“Nothing new” about poverty wages: Notes from Bargaining

Last Friday was our first bargaining session with the USF administration. Co-presidents Megan Flocken and Josh Lenes joined Chief Negotiator Ed Mitchell (UFF) by opening the bargaining session with a policy report on fees and total compensation, and their effects on investment and recruitment of graduate assistants.

Dr. Kofi Glover, Vice Provost of Human Resources, bristled at our framing of employee fees as an “employment tax,” and seemed very bothered by Josh and Megan’s interview on WMNF. Instead, he claimed that fees are something that all students must pay, and that although he sympathized with our issue, he argued that the public sees education not as a necessity, but as a “luxury.” The truth, however, is that not all Universities view fees in the same way as USF. In fact, many of USF’s current and aspirational peers have have lower fees than USF does.

Peer TypeInstitutionSemester Fees
Aspirational PeerUniversity of California: Irvine0
Aspirational PeerUniversity of California: San Diego0
Current PeerCincinnati180.00
Current PeerUniversity of Illinois: Chicago275.00
Aspirational PeerPittsburgh370.00
University of South Florida979.66
Current PeerNorth Carolina State1134.71
Aspirational PeerGeorgia Tech1221.00
Current PeerRutgers1390.00

The truth is that USF is just at the middle of the pack when it comes to Fees. Note that 3 out of 4 of USF’s aspirational peers have lower fees than USF does. If it wishes to gain membership in the Association of American Universities and become a pre-eminent institution, USF should prioritize the alleviation of graduate assistant fees, as its peers have done. If it intends to be truly “world-class” and compete on a national stage, it should follow the example of world-class institutions like Penn State, University of Michigan, and University of Oregon, all of whom charge Graduate Assistants less than $125 per semester in fees. Dr. Glover remarked that state spending on higher education in these states is higher than it is in Florida, however, Oregon ranks 47th overall in state spending on higher education per student.

What’s on the table?

This session, we presented several contract proposals on every from family medical leave, to wages and benefits, to changes to non-reappointments. Here is a summary of each issue along with a summary of our proposal:

  • Fees: Fees levied on graduate assistants comprise 12% of the average GA’s meager income, and may consume nearly half of a GA’s income who earns the minimum. We proposed a full fee waiver for all graduate assistants. This is the only fair place to begin negotiating on fees, which amount to an employment tax on GA’s.
  • Wages: GA’s at USF endure a precarious standard of living. Data collected from the bargaining unit finds that the average expenses in Tampa are ~$1476 per month, while the average salary is merely $1588/month. Grads at USF are quite literally one paycheck away from bankrupcy. We proposed a $700 across-the-board raise to match the $700 raise from the legislature last year. Despite a record legislative session this year for USF, the administration did not propose any salary increases.
  • Appointment letters: One of the benefits that USF-GAU has worked very hard to secure is access to affordable health insurance. All of our hard work would be for nothing, however, if GA’s don’t take advantage of the plan. We proposed that USF must include a statement that a GA is eligible for a health insurance subsidy on their letter of appointment.
  • Non-reappointments: Instead of outright terminating graduate assistants, some departments simply decide not to reappoint them. If departments wish to issue a written notice of non-reappointment, then they should also include a reason for non-reappointment in that notice. We think that GA’s deserve to know why they aren’t being rehired. Our proposal outlined that USF must specify a reason for non-reappointments, in the same way that they are also required to give a reason for terminations, suspensions, curtailments, or diminishments of an appointments.
  • Unpaid leave: Graduate assistants at USF still do not have a very basic benefit of emergency unpaid leave. A GA who gets ill, or much care for a partner or immediate family members is only permitted 5 days of paid leave, and no unpaid leave. This means that a GA could go to the hospital for 5 days and, on the 6th day, lose her salary, tuition waiver, and health insurance. That’s no way to treat GA’s who spend 5 or more years of their lives here. In addition to 5 days of paid leave, we proposed that the a GA may also take up to 6 weeks of unpaid leave, meaning that USF could not take away your health insurance or tuition waiver. This is a benefit that grads at UF, FSU, and FAMU have, and it’s time for USF to fall in line.
  • Other proposals: We also laid out several proposals that would help the union satisfy its obligation to enforce the Collective Bargaining Agreement including office space, automatic reinstatement of dues deductions, and additional release time for contract enforcement-related duties.

As of right now, a date for the next bargaining session has not been scheduled. We expect to go back to the bargaining table to discuss all of these issues, and remain optimistic that we can reach an agreement with the University.

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