During last week’s nomination period, three Graduate Student Workers submitted nominations for the three open spots on the GSWOC-UAW bargaining team. The following three candidates have been elected as bargaining team members by acclimation: 

  • Yongqin Wang, Electrical and Computer Engineering
  • Sulyab Thottungal Valapu, Computer Science
  • Ashley Lehr, Programs in Biological and Biomedical Sciences

Candidate statements and photos are below. To stay updated on bargaining, please continue to check your email, reach out to leaders in your department, and monitor the bargaining portal.

Ashley Lehr

Department: Program in Biological and Biomedical Sciences Program: Infectious Diseases and Pathogenesis
Job Title: Research Assistant

My name is Ashley Lehr (she/her), I am a 4th year PhD candidate in Dr. Mark Frey’s lab at CHLA. I first got involved with our union around mid-May of this year. My experience here at USC is what motivated me to get involved. Since 2020, I have been a grad student worker and a patient of Keck/Norris Hospital. Being a survivor of a chronic illness means more frequent trips to the hospital and with more visits, the more bills I have accumulated. One day in early 2023, I was paying my hospital bill over the phone and was asked, for the first time, are you a student/staff? I confirmed I was a student and was surprised to hear that my hospital bill could be “written off” because I already made my deductible for the fiscal year. Knowing this information now means I could’ve saved over $1,000 in hospital bills. When I complained, I was told this was something “I should’ve known/said.” The fact that USC keeps this policy secret by default and takes back thousands of dollars from its already underpaid workers is just one example of ways that USC has been able to take advantage of its workers for too long. While I am not sure that my experience with USC hospitals can be addressed through our contract, my time talking with other GSWs about experiences they have had makes me passionate about organizing to win a contract that can serve our interests.

I started organizing as a Contract Campaign Coordinator with multiple Health Science programs at CHLA and HSC. I have met with many GSWs across both campuses to facilitate Union 101 discussions and talk about what they want to see in our contract with USC. I gathered signatures for and talked with GSWs about the Initial Bargaining Demands. I was also part of the 80 GSWs who joined the bargaining session where important equity articles were presented this Summer. I have also gathered over 50+ signatures for the United for Workplace Justice letter through on-the-ground communication, phone banking, and emailing. I regularly attend steering and departmental organizing committee meetings to strategize on how to approach organizing actions and how to communicate with other GSWs about the progress of our contract negotiations. My time as a CCC has cultivated a drive in me to continue to reach out to other GSW programs that don’t have a strong leadership network which will aid in getting the majority of GSWs involved in the collective action necessary to win a strong contract.

As a member of the bargaining team, I will ensure that we are organized enough to be able to win a strong contract that puts the livelihood of all GSWs first and foremost.

Yongqin Wang

Department: Electrical and Computer Engineering
Job Title: Research Assistant & Teaching Assistant

My name is Yongqin Wang (he/his). I am a 5th year PhD student in Electrical and Computer Engineering. I am running to become a member of the bargaining team.

Since joining USC, I’ve witnessed GSWs suffer from horrific low pay and excessive work hours, often exceeding 60 hours a week. Living in the world’s most expensive city, many GSWs spend half of their income on rent. The challenge is even steeper for those with dependents with a double-digit inflation rate. Public holidays and weekends do not have any special meaning to GSWs because there isn’t a day we feel like we should rest without the fear of losing our jobs and degrees. This power imbalance not only contributes to overworking but also fosters unchecked bullying and discrimination in the workplace, and there is no separate process to advocate for us and help us. The situation for international students is even more dire. International students are more susceptible to overworking and bullying in the workplace. If ever unjustly terminated, international students only have a very limited time window to find another opportunity in the US. Due to this susceptibility, I even heard one professor saying, “I prefer to hire international students because they are more ‘hard-working’. ” Low pay, overworking, and unchecked bullying are killing us (both domestic and international students), while the USC administration does not seem to care about our well-being, and USC will not do anything voluntarily to help us.

Only with the union does USC begin to talk to us. After we unionized, I am thrilled to see the tables have turned, and I am actively helping with Union organizing. I knock on doors in EEB and talk to my co-workers about the union and how good union contracts can potentially improve our working conditions. I helped collect signatures during the summer and organized the departmental letter delivery in the ECE department before the 8/31 rally. I spoke to people in the 8/31 rally advocating for both international and domestic students. I am helping to organize ECE leaders in our department, and I am reaching out to more people so that we can have a bigger turnout in the next meeting. I will continue to help to organize, and I believe I can help more people if I am on the bargaining team.

With the new opening, I want to join the bargaining team. I will fight for the union contract to include better payment and better health care. I will fight for a separate grievance process to handle unjustified termination and bullying. I will fight for legal funds for international students. I will fight for international students and ensure that articles helping international students will not be used for trade. And I will fight for the benefits of GSWs. I will fight for you, my fellow GSWs, because it is my duty, 因为这是我的责任!

Sulyab Thottungal Valapu

Department: Computer Science
Job Title: Research Assistant

My name is Sulyab Thottungal Valapu (he/they). I am a 3rd year PhD student in the Computer Science department, and I’m running to be a member of our bargaining team. We have arrived at a pivotal moment in the bargaining process, with a real opportunity to win a historic contract that can greatly benefit all graduate students. However, it is going to take our collective strength and unity to make it happen. I believe that by being a part of the bargaining team, I can contribute to the process of securing better working conditions for all of us.

My journey in graduate student organizing began back when we first signed union authorization cards, and since then, I’ve been actively engaged at both the departmental and campus-wide levels. I’ve had the privilege of engaging in hundreds of one-on-one conversations with fellow GSWs to build our union, and organizing majority support in our 400 person department around the issues that matter to us the most.

As an international student myself, I am closely aware of the unique challenges that international GSWs face, such as visa and immigration concerns, as well as an increased vulnerability to discrimination and harassment. Ensuring strong protections for international students in our contract negotiations will be a top priority for me.

Thank you for considering me as your candidate for the bargaining team. Let’s work together to secure the protections and improvements we deserve.