Here are some common questions about TRU. Please get in touch with us if you want to know more!
What is TRU?
Teachers and Researchers United (TRU) is a movement of graduate workers (teaching assistants and research assistants) at Johns Hopkins University, organizing to win improvements in our working conditions and to establish a democratic union body that will act as a powerful voice for all graduate workers. TRU is all of us. By bringing together graduate student workers across the university, from the Krieger School of Arts & Sciences to the Bloomberg School of Public Health, and from the Whiting School of Engineering to the School of Education, we have begun building a representative graduate workers’ organization that will take up the wide range of concerns that affect us all. Since the conditions across all of the university’s divisions and departments are unique, we are committed to working to win improvements that benefit all graduates. We believe it is only through collective, democratic, and participatory action that we can achieve our common goals.
In the fall of 2015, we launched TRU to fight for improvements to graduate students’ health care and for a parental leave policy. Since then we have come a long way. For more information, check out our History page!
If you are receiving a paycheck from JHU in exchange for work related to research assistantships or teaching assistantships, you’re a worker and therefore eligible to be part of TRU. Most broadly, this includes anyone who is currently working as a graduate student in one of the divisions of JHU (including KSAS, Whiting, Bloomberg, School of Medicne and School of Ed). Master's students are welcome to join. We are always bringing on new members to ensure that TRU is advocating for issues that matter most to us, and in ways we collectively decide. As the movement grows, we hope to attain a sizeable majority of graduate workers, in order to make our concerns heard and -- more importantly -- acted upon by the university.
Definitely. Visa requirements in no way compromise your right to join a graduate advocacy group for your U.S. workplace. As international workers enjoy the same legal rights to participate in organizing efforts as U.S. workers, they have participated in organizing graduate unions across the U.S in great numbers, including within TRU already. As is always the case with TRU, we are comprised of the graduate workers of Hopkins: we want to hear your concerns and ideas, in order better to represent and stand in solidarity with you, and you with us. However, we acknowledge that International Grads face additional vulnerabilities and challenges that may affect if or how you would like to get involved. For more information, please see our page for international grad workers.
We are currently gathering information on working conditions and building support across the university by asking people to meet with an organizer and sign a union card. We are working towards an independently arbitrated election in which the graduate student body will vote on whether or not to have an officially recognized union of their peers that will negotiate a contract with the university. We believe that many issues individual graduate students face at the university can best be solved through collective improvements negotiated and solidified through a contract with the university.
All the gains that we have made are contingent on the university honoring this progress. It is always possible for the university to take away these gains unless we cement them in a legally binding contract. Moreover, a contract clarifies our expectations and responsibilities at this university. It can set limits on the amount of hours your adviser can ask you to work in the lab every week, or prevent a professor from asking you to give multiple lectures in their course. The contract itself will reflect the specific needs of the graduate students at this university! What is in the contract is determined in a negotiation between the university and graduate students elected from the larger graduate student body.
Graduate Advocacy: National Context
As a graduate student, you are working. The activities you do that enable the university to function, the research assistantship you fill and contributions you make to your field, the meetings you go to and the training you go through: these make Hopkins your workplace, and you an employee. Teaching in particular is work that many of us do, replacing responsibilities that otherwise have to be done by faculty or post-docs. In these and lots of other services we provide to JHU, we are workers.This is not only true in practice, but also in legal precedent, meaning that grad students have the same workplace rights as anyone else.
Decisions about who does and does not legally count as an employee are made by the National Labor Relations Board, or NLRB. In August 2016, the NLRB recognized grad workers at private colleges and universities as employees. Grad workers at public universities have had this legal status for many years. Since the decision, there has been a flurry of grad organizing across the country, winning improvements to grad healthcare, stipends, workplace protections, and so on. The Trump administration’s new appointees to the NLRB may attack our workplace rights, but grad workers have already seen how much they can accomplish when they stand together.
As presidential administrations have changed, the NLRB has gone back and forth for many years on the question of whether or not graduate students in private universities are workers. However, for many decades graduate students have had the right to organize at a number of public universities. We believe graduate students are fundamentally workers through our labor as teachers and researchers. As we've seen before in history, government rulings do not necessarily reflect what is right and just, but activism and organizing can change things for the better.
