – it’s already the norm at many public universities, which are governed by the labor laws of their respective states. Private universities, however, fall under the jurisdiction of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), an independent federal agency charged with protecting the rights of workers. Included within that mission is the job of protecting workers’ right to organize. The extension of that right to graduate workers has long been contested by universities. It was most recently granted, however, in a 2016 NLRB decision which affirmed a bid for graduate worker unionization at Columbia University, where students had affiliated with United Auto Workers. 

If Clark should refuse to voluntarily recognize the union, CUGWU “are prepared to file for a union election with the National Labor Relations Board”, according to the February 9 letter. 

Geiger explained that this “would be the non-voluntary process,” where a petition would be made to the NLRB so that an election could be conducted wherein all graduate workers would simply vote yes or no, instead of presenting authorization cards.

When they do get to the table, Geiger said, fighting for higher stipends will be a top priority. Geiger cited “rising housing costs,” and “inflation in general in Worcester,” as major influences which have made it harder to live in the city on a graduate worker’s pay. Many of CUGWU’s additional priorities, Geiger clarified, will be democratically decided on by its members when they enter collective bargaining with the university.

William Westgard-Cruice added that the process of gathering support had involved comparing stipends for graduate workers between departments. 

Master’s candidate Jules Dowling explained that most graduate students had heard about forming a union through “word-of-mouth.”

“I don’t remember who came up to me first, but I was asked if I worked [at Clark]”, Dowling said. “I was informed that my vote and my position are relevant” to the organizing effort, Dowling recalled, and has been working with CUGWU ever since. As a TA, Dowling has noticed discrepancies in pay between graduate students that a union might be able to change.

Westgard-Cruice argued that there are “objective measures” which show that graduate workers at Clark are underpaid for their labor. He referenced Dr. Amy Glasmeier’s Living Wage Calculator, developed at MIT, as one standard CUGWU has considered. Using that program, Westgard-Cruice said, shows that the average Clark graduate worker earns “depending on the department, sometimes about half” of the living wage in Worcester. 

“The living wage is not bare subsistence,” he clarified. It measures what is needed to “live a reasonably-fulfilled life,” which Westgard-Cruice argued was “pretty important” for “workers who are expected to advance science and humanistic inquiry.” 

CUGWU organizers are also fighting for improved health insurance coverage, Geiger said, along with stipends for childcare. In addition, he said, CUGWU is seeking “very robust grievance policies” that can “supplement the university’s Title IX Office.” This would help ensure that “graduate workers are protected from harassment… to the highest degree possible,” Geiger said.

“We think that at the end of the day, the more successful we are, the better institution that Clark will be,” Geiger said. A unionized graduate workforce will make Clark more attractive to a greater number of graduate students, he said, as a route by which Clark might better follow its goals of being an equitable and inclusive institution. 

“We want to be supporting graduate students from communities who have traditionally been excluded from academia,” Geiger said. “And we can’t do that if we don’t pay people a living wage”.

Attendants at the Wednesday rally expressed support for CUGWU’s goals. Etel Haxhiaj, Worcester District 5 Councilor and Clark graduate (’04, M.A. ’08) made an appearance, and spoke with graduate students leading the rally. She later wrote on Twitter that she was “happy to stand with [CUGWU] in solidarity,” and urged students to “keep on going!”

Teamsters showed up in force at Clark, parking two 18-wheeler trucks decorated with union information on Main Street in front of the Geography Building and the Higgins University Center. Local 170 brought one of the trucks, along with at least ten union members to the rally. Members of Local 25, of Boston, came with their own signs. One of the men from Boston told The Scarlet that he’s a fourth generation Teamster, and was proud to help how he could. 

Two representatives from Teamsters Joint Council 10 – which oversees all Teamster operations in New England – attended the rally. The pair expressed their confidence to graduate workers that their efforts at Clark would succeed. 



Clark has not issued any public statements regarding the unionization of its graduate workers.

CUGWU representatives said they received only one communication from the administration. Westgard-Cruice characterized it as a simple statement from President Fithian’s office, “basically saying, we have received your letter,” and nothing more.

“We have not been invited to a conversation with anyone in the leadership team,” Westgard-Cruice said.  

Administration sent an email on February 10 to faculty members that was obtained by CUGWU organizers and The Scarlet from faculty. The email was sent internally from the office of Sebastián Royo, University Provost.

