Graduate student workers rallied in support of unionizing at a rally on Syracuse University's campus on Tuesday, Jan. 17. Photo by Eddie Velazquez.

Support for a graduate student union at Syracuse University continues to grow. 

Members of the university’s Graduate Student Organization, a legislative body representing grad students across SU’s multiple academic programs, voted Wednesday to recognize and support the unionization efforts launched by the Syracuse Graduate Employees United group earlier this month. 

In the resolution, student representatives note “we know the limits of current advocacy channels; the only way to secure transformative change… is for graduate student workers to unionize and fight for a strong contract.”

A copy of that resolution will be distributed by GSO officers and representatives to SU’s chancellor, provost, and the dean of the graduate school. GSO representatives voted 49-2 in favor of the resolution, with 21 others absent and two abstaining.

The desire among grad students to collectively bargain with the Syracuse University administration to gain higher wages and better benefits has grown in the last few years, SGEU representatives said. The group came together with the Service Employees International Union Local 200 to gather support for a bargaining unit that would cover around 1,200 graduate student assistants at SU.

“Issues like not being able to pay rent, going into debt to pay medical bills, and having to go to food pantries are only a few examples of the struggles that many graduate workers deal with on a daily basis,” said Carlos Ramirez Arenas, a doctoral student from Colombia. “We need a recognized union of graduate student employees to back up the advocacy that we have been doing through the GSO for all these years and we are well on our way to forming one.”

The passage of the resolution is the latest indicator that Syracuse faculty and students are embracing the union effort.

“This resolution means that students will be one step closer to having their voices heard indubitably,” said Alex Scrivner, a GSO senator and one of the authors of the resolution. “I joined this union campaign because I understood that it could benefit all of us collectively, and watching it grow as it has is a continued indicator of that feeling.” 

Other grad student organizations have also pledged their support for the students to collectively bargain.

Earlier this month, the Black Graduate Student Association penned a letter in The Daily Orange advocating for the union, noting that graduate employees in the African American Studies department found themselves near the bottom of the payscale. They make about $17,500 per year without summer funding, according to the letter. 

The minimum yearly stipend for graduate assistants in either a master’s or doctoral program at SU is $16,980. Student stipends are typically meant to cover 20 hours of work per week for nine months. The floor for the minimum stipends is set to increase in the fall.

Undergraduate students have also lent their support to SGEU.

“We understand our position as undergraduates on campus as technically the consumer; the ones who pay tuition, and the ones who receive the service of graduate students,” said Alana Coffman, a member of the Undergraduate Labor Organization. The organization formed last fall with the mission to strengthen labor action on campus.

Coffman, a third-year international relations student, said there is a direct relationship between improved working conditions and the educational experience at SU.

“I understand how important graduate workers have been to my own education and I think all of us do,” she said. “Both because we want to see our fellow students supported in ways they deserve and because any improvement for them translates directly into an improvement of our own education and experience. We stand behind them 100%.”

As organizers continue to navigate their union campaign, faculty and students alike are calling for Syracuse University to take a stance of neutrality. 

In a labor law context, this means an employer commits to refrain from taking a position for or against a union during the organizing campaign.

Scrivner said there is a statement from faculty that calls for administrators to take such a position. She added that 254 faculty members have signed the statement so far.

The Student Association, a governing body representing undergraduate students, introduced a bill last week asking SU to adopt a neutrality stance as well.

University officials have not yet announced whether they plan to contest the union effort or remain neutral.

For the union to move ahead, at least 30% of workers must sign cards or a petition saying they want to form a union, according to guidelines from the National Labor Relations Board. The university could then choose to voluntarily recognize the union. If it does not, the NLRB can set up an election for workers. 

“The university respects the important role of labor unions in our workplace,” Vice Chancellor Gretchen Ritter said in an email Thursday. “We have a collaborative relationship with the four unions that represent approximately 1,400 university employees.”

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Follow Eddie Velazquez @ezvelazquez.


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