Grad Union Talks Lag

J.P. Goodwin

It was almost a year ago that members of the UMass Boston Graduate Employees Organization (GEO), which represents UMB graduate assistants, voted to join United Auto Workers Local 1596. (On November 2, 2000, 96 percent of voters supported unionization.) The GEO elected a Bargaining Committee, which has been meeting with University officials since April of 2001. While the UMB administration and the GEO have been able to negotiate a number of issues, both sides agree that it’s the financial issues that are holding up the talks.

“We’re moving very slowly, very slowly. We’ve signed off on about ten articles, but no money issues have been discussed,” stated Kathy Melish, business agent for UAW Local 1596.

An official statement from the GEO Boston Bargaining Committee (comprised of UMB graduate assistants) seconded Melish’s sentiments, “Although the negotiations thus far are going very slowly, there has been some preliminary progress made. However, the University has yet to make GEO Boston a financial offer regarding stipends for graduate assistants. It is time for UMass Boston to make a statement about the importance of graduate employees here, as UMass Amherst and UMass Lowell have done through their union contracts.”

“We’re wrestling with some difficult issues in trying to put together a fair proposal, given state funding. If we were to increase the total amount of money for graduate students, we would have to take it from other parts of the University,” said Vice Chancellor for Administration and Finance David MacKenzie.

There are approximately 400 graduate assistants, teaching assistants and research assistants at UMass Boston. The exact number fluctuates each semester, and according to the GEO, “The University has been very slow in providing us with a response to a request for information about the name and address of every graduate student employee, claiming that their not allowed to give out information to unknown parties. Without knowing who our employees are, it’s difficult to organize.”

Graduate assistants currently receive $1.7 million in funding from the Office of Graduate Studies and another $900,000 through individual departments, grants and fellowships.

According to MacKenzie, it is unlikely that the state would provide additional funding to the University for graduate assistants. “A likely scenario for next year would be level-funding for discretionary accounts,” he noted, which would mean that the UMass Boston would not be receiving any additional funds from the state in the next fiscal year budget.

The GEO is asking for a significant increase in stipends for graduate assistants. “They [graduate assistants] are paid pitifully for the hours they are contracted to work, especially in comparison with other universities. For instance, stipends for one semester’s work here at UMass Boston ranges from $1,000-$5,000 for up to 20 hours/week for master’s candidates, and $1,250-$6,000 for PhD candidates, while at UMass Amherst the minimum stipend is $12,000 a year. At UMass Lowell the minimum yearly stipend is $13,000. Our low pay combined with the nearly unbearable cost of living in Boston, parking here on campus, and the ever increasing curriculum fees (which are not waived for graduate assistants) have led us to organize this union.”

“If we can get it done by the end of the fall semester, I would be very happy,” said Melish. The two sides have already agreed on 10 of the 16 proposed contract points. These points include union recognition, job postings, the grievance procedure, management rights and disciplinary procedures. None of the issues related to graduate assistant salaries and benefits have been settled.