Valuing graduate student workers starts with unionizing


Photo by Katherine Kealey

Beardshear Hall was constructed in 1906 and serves as the administration building at Iowa State University.

Graduate Student Voices

Imagine, for a moment, our university without graduate students. Without teachers for core undergraduate courses. Without authors for research manuscripts. Without conference presenters.  Imagine vacant lab stations. Silent lathes, mills, sanders and saws. Empty research fields and depauperate university committees. Imagine the unbought coffee.

Our university without graduate students loses its vitality — its intellectual heft, its social heartbeat and its crucial labor force. Iowa State, without graduate students, ceases to function as a research university.

Many graduate students at Iowa State University have a positive, enriching graduate student experience. They are paid a living wage; they don’t have to worry about summer funding; they don’t have to negotiate major medical conditions; they manage a healthy work-life balance, and their mentors respect and value their work. Unfortunately, many graduate students at ISU are not so lucky.

Graduate Student Voices formed at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, as graduate students came together to express shared concerns about some of the administration’s pandemic policies (including requirements for in-person teaching). Since then, our group has grown, and our mandate has expanded. 

In the many listening sessions we’ve organized, we have heard the same anxieties voiced over and over: 

  • Our labor is not valued 
  • Our health care is substandard 
  • Many are not paid over the entire calendar year (summer funding is highly competitive) 
  • We are not covered by worker’s compensation 
  • The culture in which we work too often involves bullying, discrimination, exploitation and inappropriate expectations regarding work-life balance.  
  • Some members of the community, such as international students whose student visas can be revoked, are especially vulnerable to abuses of power by their supervisors.

Graduate workers at the University of Iowa are considered employees and have been unionized since 1996. Their union has successfully negotiated for base salary increases, improvements to the university’s grievance procedures, 50% fees scholarships and a 70% contribution from the university toward the cost of health care coverage for employees’ families. 

Iowa State University refuses to acknowledge that graduate student workers are employees, perpetuating a culture of exploitation, maltreatment and denying us the legal protections that go with employee status, such as workers’ compensation insurance. 

To address this, Graduate Student Voices is currently collaborating with one of the largest labor unions in the United States, United Electrical Radio and Machine Workers of America, to build support for a graduate worker union at ISU. Our steering committee is composed entirely of ISU graduate students and alumni, but we maintain our independence from the university.

Graduate Student Voices is committed to: 

  • Building a community of support among graduate students 
  • Affirming the essential contributions graduate student workers make to the university 
  • Improving wages, health care and working conditions for graduate student workers 
  • Holding accountable those in power at ISU 

We invite you to imagine a happy, healthy community of graduate workers laboring in an environment of appreciation, respect and collaboration. Realizing this vision requires us to organize. A graduate workers union is not our final goal—it is merely a first, necessary step—and we encourage you to join the community of Graduate Student Voices to help make it happen.

We invite all graduate students and allies to attend a union organizing meeting and listening session from 6 to 7 p.m. Oct. 18 in the Farwell T. Brown Auditorium at the Ames Public Library. It’s also available online (Zoom link on our website). We also welcome all members of the university community to learn more about our work at our website, where we’ve posted our mission statement, answers to frequently asked questions and links to our mailing list and social media contacts.

Support graduate student workers: our university works because we do.