Royo wrote that Clark administration plans “to engage with faculty across the University to determine how to best respond,” starting by “work[ing] with the Chair of the Faculty to develop a plan for opportunities to engage in this important discussion.”

Royo notes explicitly that “the University is not currently taking a position on the matter, including taking a neutral stance.” 

CUGWU organizers expressed frustration with Clark administration. Patrick Geiger made clear that he and his colleagues are “still a bit hesitant to judge the university’s response”. However, Geiger said, “from our perspective, it’s very clear that a neutral response would be to voluntarily recognize our union.” 

“Fundamentally, labor law in the United States clearly states that it is workers who democratically get to decide whether or not they will form a union,” Geiger said. 

In their February 9 letter to President Fithian, CUGWU’s organizing committee asked that the university “not waste time and resources by obstructing, delaying, or otherwise interfering” with their work to exercise their “democratic rights.” 

In the interview with the Scarlet, Westgard-Cruice elaborated, saying: “stalling is a union-busting tactic. Let that be unambiguously stated.” Westgard-Cruice offered concern that Clark might stall in order to buy “space and time to cultivate uncertainty” about the solidity of the Union’s plans. 

CUGWU organizers confirm that a faculty town hall was eventually held on Friday, February 18. Union representatives report having heard that most faculty who spoke at the meeting were supportive of CUGWU’s efforts. 

Still, Geiger found Royo’s email “somewhat worrying,” in the sense that it indicated to him that Clark administration are presently “more willing to dialogue with some workers, but not with the workers who are actually trying to unionize.” 

In private conversations, CUGWU organizers have found muted support from Clark’s faculty. Many, Westgard-Cruice said, were “very supportive” of the initial healthcare campaign that CUGWU evolved from. 

That initial effort began in December of 2020, when a group of PhD students organized under the banner of a group called Clark Grads Demand Healthcare. Westgard-Cruice explained that Clark had raised health insurance premiums for graduate students without increasing their stipends to match the higher costs, right as the pandemic was beginning.

“Basically, we were getting the opposite of a raise,” Westgard-Cruice said. By March of 2021, one hundred doctoral students at Clark had signed a petition submitted to President Fithian, demanding that the hikes on health insurance premiums be reversed. Patrick Geiger said that the university “provided a fifty per cent subsidy” to their insurance premiums for the last year. Geiger noted that concern over whether that subsidy would continue was a spark which led to the creation of Graduate Workers United at Clark.

Over the summer of 2021, Geiger said, many graduate students that had been working on Clark Grads Demand Healthcare felt their success showed that more could be accomplished. “We decided that the best way to concretize and expand on our gains [was] unionization,” Geiger said.

Most faculty, they say, were impressed with the healthcare campaign. Because of this, according to Westgard-Cruice, CUGWU might receive continued support “because the faculty realize that if they want to attract the most qualified graduate student researchers and teaching assistants,” then they have to “offer conditions of employment that are competitive with similar programs across the country,” and around the world. In other countries – such as the Netherlands, where Westgard-Cruice completed his first two degrees – academic unions are more firmly in place. Since many faculty work internationally, they have expressed to CUGWU representatives that they “see the democratizing effect that a union can have on placing checks on some of the arbitrary bureaucracy of universities,” Westgard-Cruice said.



The demands issued by CUGWU are unprecedented in the modern history of Clark University. Graduate student workers have gathered support for better wages and working conditions as high priorities in collective bargaining. Getting there, they say, is all about making Clark a better place to work and learn.  

Westgard-Cruice emphasized the importance of graduate workers on campus as educators. “Teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions,” he said, adding that ultimately, graduate workers “are doing a lot of the work in helping students develop their writing skills, their research skills, and their technical skills in the laboratory.” 

“If we have better working conditions,” Westgard-Cruice said, “it’s ultimately [undergraduate] education that will be improved”.

Jules Dowling, who completed her bachelor’s degree at Clark, hoped that the union’s advocacy could help undergraduates realize that “it’s okay to expect more, and stand behind your qualifications”.  

CUGWU has continued their public activism on social media and has been regularly organizing in-person while they await the university’s response, which some fear might not come soon. 

As of February 26, Clark had not agreed to voluntarily recognize the Union, but it had also not embarked on a campaign of anti-union messaging as some CUGWU members had feared. Clark students expressed concern that university administration might move to do so, given that currently-unionizing graduate workers at MIT have been getting aggressive responses from their administration. Still, Geiger says: “we are ready to bargain”.