Yes! With an agreement from Hopkins, we can hold a fair election arbitrated by a neutral third party. For instance, the Georgetown Alliance of Graduate Employees (Gage) won a union election in November 2018 which was independently arbitrated by the American Arbitration Association.
Grad workers have been organizing at other universities like Columbia, Harvard, Yale, UPenn, Cornell, Princeton, UChicago, Georgetown, Duke, and NYU, just to name a few. A few recent victories have been:
- Paid parental leave, larger child-care subsidies, and a 3.75+ percent increase in grad stipends at Columbia last year.
- A 4% salary increase at NYU in 2015.
- Health insurance for all grads and significant stipend increase at UPenn.
Graduate Advocacy: Issues
Some major issues that grads across all JHU divisions have raised are:
- Health Care (Read more about our efforts!)
- Dept. or administrative transparency, especially work and degree expectations
- International students’ rights (Read more about our efforts!)
- More support for graduate workers who are also parents
- Mental health care (including personal leave, counseling/support)
- Office/research work space
- Disability accommodations and support
- Worker’s compensation and/or travel support for work-related trips
- Lab/office equipment
Any university policy changes affecting your work, your rights, your job security, and your ability to change any of the above!
- Annual, across-the-board stipend and/or wage increases and timely payments
- Enhanced health insurance (including lower co-pays for services and prescriptions, lower deductibles and out-of-pocket maximums)
- Quality dental, vision, and mental health insurance
- Improved family benefits, such as dependent health coverage, and better child-care subsidies
- Access to a workspace including an office, classrooms, lab or studio
- Provision of adequate laboratory equipment at no cost
- Access to lactation spaces close to the workroom
- Workload protections that enhance the quality of research and education
- Vacation and sick leave
- A fair and transparent grievance procedure
- Specific guidelines and procedures for discipline/termination, opportunities to correct problem and to appeal disciplinary action
- Subsidized public transportation services
- Reimbursement for appointment-related travel and vaccinations
- Protections against discriminatory practices and harassment
- Improved campus accessibility
- Resources for marginalized and historically under-represented races, ethnicities, and genders
- Accommodations for international assistants experiencing difficulties acquiring the documentation necessary for employment
- And more!
We don’t think so. Of course, not all problems affect us all equally: the issues faced by a graduate worker in Chemistry are not always the same as the issues for someone in Art History, or Education, or Biomedical Engineering. But there are fundamental aspects of our lives as graduate workers that we all have in common, and that we can use our collective voice to act on. And then, for those things not in common, we can stand in solidarity with our colleagues to lend our support when they need it. In this sense, the union should be understood as setting a floor, not a ceiling, on our rights as graduate workers. It is entirely up to TRU members to decide what our contract will be and comes next. To join the effort is to ensure that your voice is a part of this process.
There is no evidence that existing graduate student organizations across the country are negatively correlated with positive relationships between graduate workers and their PIs. To the contrary, a study published by Cornell in 2013 concluded that organized graduate student workers tend to have higher levels of personal and professional support and higher paychecks, with no harm to the faculty-student relation nor to academic freedom. These findings are in-line with previous studies on the topic (Hewitt 2000; Julius and Gumport 2003), which also did not find any evidence on organizing having any harmful consequence on academic freedom and advisor-student relation. That said, we can make no promise around how your PI/advisor will react. As one of our members put it bluntly, “Why wouldn’t [the faculty] want to support you and your work?” One thing we can reasonably say: it seems only logical to conclude that only those members of the faculty who are involved in unfair or abusive relationships with their advisees might feel threatened by more empowered graduate students. Otherwise, TRU is just like any other advocacy group you might be a part of: taking the lives of grad students seriously, pursuing your interests, and connecting you to like-minded people with similar goals about how to make the work and culture around the university better.
Great! We have members in almost every department and division across the university, so there’s probably someone you know who’d be happy to talk more about TRU with you and any of your questions, issues, or concerns. Just email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with your name, and someone will be in touch soon!
Even better! First, we ask that you email us to meet with an organizer and sign a union card. We want to hear what issues are important to you and we can tell you more about all the different ways there are to be involved. The more of us that are visible, the stronger our union is; join us! There are graduate students working in a range of ways, from being on the Organizing Committee to talking with their colleagues, from representing their department's interests to researching an important issue, or even running the website and social media!