By Max Lien, Piril Nergis, Zhonghao Du, Raymond Yu, Hefei Liu and Mohamed Elsawaf, Graduate Student Workers in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Southern California.
As Graduate Student Workers (GSWs) in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) at USC, we love making valuable contributions to teaching and research. All of us came to USC with the expectation that our research would be intellectually challenging and require commitment and dedication. But far too many GSWs face intimidation, threats, and discrimination that prevent us from focusing on our research and reaching our fullest potential. These problems have persisted for years but were ignored intentionally or unintentionally. We are coming together to form a union to create a safe and fair working environment where all GSWs can thrive and raise awareness of these problems.
For example, one GSW from India shared with us that they faced discrimination from a faculty member. The faculty member asked where they are from and their family’s socio-economic background. Based on their answers to these questions, which had nothing to do with their performance, they were told “students like you do not belong in this school.” This treatment went on for over one year and directly led to their mental health declining and they were ultimately not able to continue in the program.
Another research assistant, also an international student, was severely bullied by their faculty advisor. Their advisor demanded that research assistants work unreasonably long hours, including late nights on the weekends, but would also frequently yell and hurl insults, like telling them to “shut up” during a lab meeting. The stress and anxiety of working in this lab became so intolerable that one day while working late and being yelled at, the student’s chest began to hurt. When they took a brief moment to mend the pain, their advisor yelled at them: “If you are going to die, go and die.” This research assistant sought help through the ECE department’s academic staff, but we know of no permanent or transparent steps taken to ensure this advisor’s behavior does not repeat. Fortunately, the GSW was able to continue at USC, but these sorts of research interruptions are harmful to one’s research progress (to say nothing of one’s mental health).
After hundreds of conversations with our colleagues, both inside and outside of the ECE department, these stories are unfortunately just the tip of the iceberg. One research assistant from Turkey spoke about being abruptly fired from their lab without any prior warning. They had to hastily find a new research group or be forced to leave the US. Another GSW was required to perform personal errands for their supervisor, including grocery shopping and delivery for them during the pandemic. Many GSWs told us they receive frequent text messages or phone calls from their supervisors late at night — and are expected to respond to them immediately or face consequences.
Multiple studies show that these problems are not unique. A recent survey conducted by Nature found that 1 out of 5 of graduate students surveyed faced gender- or racial-based discrimination. Another study by Nature which focuses on bullying found that early-career researchers from abroad are targeted and threatened in different ways than early-career researchers from the US. Our own survey, which was completed by over 960 GSWs currently working at USC, found that 40% of those surveyed had experienced or witnessed some form of discrimination, harassment, or bullying. Of those who had experienced or witnessed some form of abuse, only 8.7% said they agree with the statement “USC handles reports of discrimination, sexual harassment, and/or bullying through a fair, effective, and timely process.”
Discriminatory and abusive conduct can only be addressed when victims are empowered to speak up and are protected when they do so. A union can create a strong, supportive, and unified community so that we can protect and advocate for one another and make it easier to address harassment and abuse. At other major research universities like UCLA, the University of Washington, Harvard, and Columbia, graduate student unions have won strong protections like enforceable timelines, union representation, protection from retaliation, and the option to appeal to a neutral third-party arbitrator for cases of harassment or discrimination. Recently, GSWs and Postdocs at the University of California won groundbreaking contract language to include bullying protections as well. Crucially, these protections, enforceable through union contracts, go far beyond what is offered by offices such as Title IX or the Ethics Office. Cases at the University of Connecticut and UCLA demonstrate that unions with strong grievance processes make a positive and tangible difference.
Prevention and education are also of critical importance. When it’s clear what kind of behavior is not acceptable and where GSWs can turn for help, discrimination, harassment, and abuse are less likely to occur. At the University of Washington, unionized GSWs won peer-led sexual harassment and sexual violence training programs for increasing awareness and training bystanders. These types of creative ideas, which were only won through union contract negotiations, could help build an environment where abusive conduct is not tolerated.
With a union, we have more power to be heard, to determine our right to a safe and healthy workplace, and to ensure that our rights are enforced. Now that a majority of GSWs at USC have signed authorization cards in support of forming a union, we’re excited to move forward with winning union recognition and then democratically negotiating a contract with the USC administration. We anticipate a robust, informed conversation about the kinds of changes that we all want to see and how to win them at the bargaining table. By uniting with and supporting one another we will improve our work as teachers and researchers.