Graduate student employees filled the main hallway of the Student Union Thursday afternoon chanting, “What do we want? A fair contract. When do we want it? Now.” Wearing GEU t-shirts and wielding protest signs, members of the Graduate Employee Union protested changes made to their contracts.
The event started at 2 p.m. and lasted for about three hours. This is the second sit-in protest the group has held, after sitting in on university president Susan Herbst’s office hours Tuesday, March 27.
Negotiations regarding the contract began this morning, Union President Steven Manicastri said in a speech addressing the whole cohort of protestors.
Manicastri and other organizers led the group in chant to the tune of “We Will Rock You,” replacing the words with, “We are, we are TAs.”
Members of the union are frustrated by the raising of fees, which total to around $650 per semester and are rarely used, and are fighting the administration on several changes the university wants to make to contracts, Perry Hatchfield, union member and physics GA, said.
“The university has hired big time lawyers to come in for hundreds of thousands of dollars in order to fight the union instead of just making our fees a little bit less ridiculous,” Hatchfield, union member and physics graduate assistant, said. “It just seems like a complete waste of time and money.”
Three groups were sent to protest in Gulley Hall, Wood Hall and the Wilbur Cross building. During the protest, graduate students sat in the main hallway outside of the commuter lounges, grading papers, passing around snacks and occasionally breaking into a chant or a song. Toward the beginning of the sit-in, protesters “introduced themselves” to UConn by standing and stating their names, their positions and why they were fighting for a new contract.
Grad students generally receive a stipend of under $20,000 per year, plus tuition and health insurance, while generating roughly $250 million in research revenue for the university and the state economy, said the union member in charge of media communication and protest organizer, Anna Ziering. The goal of the negotiation is for grad students to have fair working conditions and wages, affordable healthcare and stronger safeguards against sexual harassment and discrimination.
“We’re bargaining for a fair contract that, within the means of UConn’s budget, will enhance our ability to provide quality education for children and families,” Ziering said. “We do critical teaching. We do critical research. And we spend nearly five to seven years of our lives pursuing a PhD. Without us here, UConn wouldn’t be able to do what it does.”
The university has fought for raising graduate student fees, as well as doubling health insurance premiums and removing parts of the contract that protect graduate employees from sexual harassment and discrimination, Kate Ragon, a GA in sociology and organizer of the protest, said in a speech addressed to the crowd. If the contract is not worked out by April 9, the grad students will not have a settled contract for another year.
“I love what I do, I’d rather be working,” Ziering yelled, leading the group in chanting. “But instead, we’re here fighting for our health care, fighting for protection against sexual harassment.”
Participants in the protest felt that UConn’s response to the demands made by the GEU was unacceptable, Sarah Peck, a union member and TA in Computer Science Engineering, said.
“It’s important for the union to stand together as one in order to get anything done. And we decided on our priorities in a democratic way, we all voted,” Peck said. “And UConn is not responding well to our proposals. So, we’re here to tell them that’s not acceptable.”
Rising healthcare costs were a main concern in the protests, organizers said. Jarred Wiehe, a final-year English student, shared his story about how critical healthcare is by explaining that he was able to keep his job after a life-altering back injury and emergency surgery last year because of the healthcare component in his contract.
“I’m advocating and making sure that the graduate students of the next generation are still completely covered and have all of the healthcare benefits that we are entitled to and deserve because of our work,” Wiehe said.
The possibility of rolling back on protections against sexual harassment and discrimination was another main point of contention for the protesters, James Micklui, a post-doctoral research assistant in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology department, said.
“I think the really saddening thing isn’t even about money, it’s about things like whether to roll back sexual harassment. I think that’s really unfortunate and shows the administration’s true colors. I don’t think they’re working in our best interest,” Micklui said. “So, as postdocs, we stand in solidarity with these grad students here. We think they should be treated fairly.”
Negotiations for the day concluded around 5 p.m. Protesters in the Student Union were notified via text message and wrapped up the sit-in promptly. The organizers said they were pleased with the turnout and conclusion of today’s negotiations, said Dan Graham, an English PhD student.
“I thought it was really good. We had a great turnout,” Graham said. “We kept up the energy throughout. I’m surprised that we carried it on for three hours and had such a sizeable amount of people at the end.”
Negotiations will continue into Friday and are not finalized. The protests today were a part of a struggle graduate student employees have faced across the country, Gregory Doukas, a doctoral student in the department of political science, said.
“The reason movements like this are important is because what’s happening right now at the university is part of a larger assault on institutions of higher education that is going on across the country. The colleges and universities that are going to thrive are going to be the ones where students, faculty and learning are prioritized, before anything else. If we’re going to experience hikes in our student fees, and they’re trying to double the price of our healthcare, that’s obviously not prioritizing the students, employees and faculty,” Doukas said. “Most of the grad students here are employed union members, mustering the political power to show everyone and force the administration that we’re bargaining with to give us a fair contract.”
Miranda Garcia is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.