Tomorrow, graduate teachers in Geology and Geophysics get to vote on whether or not to form a union. Putting overstated arguments aside, it’s actually a simple and clear choice. You can vote “no.” It won’t be the end of the world. Each of us, and those who come after us, will continue to pursue our goals as individuals. But still, I’ve been asking my colleagues to vote “yes.” Why? Because now more than ever I want us to move forward collectively.
My community is made up of a lot of brilliant women. I became a geologist because I wanted to answer the big questions about how the earth works. As geologists, we literally dig our way to answers to questions about how life developed on this planet. In fieldwork, we ask why mountains form. We ask how our terrain formed. We watch how climate has changed in the past and will change into the future. As scientists, we support each other’s work in the face of political skepticism. As women, we encourage each other as we clear the hurdles in the path of our careers.
But there aren’t enough of us. The further a woman advances in academia, especially in the sciences, the fewer women you see. It’s far worse for women of color. Faced with this reality, we could choose to put our heads down and hope that each of us individually can overcome the forces that push women out. But the cost of that choice is that the face of the academy stays largely white, male and privileged.
My colleagues and I know that a different reality is possible and are making a different choice. And so we’re forming a union.
Being part of a union means something different to each person in it. For some, the biggest issue might be better access to mental health care. Others organize to improve benefits for graduate teachers with families. For me, voting “yes” to Local 33 means choosing to seek collective solutions to the challenges we face.
There are plenty of women undergraduates in my field. The problem occurs with the “leaky pipeline” in the path from a woman’s undergraduate studies through to a full-time tenured faculty position. As the path goes along, the women quite simply fall off the career trajectory.
The job market in academia is difficult all around, but systemic bias means most jobs still go to white men. Meanwhile, the path to those jobs is plagued with seemingly minor instances of sexism. Every woman has a story about being denigrated or overlooked by a mentor or peer. Inadequate support for graduate teachers with families hurts all parents and often puts a heavier burden on women.
The instability of graduate work is only intensified by the alarming political climate that threatens to ignore, devalue and defund the work of scientists. For many of us, funding for our research is precarious and dependent on the political climate in Washington D.C. The uncertainty of this moment is made more difficult by the fact that graduate teachers in the Geology and Geophysics department don’t have guaranteed access to teaching in our upper years. I want to know that I will be able to teach and support myself while I do my research.
Forming a union can give us a stronger foothold in this system. It will give us the ability to negotiate a contract that guarantees job security from semester to semester, the ability to have a fair process to settle a workplace dispute, and to access the mental health care we need.
We will always advocate for these changes as individuals. But at a moment in this country when both science and women’s rights are profoundly under siege, I’d rather do it together.
Robin Canavan is a graduate student in the Geology and Geophysics Department. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .