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UMass Boston's independent, student-run newspaper

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Graduate Assistants, Use Your Advocates

Being a graduate assistant is not always the easiest job.  As if grading papers, dealing with irrascible students, and placating your professor aren’t hard enough, it’s even worse when you aren’t adequately compensated.  The GA’s here on our campus decided to do something about it.  On November 2, 2000, 96% of the voting grad assistants at UMB decided to form the GEO, a student union, because unionized grad assistants at UMass Amherst and UMass Lowell received far better benefits, such as a guaranteed minimum stipend, a fee waiver, and a health care benefit. Over the years, the GEO has repeatedly negotiated with the University over these issues, and the grad assistants working in Boston now receive many of the same benefits. At its most basic level, the GEO ensures that the University enforces its contract, something that is unfortunately necessary. For example, this past fall, the Office of Graduate Studies instructed the Bursar’s office to rebate part-time assistants the wrong amount, short-changing quarter-time assistants by as much as $75 for the year. Many assistants recognized the problem, but misinformed university officials denied their claims. After discussing the matter with the GEO Committee members, the same university officials finally rebated the grad assistants the proper amount. For the past few decades, UMass students and workers have been struggling to sustain the school’s urban mission, which promises “the highest quality education” to the “underrepresented and underserved.” Instead of fighting on behalf of our mission, the chairman of the Board of Trustees, Robert Manning, has accepted that “We are privatizing whether we like it or not.” According to vice chancellor Ellen O’Connor, privatization means “We’ll be less dependent on the commonwealth and more dependent on tuition and fees.” The GEO has struggled hard against this attack on the school’s urban mission, and recently, the union united with other activist groups on campus to raise awareness about the problem. In the fall, the GEO joined with the student group Massachusetts Students Uniting (MSU) to host a highly successful Teach-In / Speak-Out. In fact, the staff and faculty unions are currently organizing around a similar event for March 4th, an international day of action in defense of public higher education. Currently, the GEO Committee members are attempting to resolve a number of issues that negatively impact the experience of numerous grad assistants. These issues often have fairly straightforward solutions. Billing. Most graduate assistants won’t see their fee waivers or health care rebates reflected on their bills until after their bills are due. This process results in much confusion for both the Bursar’s Office and graduate assistants. Ultimately, the problem has a very simple, feasible, and reasonable solution: The University should issue accurate bills in a timely manner. Fee-Waiver Loophole. The University exploits a small number of assistants who are not funded by the Office of Grad Studies, denying them the normal fee waiver benefit. For example, administrative units can hire full-time graduate assistants but only waive 33% of their fees. The overwhelming majority of full-time graduate assistants get 100% of their fees waived, however. Again, the solution is rather straightforward: Apply the same, full fee-waiver benefit to all grad assistants, regardless of their funding source. Double Standard. Undoubtedly, the grad assistants working in Amherst still receive far better benefits. UMass covers 95% of the health care costs, discounts 50% of the parking costs, and funds full dental and vision plans for the full-time assistants working in Amherst. Here at UMB, full-time assistants are rebated about 75% of the cost of their health care plan, receiving no parking, dental, nor vision benefits. Over the years, the University has learned that it can’t get away with giving the unionized assistants in Amherst anything less. They are active, mobilized, and determined to get what they deserve, providing us with a perfect example of what we can do. Finally, the GEO Committee members are excited to see that the UMass postdoctoral students working in Boston, Amherst, and Dartmouth decided to unionize. It takes a tremendous effort to get organized and the postdocs have done it! According to Simona Maccarrone, “We’ve taken this step so we can protect our rights on the job, and make sure postdocs working on different campuses and in different labs are treated fairly and receive comparable pay and benefits. This will give us the same union rights as other workers and faculty at UMass.” The post docs at UMass Boston join the good company of the classified staff, professional staff, grad assistants, faculty members, and campus police, who are all unionized, bringing a basic level of democratic participation to the university.