Graduate student employees at UMass Dartmouth began organizing last week in what organizers called a “last resort” to improve pay and working conditions at the university.
“The bottom line is that UMass graduate employees have been asking for better working conditions for many years…and the conditions have deteriorated,” said AJ Vincelli, a seventh-year doctoral student in protein engineering, who makes part of those leading the organizing campaign. “So they don’t hear us and unfortunately I believe unionizing is the last resort and it’s the only method I can think of to get what we need.”
Employed graduate students – who may hold a variety of titles, such as teaching assistant/fellow, research assistant, graduate assistant, or administrative assistant – are postgraduate students who work for the university while earning their degrees.
These employed students are compensated for their work by stipends, but receive no food or housing from the university. Vincelli said these allowances are often insufficient to live on, even on the tightest budgets.
“We have grad students sleeping in basements and attics in campus buildings because they don’t have homes,” she said. “There is a large amount of food insecurity, so [some] students eat one meal a day…and it’s not good food.
Vincelli said that although the university’s Graduate Student Senate has lobbied UMass Dartmouth officials to increase stipends, reduce mandatory fees and improve conditions, the university has lagged behind. other public and private Commonwealth universities in these fields.
University officials could not be reached for comment on the matter.
Data compiled by Vincelli and other organizers shows that after tuition is subtracted, some graduate employees earn just $3,506 a year, less than 10% of the region’s living wage.
Even the highest paid graduate students, research assistants who work all summer, average just over $20,000 a year.
According to organizers, UMass Dartmouth is the only UMass campus other than the medical school that does not have a union for graduate student employees. It also has among the lowest pay rates of the four main campuses.
Data provided by organizers shows that a teaching assistant at UMass Dartmouth is paid about $7,500 a year after expenses, while an equivalent employee is paid nearly $15,000 at UMass Boston, over 14 $000 to UMass Lowell and more than $25,000 to UMass Amherst, where these employees are offered summer jobs.
Unionized employees also typically have their fees waived, which increases their overall compensation by about $3,000 to $6,000 a year, Vincelli said.
And according to Vincelli, the relatively low pay at UMass Dartmouth doesn’t just hurt students, it also affects the university’s ability to carry out research and access grants.
“It comes with a lot of problems, but it all stems from the same impoverishment that really hinders our ability to be productive for college,” she said.
Vincelli explained that for a research institution like Dartmouth, grants are usually awarded based on the university’s track record of conducting and publishing research.
“So posts feed into grants that feed into posts that feed into grants, and it’s all about data — you have to be able to collect the data,” she said. “The professors are not in the lab, they are not collecting the data, they are graduate students.”
And these grants do more than just accommodate the research itself, Vincelli said about 60% of each grant’s money is taken by the university to account for overhead costs.
“So they’re making a tremendous amount of money from the grants,” she said. “And that’s always how it works, but it’s certainly in the university’s best interest to help the grant cycle process.”
Vincelli noted that, compared to other UMass schools, Dartmouth does not receive as many grants.
“Unfortunately, we are really struggling in this area,” she said. “Based on UMass Dartmouth numbers, compared to our neighboring institutions, our level of publication is very low and our grants are abysmal – absolutely abysmal.”
Another union organizer, Lucy McGinnis, a third-year master’s student in fisheries oceanography, said the low stipends also have a less visible effect on the quality of UMass Dartmouth’s research: they limit the type of people who can afford to study there.
“If we don’t offer competitive salaries, we won’t be able to attract the most qualified potential students,” she said. “So we really limit our graduate student body to people who have the financial security to be able to accept such low salaries. And it’s a real weakness of our program, of our research, of our work if we don’t have these [people] — the diversity of origins.
Organizers say that by forming a union, they will get “a seat at the negotiating table”.
Overall, organizers estimate there are about 250 graduate student employees at UMass Dartmouth, though it’s difficult to get an exact number because the student employees may have a variety of titles.
“The university doesn’t even know all the titles they give to their graduating employees — it’s not standardized,” Vincelli said. “They can call them what they want, pay them what they want and make the contract hours whatever they want.”
Out of an abundance of caution, organizers are seeking to collect 200 signed union permission cards, which will then be submitted to the Massachusetts Department of Labor Relations for verification.
For the organizing campaign to be successful, the DLR will need to confirm that a majority of graduate student employees have endorsed the move.
Only then will student employees be formally recognized as a “bargaining unit” empowered to bargain on behalf of all such university employees. Once verified, the bargaining unit will also be able to affiliate with a national labor organization and join or create a local, Vincelli explained.
As of September 24, two days after the organizing drive went public, organizers had received 11 signed permission cards.
One of the obstacles to student membership is that many of them feel that they are simply too busy to give serious thought to the matter.
“UMass Dartmouth graduate employees are really, really busy trying to survive, and that’s all they have the bandwidth to do,” Vincelli said.
Vincelli and McGinnis said they will work hard over the next few weeks to educate student employees about unions so they can make an informed decision about it.
“We really want our organizing process to be 100% transparent,” Vincelli said. “We are not interested in deceiving anyone.”