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Johns Hopkins graduate students prepare to strike over unmet contract demands

Union members paraded in front of Hopkins’ Homewood Campus to call for fair wages and termination policies. Photo by Bri Hatch/WYPR.
Bri Hatch
Union members paraded in front of Hopkins’ Homewood Campus to call for fair wages and termination policies.

Graduate students at Johns Hopkins University say they’re ready to strike if administrators do not meet their demands in contract negotiations.

Over two thousand PhD students at Hopkins voted in February 2023 to form the federally-recognized union. Since May, members of Teachers and Researchers United (TRU) have been negotiating their first union contract.

But after nine months, union members say the university has made little progress in meeting their demands. A crowd of graduate students held a practice picket on Tuesday in front of Hopkins’ Homewood campus to pressure administrators with threats of further labor action.

Wisam Awadallah, a doctoral candidate in Hopkins’ school of medicine, said the point of a practice picket is to show the union is ready to strike.

“For the last nine months, the university has done everything they can to stall and be obstructionist,” Awadallah said. “Our labor provides all the prestige and work that make this university run. We want them to know that without us they can't be the Johns Hopkins they want to be.”

Sandy Peeples, a bargaining committee member for TRU, said it took six months to convince university leaders to include a clause for non-discrimination in their contracts.

“Through a lot of work, and action, and in-person turnout, we were able to move them at the table,” they said.

Now, Peeples said negotiations have stalled on three core issues: fair compensation, including wages and benefits; union shop, which requires union membership for all graduate students; and fair termination policies.

In a written statement, a university spokesperson said Hopkins leadership is “working amicably and constructively” with union members to negotiate.

“The union and the university have reached agreement on a number of important contract terms and we are hopeful that we will reach an agreement that both sides can support soon,” the statement said.

Awadallah said it’s “shameful” that graduate student workers at Hopkins don’t make livable wages.

“Our original proposal was the amount to not be rent-burdened with a one bedroom apartment in Baltimore, and they immediately shut that down,” he said. “We want an amount of money and benefits such that we are not just subsisting in this university, we're thriving at this university, and we're able to do our jobs better as researchers and teachers.”

Having proper wages and benefits is an equity issue, Awadallah added.

“I come from underrepresented backgrounds in academia. I grew up not very economically privileged, and I am a child of immigrants,” he said. “Johns Hopkins should understand that making a living wage and being able to provide for not just yourself but any obligations you have, would allow people that aren't traditionally represented in academia to get PhDs.”

TRU is advocating not only for increased salaries, but also for better bereavement leave and health benefits.

Peeples said graduate students are also seeking protection from current discipline and termination policy, which allows graduate workers to face repercussions without a fair process — as long as the cause is “academic.”

“All of our job is academic; we're academic workers,” Peeples said. “We're not asking to be able to grieve or complain about every single grade…but the university is trying to demand for itself the right to fire us and to punish us without any fair process.”

Negotiations will continue in a meeting on Thursday, Peeples said.

“We won't settle for any contract that's anything less than fair and full,” she said. “But if that's not met, we're having conversations with our membership about when a strike would be necessary.”

Bri Hatch (they/them) is a Report for America Corps Member joining the WYPR team to cover education.
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