Graduate assistants sit-in, committees sit-down to finalize contract

Graduate students speak during a bargaining session with the university. The students have been fighting for fight for workload protection, improved healthcare and wage increases. (Ashley Maher/The Daily Campus)

Graduate assistants make up about one-third of graduate students at the University of Connecticut, and their fight for workload protection, improved healthcare and wage increases has finally resulted in a fair contract.

A year after the formation of the graduate employee union and the beginning of the collective bargaining, UConn has made an agreement with its graduate employees and formalized a fair contract for the next three academic years, starting in fall 2015.

“It’s an agreement that I can whole-heartedly say my colleagues will accept,” Cera Fisher, elected member of the graduate employee bargaining committee and graduate assistant, said after the final day of bargaining Tuesday.

The graduate employee bargaining committee, comprised of six elected members, brought issues, including four financial conditions vital to a fair contract, to the negotiating table with UConn’s own bargaining committee.

The first issue was workload protection which benefits undergraduates as well as graduate employees.

Workload protection guarantees stronger wording in the contract to even out terms of graduate assistant employment such as when they’re expected to work and for how long, said Madelyn von Bayer, graduate employee.

“If an employee feels they are being asked to do more work than possible, there will be a way to make a grievance or petition,” said von Baeyer.

Von Baeyer said currently full-time TAs and RAs are expected and paid to work 20 hours a week for the university and 20 hours each week in their research toward their graduate degree.

Fisher said she often sacrifices her own research and work to give students the best attention she can, which detrimental to her position as a student and employee.

Healthcare coverage was the second issue but the recent agreement makes graduate employees benefits equal to state employees which greatly improves benefits.

“It will help people with children so much,” Fisher said.

Fisher said graduate employees were previously offered the student health plan but could not bring children to the UConn infirmary nor wanted to pay full price for outside practices.

The third issue was wages, and Tuesday the committees settled on a 3 percent increase each year, for the next three years, which is more competitive than the past high-water mark of 2005, Fisher said.

The fourth important issue was a fee waiver to remove the infrastructure fee from graduate assistants’ fee bill.

“The fee is over $2,200 … for things we don’t use or have access to like the marching band and sports,” said von Baeyer.

“And essentially after taxes, according to the size of your stipend, 10 to 20 percent of our salary back to the (university).”

The bargaining committees met more frequently as the May 1 deadline to finalize the contract approached, with meetings every other week, then every week and several full-day negotiations leading up to Tuesday’s decisions.

“We are asking UConn to shift priorities to make graduate assistants’ financial security a more important priority,” von Baeyer said.

The graduate employees participated in a sit-in on Tuesday, April 21, where teaching assistants and research assistants lined the main hallway of the Student Union and handed out flyers explaining their demands for a fair contract and coordinating chants asking for the same.

“The sit-in worked,” Fisher said. “We walked away from the table today with a full agreement.”

The university’s bargaining committee included Director of Labor Relations at UConn Michael Egan, Vice President of Research Jeff Seemann and George E. O’Brien Jr., a lawyer hired by UConn, as well as other faculty.