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The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
Since 1888
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.

Vanderbilt Graduate Workers United rally for unionization, higher stipends and affordable housing

The protest marked the first day of VGWU’s public union card campaign as the group, in partnership with United Auto Workers, advances its push to unionize.
Tasfia Alam
Graduate students gather with their posters on Library Lawn, as photographed on Feb. 14, 2024. (Hustler Multimedia/Tasfia Alam)

UPDATE: This piece was updated on Feb. 17 at 6:35 p.m. CST to include a response from the university.

Vanderbilt Graduate Workers United hosted a demonstration on Feb. 14 outside Buttrick Hall to call on the university to provide more affordable housing options and raise graduate stipends to a level commensurate with Nashville’s rising housing costs. The rally also aimed to amass support for graduate student unionization.

The university opened its first graduate student housing, The Broadview at Vanderbilt, in July 2023, which prompted criticism over its alleged lack of affordable housing options. The College of Arts and Science also announced an increase in graduate student stipends for the 2023-24 academic year.

Calls for affordable housing 

VGWU Co-President Max Hamilton, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in cancer biology, said that despite these changes, housing remains unaffordable due to rising rents and inflation that outpace graduate stipends. 

“[The Broadview] was supposed to be affordable grad student housing, but $1,600 for 250 square feet or so is not affordable. Rents continue to rise, by far outstripping our stipends, and the same thing goes for the inflation spike in the past couple years,” Hamilton said.

The university formed a Housing Task Force in response to previous graduate student protests over affordable housing. The university declined The Hustler’s request for comment on the status and findings of this task force.

Kaitlyn Schaaf, a sixth-year Ph.D. student in the microbe-host interactions program, said that she has lived in six different residences over the course of her six years at Vanderbilt largely due to rising rent, which she believes stipend raises fail to pace.

“Just between rent hikes year after year, about 40-50% of my stipend has gone toward rent consistently over the time I’ve been here,” Schaaf said. “They’ve given us small raises here and there, but that’s barely matched the increase in rent that I’ve had.”

Schaaf further pointed to the dichotomy of graduate students working as professionals but living as — or worse off than — undergraduate students. 

“I treat grad school as a professional opportunity, and it’s frustrating when you have to live like a college student during that time, or when you’re barely surviving to live like a college student,” Schaaf said.

Households spending more than 30% of income on rent and utilities are considered “rent burdened,” as defined by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development. Schaaf said her situation classifies her as rent burdened, which has affected her ability to obtain housing around campus due to base income requirements.

“That’s always been hard, even just finding spaces near campus that are willing to rent to you,” Schaaf said. “[The Broadview] takes advantage of the fact that [it] for Vanderbilt students doesn’t require a credit check, so you can get around some of the issues.”

A move toward unionization

Michael Reynolds, a fifth-year Ph.D. student in physics and astronomy, pointed to the success of past rallies and petitions in addressing graduate student needs, including covering of student services fees and granting dental and vision insurance in spring 2023. However, he said that a union is necessary to advance students’ “higher” demands, such as the $40,000 campus-wide base stipend for which VGWU has been petitioning.

“The higher up you go, the harder it is to collectively bargain. We can deliver petition after petition, and we can have all these rallies. But until we have a union, admin is not going to formally recognize us,” Reynolds said. “This is the beginning of the fight, the real fight.”

Hamilton said that the rally marked the first day of VGWU’s public union card campaign, formed in partnership with United Auto Workers. According to the campaign website, unionization would allow graduate students to elect a bargaining committee that “negotiates on equal footing toward a fair agreement” with administration and affords graduate students a say on their employment contract.

The National Labor Relations Board ruled in 2016 that graduate students count as employees, effectively enabling them to unionize. As of July 2023, at least 156 graduate programs across the United States had unionized or were in the process of unionizing. Vanderbilt administration has previously pushed back against unionization, however, citing concerns with student-professor dynamics and overall unity. The university declined to comment on this most recent push for unionization.

In an email to The Hustler, the university reaffirmed its commitment to its students, noting that graduate students receive "a comprehensive package of financial aid" to support professional development. They added that "positive updates" on stipend increases will be shared in forthcoming meetings with the Graduate Student Council.

We are deeply committed to supporting our graduate students and to promoting a collaborative culture of listening, engagement and addressing feedback, questions and concerns, the university's statement reads.

Setting higher standards

Sofía Rivera Sojo, a second-year Ph.D. student in political science, framed the union as a means of holding the university accountable and combatting the perpetuation of societal inequities. 

“Academia and higher education have potential to challenge existing inequalities in society…but I also know [they] can reinforce and replicate inequalities,” Rivera Sojo said. “It’s also often due to [academia’s] inaccessibility and resistance to deep structural change which often leads to the replication of inequalities.”

Vice President of LiUNA Local 386 Ethan Link, whose union has represented Vanderbilt workers since 1972, offered advice and support to the demonstrators.

“The real power is the dignity and respect that you will earn — and you must earn it — that will protect you against unfair and unequal treatment,” Link said. 

He added that Vanderbilt, which is Nashville’s fourth-largest employer after VUMC, Nissan and HCA Healthcare, has the potential to set an example for employers across the city. 

“That’s why soon we will be back at the table with Vanderbilt talking about what will make this university not just an employer of choice, but an employer of example,” Link said. “That means when you raise the standards here, you don’t just raise them for yourselves, you raise them for workers across the city.”

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About the Contributors
Brina Ratangee, News Editor
Brina Ratangee ('24) is a student in the College of Arts and Science majoring in medicine, health & society and neuroscience. When not writing for The Hustler, she enjoys trivia nights, solving NYT crosswords and biking around Nashville. You can reach her at [email protected].
Tasfia Alam, Multimedia Copy Editor
Tasfia Alam (‘25) is from Los Angeles and is majoring in neuroscience and political science in the College of Arts and Science. When not writing for The Hustler, she can be found obsessing over a new book, trying to expand her music taste or taking pictures of pretty sunsets. You can reach her at [email protected]
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Comments (4)

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VU Truth
1 month ago

Future Employer: “Tell me what you did at Vanderbilt”

VU Grad Student: “I helped lead a unionization effort”

Future Employer throws VU Grad Student’s resume in the trash and moves to the next candidate.

1 month ago

We should also fight for grade equality

Allison (she/her)
1 month ago
Reply to  Peter

Equal work, equal grades! No more grade inequality in education.

1 month ago
Reply to  Peter

Grade inequality in education is just as bad as wealth and income inequality in the outside world. People who make A’s should give up some of their points to the C and D students to make things more equitable just as people in higher income brackets should give up more of their earnings to help marginalized communities.

Grade equality would be a great way to make education more equitable to womxn, minorities and LGBTQ+.