Grad Student Union, Yes! Across the country, collective action is working to expand rights For these exploited workers.

AuthorLevin, Annie

This, spring, unionized graduate students at New York University demanded a $46 hourly wage. That was more than double what the lowest paid graduate student was earning, which was $20 an hour. The number came from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's living wage calculator, which seeks to "determine a local wage rate that allows residents to meet minimum standards of living."

The university countered with a $1 raise for master's students and a $2 raise for doctoral students. In response, students went on strike. More than a thousand stopped performing their work duties, including serving as teaching assistants and grading papers. As a result of their three-week strike, the university returned to the bargaining table. The contract that was later ratified contained a $26-an-hour wage for the lowest paid employees, which will go up to $30 an hour by the final year of the contract.

Meanwhile, at Harvard, according to Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Automobile Workers President Brandon Mancilla, graduate worker organizers negotiating for their second contract have so far been offered no raise at all in their contract's first year. Harvard has offered only a bonus for those who worked last year and will work next. Given the high turnover in higher education, this proposal would leave out a sizable portion of the bargaining unit.

And Harvard's proposal of a 2 percent raise over the next two years would not even keep up with the rate of inflation or the cost of living in the Boston metropolitan area. With their contract having expired on June 30, Mancilla told me in a phone interview that the union and the school were still very far apart on compensation, among other issues. On June 24, the union announced that more than 500 student workers had signed a letter committing to organizing a strike.

Universities rely on poorly paid graduate student and adjunct labor for work like grading and the teaching of introductory level undergraduate courses. This is the grunt work of academia, the work that scholars eagerly throw off if they are lucky enough to get a tenure-track position. The system has always been unjust and precarious and has only become more so in recent decades, when three-quarters of all instructional jobs filled in American universities have become nonpermanent positions.

Graduate student unions seek to restore power and control to this class of workers. But having a union to back you up is the exception rather than the rule...

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