Grad Students Want Unions to Seek Harassment Protections

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By Jaclyn Diaz

Graduate student workers want union representation on campus, and not just for fair wages and health care, according to advocates. The workers are looking for protections against sexual harassment and assault, as well. And unions are the right place to turn, labor representatives told Bloomberg BNA in recent interviews.

Sexual harassment involving graduate students is widespread on college campuses across the country, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said.

Graduate students say they contend with harassment and assault by fellow students and faculty members, according to the Association of American Universities’ 2015 Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct .

The study included responses from 150,000 students at 27 institutions.

Eighty-two percent of female and 86 percent of male graduate students who responded to the survey said they experienced some form of sexual harassment on campus. Nearly 12 percent of respondents said they experienced “nonconsensual sexual contact by physical force, threats of physical force, or incapacitation.” But university administrators are slow to act on charges, union representatives said.

Through collective bargaining, unions can negotiate contract provisions covering sexual harassment or other forms of discrimination, attorney William A. Herbert told Bloomberg BNA. And they can enforce the provisions through the grievance-arbitration process with universities, he said. Herbert is the director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education at Hunter College of the City University of New York.

Organizer Says Unions Can Press Schools to Act

Unions can push universities to investigate sexual harassment or assault claims faster, Rose Agger, a Ph.D. student at Cornell University and a union organizer, told Bloomberg BNA. Cornell University graduate students have been working since August to organize with an affiliate of the AFT.

Agger said she was sexually harassed by a classmate at the start of her graduate program and reported the case to Cornell. It took more than a year for the university to investigate, she said.

Cornell University didn’t respond to Bloomberg BNA’s requests for comment.

“In any instance of sexual harassment or abuse, the union would force the university to be responsible,” Agger said.

Student-on-Student Harassment More Common

At Cornell, the process for reporting harassment begins with an online form on the university’s website. Either the corresponding departments contact the student or the student can reach out to administrators.

As with Agger’s case, more harassment charges involve a student offender than a faculty member, according to the AAU survey. But nearly 22 percent of female graduate students alleging harassment said a faculty member was involved. AAU released the survey results in September 2015 and plans to release a follow-up study later this spring.

Unions can offer protections for students who are accused of misconduct, too, Joshua A. Engel with Engel & Martin LLC in Cincinnati told Bloomberg BNA Feb. 3. Engel, a civil rights attorney, is involved in a case at the University of Cincinnati where a student was accused of assault and suspended by the school. In that case, the student was smart enough to call a lawyer, but many students don’t know their legal rights, he said.

“A union could provide education on legal rights” and legal insurance for students who can’t afford a lawyer on their own, Engel said.

Unions also serve as student support systems, the AFT’s Weingarten told Bloomberg BNA.

“The graduate students play an important role at the university both as university employees and as peers on campus,” she said. The AFT represents more than 25,000 graduate students across the nation.

Universities Reluctant

Negotiating with the university to address harassment is still a battle for Michigan State University’s Graduate Employees Union Local 6196, Sara Bijani, a union representative, told Bloomberg BNA.

“The administration has been resistant to meet with the union. When administration and union officials do meet, the union is told that a case involving a student’s claims of sexual harassment is an academic matter and out of the union’s jurisdiction because it isn’t an employment matter,” Bijani said.

Bijani is the vice president of contract negotiations and enforcement. Local 6196 is an AFT affiliate.

During contract negotiations in 2015, the union pushed for stronger policy language on sexual harassment and assault, but the university refused to bargain over the language, Bijani said.

“We were at the point where we had to make a choice between health care and stronger harassment language,” she said. “We chose health care.”

The University of Connecticut’s Graduate Employee Union, a United Auto Workers affiliate, has exemplary contractual language on preventing discrimination and harassment, Bijani said. That contract states that neither the university nor the union shall discriminate against graduate assistants based on union membership or on race, religion, age, sexual orientation, genetic information or gender identity, among many other categories.

The university will assist “transgender and gender variant members of the campus community” with navigating school policies during a gender transition, the contract states. The school will make efforts to accommodate graduate assistant requests for an all-gender restroom within the reasonable distance of the employee’s workplace.

The Michigan State University contract simply states, “The employer and the union shall adhere to the anti-discrimination policies adopted by the Board of Trustees and to applicable federal, state, and local anti-discrimination laws and regulations.”

Using Union Language Called ‘Unfair.’

The university takes sexual assault claims seriously, Jason Cody, a Michigan State spokesman, told Bloomberg BNA. But having a union-specific policy covering sexual harassment would be unfair to the rest of the school’s faculty and students, he said.

“It wouldn’t be fair to use different language for different groups. We need to protect all students and staff. If we had different language for different groups there would be different outcomes which would end up being problematic,” Cody said.

The school, like other universities, includes in its contracts federally mandated regulations addressing sexual harassment, Cody said. Those regulations go through comprehensive revisions regularly, he said.

The regulations stem from Title IX of the 1964 Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits sex discrimination in any federally funded education program or activity.

The federal government sets a baseline but doesn’t forbid making any regulations stronger, Engel said. Cody’s reasoning is just an excuse, he said.

“There is nothing the federal government says that states a school can’t include additional due process protections for the students,” Engel said.

Everybody Can Benefit

While Local 6196 has failed in getting the desired language into its contract, Bijani said the union supports its members in other ways. It formed the Member Defense Committee, which supports members involved in workplace discrimination cases on the Michigan campus.

“Our goal is not short term. We want things better for the future,” Bijani said. The union will bargain again in two years.

Engel advises students and unions involved in these cases to remember that administrators will take advantage of someone who doesn’t have full protections. That’s where a union’s legal education could be of use for all parties involved, he said.

“The process always works best when everyone knows all of their rights,” he said.

Bloomberg BNA graphic by Jasmine Ye Han.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jaclyn Diaz in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at; Terence Hyland at; Christopher Opfer at

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