The Graduate Employee Union made progress in bettering the conditions for graduate assistants at the University of Connecticut, but issues of income and social equality still remain.
The GEU is a democratic organization aiming to improve the work lives of graduate assistants, with 70 percent of graduate students being members, according to Todd Vachon, GEU president.
In the past year, the union successfully won collective bargaining rights, and the ability to negotiate a legally binding contract, with overwhelming majority support from graduate assistants, according to Vachon.
“As employees who teach classes and conduct research, we are entitled to the same employment rights as other workers on campus, including the right to collective bargaining,” said Vachon. “Our union has been highly effective in making improvements in the working lives of all GAs.”
Following the attainment of collective bargaining rights, the union won dramatically improved medical benefits, according to Vachon. Negotiations between the union and the university means that GAs will not see a premium increase for three years.
“Compared to last year, we have a far superior health insurance plan that makes it easier to access quality care with less out-of-pocket expenses,” said Jessica Yorks, a master’s student in sociology. “Sometimes last year, we had to really weigh our options of whether we could afford to pay to go to the doctor and this year there is less anxiety about making medical decisions.”
Yorks was satisfied with reduced overall expenses this year. Inconvenient fees would have otherwise caused problems for her, and other GAs, she said.
“We were also able to get our expensive parking permits reduced by half this year, which is super helpful because it’s difficult to make it through the summer financially and come up with the money to buy the costly permits,” Yorks said.
“Overall, my worker benefits have improved significantly since last year and I’m really happy with everything the union has done to improve the lives of graduate students at UConn,” Yorks said.
Despite clear improvements, unresolved issues stand for UConn and the GEU. Income still plays a significant role in the quality of life for GAs, according to Christina Sneed, a graduate student of sociology. Some graduate employees struggle to pay rent or don’t even have access to proper housing.
“I know too many grad students that have housing they hate or do not have apartments, and still go to classes,” Sneed said.
GAs are often confined to housing with nearby transportation, and sellers can take advantage of student need by inflating prices, according to Sneed.
Other issues the GEU seeks to address include racial discrimination, increasing federal research funding, expanding public transit and ensuring that GAs are paid on a timely basis at the start of each semester, according to Vachon. Many of the negotiated rights for graduate employees are relatively new, so students and the university may not know or fully respect their benefits yet.
“As the contract is new, we are spending a lot of time talking to our members about their newly won rights and benefits and ensuring that the university abides by the agreement,” said Vachon. “Right now the biggest issue is contract enforcement and making sure that the university respects the rights of GAs as detailed under the contract.”
Graduate student reception to the union seems to be positive, according to Christina Kahn, PhD student of sociology.
“One thing I would say is that students who are involved in the union are deliberate,” Kahn said. “I appreciate that deliberateness.”
Strides have been made for GAs, but it seems like workers needs are only met when absolutely necessary, according to Sneed, who feels more work needs to be done.
“Should we care about people beyond if their useful to the university? I think they should,” Sneed said.
Stone Li is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.