Union Claims Victory, Ending Five-Day Strike


Clark students gather at the front gates to protest graduate student exploitation in five-day strike.

Everett Beals, News Editor

Graduate student workers unanimously ratified an agreement with Clark University on Wednesday, Oct. 12, capping off what had been a months-long labor dispute over wages, benefits, and working conditions. 

Though the precise details of the final deal have not yet been made public, the union said they secured “up to 90% wage increases and deep subsidies for health insurance” for graduate workers.

In a campus-wide email sent the following day, Provost Sebastián Royo explained that the new contract would go into effect immediately. The agreement comes after a five-day strike that began on the morning of Monday, Oct. 3, lasting until Friday afternoon, when a tentative agreement was announced by both parties. 

In a statement, the union stated that they began the strike as part of their demands for “a living wage, affordable healthcare, and better working conditions for its members.” 

Participants in the strike were members of Clark University Graduate Workers United (CUGWU), a labor union formed in March of this year. Among their ranks are teaching assistants (TAs), research assistants (RAs) and other graduate workers. They are represented by Teamsters Local 170, a regional labor union with some 4,500 members.  

At 10:30 a.m. on Monday, graduate workers gathered at the front gates of the university, on Main Street. Just over an hour earlier, they had informed their faculty members and students by email of their intention to strike. Outside, they were joined by undergraduate students – many of whom had walked out of their classes – and other Teamsters, forming a crowd of hundreds. Following a round of speeches from CUGWU representatives, picketing began. 

In September, CUGWU took a strike authorization vote. It passed with 97 percent of members voting in favor, granting the union the ability to call a strike at any time. On Monday, they did just that. 

The primary sticking point in negotiations had been wages and benefits. Prior to authorizing a strike, the union’s Bargaining Committee had met with university representatives at least seven times. It was only at that seventh meeting, they say, that the university made an “economic counter-proposal” to what had been “a nearly complete draft contract offer provided by the union” from the beginning of the talks.  

CUGWU called that counter-offer “unserious,” in a statement published in September. They suggested that Clark’s representatives had not been negotiating in good faith. Organizers determined that a strike would be necessary after another meeting the following week, in which university representatives claimed there was no room to negotiate on an economic package.  


On Monday, strikers quickly mobilized to form picket lines across campus. The first, and largest, was on Main Street, where Teamsters had established a strong visual presence by parking two of their tractor-trailer trucks in front of the Alumni and Student Engagement Center. Organizers and laborers from Local 170 – including a cohort from UPS – came to walk the line. 

Another line formed at the delivery bay to the Higgins University Center, on Maywood Street. Picketers blocked deliveries and interrupted the flow of mail. Unionized package carriers like UPS did not attempt to make deliveries at all during the strike, picketers told The Scarlet. 

Over the five days, however, the primary flashpoint on campus was Woodland Street, where picketers blocked the entrances to two construction sites opposite each other. 

Three separate lines formed at different access points to the site for the new Center for Media Arts, Computing, and Design. The building is the intended home for the Becker School of Design & Technology. The site is managed by Shawmut Design and Construction, of Boston, who are working on a tight and laborious schedule to complete the facility by the university’s intended deadline of Fall 2023. A ground-breaking ceremony was held in late April of this year.  

CUGWU picket lines proved highly disruptive to construction activities, where almost all of the laborers were themselves union members. Teamsters on the ground explained that most unions have organizational rules obligating them not to cross picket lines, no matter the circumstances. 

On Tuesday, picketers arrived at Woodland Street early – before 6 a.m. – to meet workers as they arrived. Within a few hours, the entire work crew had walked off the job in solidarity, preventing an important concrete pour from being completed, Teamsters said. CUGWU picketers returned to the site early every morning, stalling construction for a total of four days. 

Across the street, another group of picketers formed to block the street entrance to the Goddard Library, where a team from Consigli Construction are conducting repair work. The only union part of their crew were the crane operators, who CUGWU successfully turned away on multiple occasions. On Friday morning, those workers were replaced with a non-union crew from H.A. Leo Crane Service, LLC, who Worcester police allowed through the picket line.    

While the construction site and delivery picket lines were only manned during working hours, CUGWU workers maintained a 24/7 presence at the main gates of the university. Undergraduate students came out in waves during the day to support the strike. 

Dahlia Mella-Goris, a junior, said that they “support union workers” because they come from a “union family.” Surrounded by a large crowd at the main gates, Mella-Goris said that they hoped “the university is finally listening to students.” 


Communications to the undergraduate student body from administration were sparse. During the strike, information about the university’s stance on negotiations came almost solely from CUGWU, and messages obtained from members of the faculty.

The first known message was sent on Monday night. Signed by Provost Royo, it offered some context to faculty and included an attached Word Document that detailed the guidelines for faculty during the strike. 

Royo insinuated that the union chose “to initiate a strike rather than focus on reaching agreement on a contract,” and that their “representatives will have to return to the negotiating table” for there to be a “mutually acceptable” conclusion. 

There is little evidence to support his claim that the union walked away from the deal, however. 

The email showed that the university had already proposed a “100% health insurance subsidy to doctoral students… as well as the provision of sick days” and other benefits. 

