More than 100 people representing Virginia Tech faculty, staff and students gathered Tuesday in support of two new unions that have launched publicly on campus.
The United Campus Workers of Virginia Tech, or UCW-VT, and the Virginia Tech Graduate Labor Union, known as VT GLU, have been building their membership since 2020. By going public, they hope to recruit more members and draw the attention of university administrators.
Among the unions’ shared concerns are the pursuit of a living wage for staff members and graduate student workers, and increased job security. They claim that the state university’s shared governance model, through which various constituent groups on campus make recommendations to the administration, isn’t a strong enough voice for those groups.
After about an hour of speakers and call-and-response chants, the group took to the sidewalks of the Blacksburg campus, armed with megaphones and a large banner declaring “VT works because we do.”
Tarisa Ross, a second-year doctoral student and teaching assistant in the geosciences department, told the crowd that she was paid $4,000 this past summer to work 15 hours per week in the lab. She called it a “beautiful” sum of money and said that many graduate students don’t get paid to work for their departments in the summer — and many of those students aren’t permitted to work elsewhere in their field during summer break.
Graduate and professional students who work on campus teaching or doing research got a 5% pay raise this fall, along with faculty and staff at Tech. The university also increased the minimum pay band for graduate student workers. But for many, the monthly stipend they receive still falls short of the cost of living in Blacksburg.
“It’s just crazy we’re not getting what we need to survive,” Ross said. Later, she added: “We are providing a service not only to Virginia Tech, but to the greater scientific and academic community.”
As she concluded her remarks and hurried off the stage, Ross said, “I’ve got to go teach. I’ve got to go spread the knowledge.” She was due to teach a class in just a few moments.
When Cori Ruktanonchai spoke later in the rally, she said she’d canceled her class that day so she could speak and march with the unions.
Ruktanonchai, who works on UCW-VT’s strategic planning committee and teaches population sciences at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, has been at Tech for three years. She said she prefers her job to seeking a tenured position that might require her to conduct research because she enjoys spending most of her time in the classroom. But her employment depends on the university renewing her contract every few years.
As the group stood in the sun on a near-90 degree afternoon, Emily Satterwhite, a professor and director of Appalachian studies at Tech, explained the history of the red bandanas some people in the crowd wore. She explained that during the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921 — the largest labor uprising in U.S. history — coal miners in West Virginia wore commonly available red bandanas to show they were on the side of the workers. Those supporting the coal mines called them “rednecks.”
“You might be a redneck,” she then said to laughs from the crowd, “if you believe that workers deserve a living wage. You might be a redneck if you believe workers deserve democratic power in their workplaces.”
Other speakers at the rally included Virginia Tech alumna Kristy Vance, representing unionized Kroger workers in the area, and Lily Franklin, Democratic candidate for delegate in the newly drawn 41st District. Franklin wore a T-shirt that had belonged to her grandfather, a union member in Roanoke decades ago.
James Fedderman, president of the Virginia Education Association, said graduate students and educators at Tech are experiencing similar struggles as teachers around the commonwealth seeking higher pay for the vital work they perform. VT GLU is an affiliate of the larger VEA union.
“Virginia Tech, Dr. Sands, I hope you can hear us,” Fedderman said, calling out Tech President Tim Sands. “Get out of your seat, go get your ink pen and give these people what they deserve.”
Asked for comment Tuesday, Mark Owczarski, associate vice president of communications and marketing at Tech, said by email that the school “continuously works to offer a competitive, holistic compensation package to graduate assistants that benefits students and the university.” He did not directly address the unionizing faculty and staff group.
As far as whether Tech administrators plan to communicate directly with UCW-VT or VT GLU, Owczarski said, “It depends on what they wish to communicate about,” noting the university’s obligation to state law that forbids most workers from negotiating their wages collectively.
Tech has made revisions to its shared governance structure in recent years in an attempt to foster greater collaboration with various campus populations.
It maintains five senates — representing undergraduates, graduate students, staff, faculty and non-teaching faculty — which make policy recommendations to administrators.
The university has also downsized the University Council, made up of administrators, faculty, staff and student members, that approves policy changes, so it can make decisions more quickly. The council must approve policy or program changes before the university president can sign off on them.
For the union members, the changes aren’t enough.
Marian Mollin, a tenured history professor, sat in the shade before the rally began with a sign that said “I love my students.”
“We need another vehicle” to support faculty and staff, she said.