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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Graduate Employee Orientation

Jason Campos

Jason Campos

My first piece for this academic year will focus on a large group of students that doesn’t get much ink in this publication-graduate students, and more specifically, graduate employees.

Graduate employees help keep UMass Boston running. About 450 of us teach, do research and do administrative work in most academic and administrative departments to get ourselves through graduate school as tuition and fees continue to spiral upwards. Yet many students, graduate and undergraduate alike, may be unaware that UMB graduate employees are unionized like most other employees here. The Graduate Employee Organization (GEO) signed its first contract with the UMB administration in 2001 after a tough fight for recognition.

Before GEO–even as tuition, fees and the cost of living kept rising–graduate employee wages and benefits didn’t. Graduate assistants weren’t seen as workers and UMB employees. The administration felt that graduate assistantships were just part of some graduate students’ financial aid package, and that it was expected of assistants to work long hours for professors as part of their “educational experience.” By the late 1990s, however, most graduate employees here felt that UMB, like universities around the U.S. and Canada, was using them as cheap labor for teaching, research and administrative work to save money on critical jobs that they would otherwise have to pay unionized professors, researchers and administrators a living wage to do.

They also felt that they simply weren’t getting paid enough to make staying in graduate school worth it. So, they banded together and formed a union after contacting the United Auto Workers–who already had several large graduate employee unions in New York, California and at our sister schools, UMass Amherst and UMass Lowell.

Since GEO’s first union contract in 2001, graduate employee wages, benefits and working conditions have been steadily improving.

In 2000, many graduate employees working 20-plus hours a week were making base pay of only $8000-$9000 per year (each student had a different deal without a union contract). Now, after the 3rd contract we just signed before this issue went to press, we make almost $14,000 per year. That’s more than a 50 percent average increase in just 6 years. Not the $18,000 per year we’d need to have a living wage in the Boston-area, but a big improvement nonetheless.

In 2000, graduate employees had to pay for their own healthcare cost. Now we get most of our healthcare costs covered and the healthcare plan has improved significantly.

In 2000, many graduate employees were made to work 25 or more hours a week. Now professors (who are themselves unionized and should know better) and other bosses are not allowed to make us work more than 20 hours a week. In 2000, many graduate employees did not have their tuition and fees covered. Now full-time equivalent graduate employees get a full tuition and fee waiver under our contract, and part-time equivalent graduate employees get waivers equivalent to their hours.

We didn’t have paid vacations in 2000. We didn’t have work rules or grievance procedures in 2000. We didn’t have respect as knowledge workers in 2000. Now we have those things, and many more, but we could have even better pay, benefits and working conditions if we have more active members in our democratic union. And if we are linked to an active graduate and undergraduate student movement demanding lower (or preferably free) tuition and fees throughout the entire Massachusetts public higher education system. After all, the whole reason graduate employees have to fight for a better deal as workers is because we are screwed as students by rising tuition and fees.

Ultimately, to get that better deal, we have to get much more money flowing to our school from the state and federal governments. And we have to get the UMB administration to spend the money it has more rationally. That’s why GEO has been a leader in organizing the new statewide Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts (PHENOM), and has joined with student governments, faculty and staff unions, and alumni organizations around the state to change our schools for the better.

In the last year, however, we noticed that our campus is lighter than it should be in student involvement in PHENOM; so we encourage the Undergraduate Senate, the Graduate Student Assembly and all other interested student organizations to make it a priority to join us on the new UMB PHENOM Council that’s just forming, and come to the statewide PHENOM General Assembly that scheduled for October 26th at Framingham State College.

While our union (in the fine tradition of unions across the U.S.) will always do our best to represent our constituency in the political realm, we need all student organizations to step up and represent. Unless you want to be paying $15,000 a year to get your education in a couple of years.

So the take-away messages here? First, graduate employees, get active in your union! Second, all students need to get active in the movement to stop tuition and fee increases, and help make public education a right, not a privilege.

Everyone have a great first week!

Jason Pramas is Chair of the Graduate Employee Organization/UAW Local 1596, UMass Boston Chapter (GEO), and a doctoral student in Public Policy. GEO can be reached at [email protected] or at 617-287-3109.