UMass grad student wage woes: Union presses demands as contract talks begin

  • University of Massachusetts graduate student Mishka Murad talks about managing her finances on student income at her apartment in Amherst, Tuesday. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • University of Massachusetts graduate student Mishka Murad talks about managing her finances on student income at her apartment in Amherst, Tuesday. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • University of Massachusetts graduate student Mishka Murad talks about managing her finances on student income at her apartment in Amherst, Tuesday. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Johannes Raatz and Avery Fuerst lead a march of Graduate Employee Organization / United Auto Workers Local 2322 on the University of Massachusetts Amherst campus Friday. NICOLE DEFEUDIS

  • Members of Graduate Employee Organization / United Auto Workers Local 2322 march on the University of Massachusetts Amherst campus Friday. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Thursday, May 04, 2017

AMHERST — Mishka Murad, a doctoral candidate at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, often wonders whether the groceries she is buying are going to prevent her from making it to her next paycheck. So she collects coupons, doesn’t own a car and stays at home most nights.

Sitting on one of the two chairs in her tiny one-bedroom apartment on April 25, Murad detailed the material concerns she said are inherent in her job as a graduate student worker: inadequate wages, few work hours, a complete lack of summer funding and the steep cost of living in the Pioneer Valley.

Murad is hesitant to take on any more debt because, she said, she’s “drowning in student loans” from her undergraduate studies at Mount Holyoke College. And, as an international student from Pakistan, she is legally barred from taking a job off campus.

“I do believe that you can’t fully focus at school or at work if you’re so miserable on a daily basis,” said Murad, 32. “And that misery is looking at your bank account and saying, ‘Well, how am I going to get groceries?’”

Armed with similar complaints about the financial hardship of life as a graduate student worker, around 50 students marched through the UMass campus on Friday in advance of the first bargaining session to negotiate a new contract.

“Hey, hey! Ho, Ho! Worker hunger’s got to go!” they shouted as they paraded from the Student Union to Hampshire House, where members of the Graduate Employee Organization / United Auto Workers Local 2322 met with UMass officials.

Among the union’s demands are an 18 percent wage increase over three years, increased access to affordable on-campus housing, reductions in out-of-pocket health care and child care costs, the elimination of graduate student fees and greater anti-discrimination protections.

In a statement, campus spokesman Ed Blaguszewski said the university will “thoughtfully respond” to GEO’s proposals after receiving them.

“Although we have not scheduled any more sessions yet, we anticipate presenting the university’s proposals within the next few sessions,” Blaguszewski wrote. “We do not discuss the specifics of negotiations in public. We look forward to positive discussions and will work toward reaching an agreement as soon as possible.”

The current contract went into effect on Sept. 1, 2014, and expires on Aug. 31. However, an evergreen clause stipulates that after the contract expires, GEO workers will continue to operate under the same conditions, according to GEO co-chair Santiago Vidales.

Housing, health care

Although a wage increase is a central demand for the union, housing and health care are also concerns for workers like 37-year-old Tiamba Wilkerson, a graduate student and teaching assistant in the university’s sociology department.

“It’s extremely expensive, particularly for the quality of housing you get,” she said of renting a place in Northampton, where she currently lives. “When you’re a grad student living on a stipend of less than $20,000 a year, that is extremely stressful to say the least.”

Housing isn’t the only major expense graduate students worry about. Health care costs can also add up quickly, and with turmoil in Washington over health care laws, the expense is on many students’ minds.

Wilkerson also has a chronic health condition that guarantees that every year she’ll reach the $1,500 out-of-pocket maximum she has as part of the health care the university provides. She gets her medical treatments at Cooley Dickinson Hospital, which works with her to set up a payment plan for her debt. But every year, because she’s incurring a new $1,500, her payments keep going up.

“It keeps piling up and piling up and piling up,” she said, adding that like most graduate student workers, she doesn’t get paid over the summer.

Being a black woman living in the Pioneer Valley can compound those already challenging economic realities, Wilkerson added.

“Employment discrimination exists and finding work in this area can be difficult for people of color,” she said. “Finding housing in this area is difficult for people of color.”

‘Oath of poverty’

Vidales, the co-chair of GEO and a third-year doctoral student in Latin American studies, remembers when UMass Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy told a large group of graduate students at a 2015 orientation that they had taken an “oath of poverty.”

“People are getting paid poverty wages and have to make oaths of poverty while they’re developing the university, and the university gets to keep that free labor, basically,” Vidales said.

During his first semester as a graduate student in 2011, Vidales taught one Spanish class for about 20 hours. His second semester, he said, he was bumped up to teaching two classes, putting in twice the time for the same total pay.

Frustrated, Vidales began working with GEO. Within one year, GEO established a one-and-one schedule — graduate students would work only one class per semester, for just 20 hours.

Vidales said he sees the union’s current contract campaign in the context of the “toxic political climate” of the Trump administration — the travel bans, the racism and xenophobia, the defunding of scientific inquiry, the environmental deregulation.

“That all impacts our campus, our town, our members directly,” he said.

The union, in concert with the university, is in a position to provide practical, pragmatic and direct ways to protect its people from whatever comes from the federal government, Vidales said.

For him, that means making sure international students — especially those from countries on the Trump administration’s travel ban — can afford to stay in the United States over the summer, or addressing concerns like one that the union’s black caucus raised about a lack of professionals of color in the university’s mental health services.

As a positive sign, Vidales pointed to how UMass President Martin Meehan stood with state Attorney General Maura Healey in January as she announced a legal challenge to the travel ban.

“While they’re in their labs, while they’re in their classrooms and on campus, they have protections and a union that will protect them,” Vidales said of grad student workers. “And hopefully a university that will step up and be part of our resistance.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.