Graduate students from several colleges will address the Boston City Council on Thursday to petition for better working conditions, saying they are subjected to low wages, inadequate health care, and a lack of protection from harassment and discrimination.
Councilor Lydia Edwards, a workers’ rights attorney, said she called the hearing to put pressure on the universities and to give voice to the students’ complaints.
“It’s part of demonstrating our solidarity with the students and all workers,” she said. It’s also an effort to highlight how universities “are falling short of their own brand” as institutes for social change.
Students from Boston College, Boston University, Harvard University, and Northeastern University are scheduled to address the council. The meeting is set for 5:30 p.m.
The hearing comes as more graduate students are seeking to unionize and negotiate for better benefits and protections. The Harvard Graduate Students Union, for example, has been bargaining with administrators over terms of an initial labor contract.
“Harvard graduate student workers play an important and valued role in fulfilling the academic mission of the university,” the university said Wednesday in a statement. “Harvard is currently engaged in active, good-faith negotiations.”
Northeastern said the university “values the contributions that students offer here on campus, whether in the work-study capacity, or through their PhD student graduate assistantships.”
“Our PhD students on an assistanceship enjoy the benefits of a tuition waver, competitive financial support, health insurance and a multitude of university resources,” it said.
But students say they work under difficult conditions for little money.
Carleigh Beriont, a doctoral student at Harvard with a 1-year-old child, said she fears her $34,000 in annual wages may force her to “make a choice between being a scholar and a mother.”
Her responsibilities include teaching undergraduate and master’s courses, holding office hours and discussion sections, and grading coursework, in addition to conducting her own research, she said.
“I know that I’m not alone in this, so something is going to have to change at some point,” said Beriont, 30.
Beriont plans to speak at the hearing, as does Sara Suzuki, who will speak on behalf of fellow international students. Suzuki, a 29-year-old from Japan, will be entering the sixth year of her PhD program at Boston College this fall.
Her visa allows her to work no more than 20 hours a week, she said. As a result, many of her international classmates have to work under-the-table jobs to afford the area’s high cost of living.
“The university has a responsibility to be providing a basic living wage,” she said.
International students have an added burden because they must be in good standing with their universities to maintain their visas.
Many international students “are afraid to speak up for their rights,” she said. “I think that change can only happen if we organize, and I know that even though I am putting myself out there I have a majority of the student body behind me.”