A second email from Royo was sent to families of students on Tuesday night, calling the strike “a regrettable development.” The message claimed that “a tentative agreement has been reached” under the categories of management and union rights, appointments and work assignments, and discipline and grievance processes. It was only the “economic package,” which covered compensation and benefits, that was proving contentious. 

Picketers frequently cited pay as the paramount issue. “I think it’s ridiculous that graduate student workers aren’t getting paid what they’re worth,” one undergraduate on the Woodland Street picket line told The Scarlet. 

“I believe it’s a human right to have a living wage,” said Nicholas Brunelle, a sophomore. Failing to provide that standard is “sheerly inhumane,” he said. Brunelle, who had been on the line for four hours already that day, explained that he intended to spend as much time as possible supporting the strike.

CUGWU later confirmed Royo’s framing to accurately be the status of negotiations, though they suggested that there was more to the conflict than pay alone.  

On the morning of Wednesday, Oct. 5, negotiators from the university and the union met for three hours. An update from the university was issued around 2 p.m., and was forwarded to undergraduates by Dean of Students Kamala Kiem. This was the first official communication that undergraduates had received from the university, now two days into a strike. 

The update, again issued by Royo, explained that the primary focus of the day’s negotiations had been “the terms of the economic package.” He explained that the university had offered specific terms to CUGWU, including “an across-the-board $28,267 stipend… for all doctoral students who teach and are represented by the union.” This would have been a “21% increase… over the current average stipend,” he said. Clark’s negotiators also put forward an hourly rate of $18.12 for “work conducted by unionized master’s students,” and reiterated their support for a “100% health insurance subsidy” for doctoral students. 

Royo closed the email by suggesting that “picketers [had] illegally blocked access to University construction sites,” prompting Clark to propose that a “neutral federal mediator be brought in to facilitate a resolution.”

The union bargaining committee declined the offers for both an economic agreement and a mediator. In a statement published that evening, CUGWU explained that the meeting had not been as amicable as Royo claimed.  

CUGWU called Royo’s statement “misinformation,” and clarified that construction work had stopped because union workers had chosen not to cross the picket line, not because they had been pressured to do so. “If the university does not wish to be disrupted,” the statement continued, “they know what they have to do.” They also noted that the provost had not “attended a single bargaining meeting” himself.

The union clarified to their membership that they turned down Clark’s offer because “there was more money on the table,” and that it left “many gaps.” In particular, union bargainers were disappointed by the initial implementation date of Jan. 1, 2023, and that an unnamed department had been left out of consideration for stipend increases. CUGWU called this “completely unacceptable,” promising not to agree to a contract that “does not benefit us all.”

The meeting was further soured by the conduct of university negotiators, which the union called “disrespectful.” After the counter-proposal was made, CUGWU said, Clark’s bargainers “left the room and ended the meeting early” without informing them. Union representatives “waited in the room for two hours… only to find they had left for the day.”  

Royo claimed that just as they had “in all previous negotiating sessions,” Clark’s bargainers “came to the table… in good faith and with the intention of moving forward toward resolution of a contract.” 


As the strike progressed, statements of support came from across the nation. Particularly on social media, where a number of supporters who identified themselves as a “proud alums” called on the university to make a fair deal with CUGWU.

Unions at other institutions, including Brown, BU, Fordham, Indiana U. and WPI, vocalized their support for graduate workers at Clark. The national Teamsters social media regularly reposted from CUGWU. Local politicians joined in, too, including some Worcester City Councilors and a state representative. And on Friday, U.S. Senator Ed Markey said on Twitter that he urged “leaders of Clark University to come back to the table and negotiate and good faith with its graduate students.” 

On campus, open dialogue was growing among the faculty and the students about the strike. On Thursday, a number of faculty hosted a teach-in focused on “exploring context and solidarity with the Graduate Student Strike.” Some professors brought their classes outside to Red Square, where students were invited to discuss their thoughts on labor and the strike. 

“Many of the faculty have been consistent allies,” CUGWU later said on Twitter. “They kept us apprised of how the Administration miscommunicated about our efforts,” they said. 

Negotiations resumed Friday morning, and concluded in the early afternoon, when the provost sent his first email to the entire student body, announcing the tentative agreement. “President Fithian and I are thrilled… that we have reached a tentative agreement,” he said.

By 1:30 p.m., there was quiet jubilation at the main gates of the university. Though the contract still had to be ratified – with the date fixed for Wednesday, Oct. 12 – there was confidence among the graduate workers, who had already begun breaking down the picket lines. 

Liam Cleary, a striking first-year biology student in the PhD program, told The Scarlet that afternoon that he was “feeling really good” about the deal, but that the “feeling comes with a little concern.” He said that it was important “to keep the pressure strong on administration,” because union members didn’t “want them to feel that they can reverse [the] contract.” 

On Wednesday, however – after CUGWU unanimously approved of the contract – there was apparent confidence among both workers and the university. 

“The proof of all these efforts is in the contract itself,” CUGWU said on Twitter. 

In a final email, the provost promised to “ensure that the contract is fully and effectively implemented,” because the terms of the deal “represent a substantial change for the University.” These will require training on “new processes and procedures” for supervisors, he said. 

With its immediate implementation, the impacts of the deal – the result of unprecedented events in Clark history – are certain to be felt soon campus-wide as union members return to work.