A brief history of a negotiation: Graduate students vs. University of Florida

by Antonios Kyriazis, GAU member

The Graduate Assistants Union (GAU) at the University of Florida (UF) has been bargaining with the university for six months now for a higher wage. Their story has been an odyssey, with many ups and downs, and has highlighted the exploitative practices on the workforce of one of the nation’s largest universities. 

The background

Let’s start with some numbers: UF has broken in to the top 5 list of public research universities this year, it brought over $860 million in research funding in 2021, has an endowment of $2.29 billion, has been hiring new faculty members, has increased the salary of out-of-unit administrators an average 8.2 percent in the period 2018-2021 and is currently building a 263,000 square foot data science department. So, why can it not give its graduate students a living wage?

Graduate assistants (GAs) have been asking this question to UF’s bargaining team for six months now. As their contracts mandate, the GAU can negotiate with the university at the beginning of each academic year. Article 10, which refers to stipends, raises and fee relief, has been in the union’s agenda since Fall 2021. The union focused this year on raising the minimum wage, which has remained stagnant at $21,333 for a 12-month appointment, since 2017. 

These $21,333 are for a maximum of 20 hours of work per week. But anyone who has been through grad school can tell you that GAs spend much more than 20 hours on their duties. These include administrative duties in the courses that they are teaching, writing and grading quizzes and homework sets, proctoring exams, conducting research for their labs, publishing articles and finally doing their own research and writing their dissertation. 

In addition to this, UF’s GAs have been facing an even more pressing problem than overwork: The rising living costs in Gainesville. According to the MIT living wage calculator, a single adult currently living in Gainesville needs $34,582. This situation has been steadily aggravated by the rising cost of inflation, as $21,333 from 2017 has the same buying power as $24,097 in September 2021. And things have worsened by rent hikes, where 30 percent of the population in Gainesville faces severe rent-burden, while a one-bedroom apartment costs $1,099, a 19 percent increase from last year.

The dire situation that GAs at UF have found themselves in was captured in a survey from September, where over 1,000 responses were recorded from a pool of 4,000 members. According to the responses, 29 percent of students cannot afford groceries, 14 percent had to use food stamps and 50 percent cannot afford medical attention.

Sleeves up

The negotiations started with the proposal to raise the minimum wage to $38,833.33, based on UF’s own calculations about the living costs of Gainesville, taking into account that one’s rent should be 30 percent of their salary to avoid being rent-burden.  The counter-offer by UF was an across the board raise of $1,060 annually, a raise that not only fails to address inflation, but also removes an important graduate student fee waiver that absorbs half of the raise. The union made a counteroffer of $34,794, the same salary that the University of Michigan provides, which is two places above UF in the public universities ranking, while also maintaining fee relief. The university asked for an extension to the negotiations to provide a counterproposal. 

That counterproposal came two months later in February 2022 as a “slap in the face,” to quote one of the GAU’s bargaining team members. The counterproposal left the minimum stipend untouched at $21,333, gave a $1,314 raise across the board, but by cutting fee relief again, resulting in an effective raise of $708. The reason for taking away fee relief, given by Ryan Fuller, a labor attorney on UF’s bargaining team, revealed a lot about the priorities of the university.

“It creates some issues with our federal and state sponsor when we are paying a lump sum outside of the normal salary cycle. They have questions about what that is because it’s not a normal wage.”

This sparked the first protest of the spring semester, which took place outside of Tigert Hall, UF’s administration building, on March 1. The GAU managed to gain some visibility, as the protest was featured by a local news station, the campus newspaper, and, later that month, in an article on the Guardian regarding graduate students across the US protesting for higher pay. The next bargaining session was on March 3, and the ball was on GAU’s side.

In a Zoom meeting with over 100 graduate assistants, a number unprecedented for these negotiations, Esteban Rodofili, GAU’s chief bargainer, opened the floor.

“We don’t think this is a good, acceptable deal. The time that is has taken to come up with this bargaining proposal does erode the trust this bargaining committee bestowed on you in December,” he stated.

He then outlined GAU’s counterproposal. The minimum stipend would be raised to the same amount as that in the University of Georgia, $29,450. The idea behind it was that the University of Georgia is also a public university located in Athens, a city that is only 2 percent cheaper than Gainesville. 

UF asked for a second extension to develop their counterproposal. As GAU members observed, this was a clear case of delaying, a common tactic by employers in these types of negotiations to kill their momentum. 

GAU organized the second protest of the spring semester in response to this delay. With even greater participation than the first one, GAs demanded UF to come to the bargaining table with their proposal. They also distributed flyers at Gator Fair, an event hosted by UF, with the aim of attracting prospective undergraduate students, informing the students’ parents how little their teachers are getting paid.

The pressure exerted by their activism seemed to be paying off when UF arranged a bargaining session on April 18, offering their best proposal up to that point. The minimum stipend would be raised to $22,753, still not enough to address inflation, and there would be either a 3 percent raise or a flat raise of $708 across the board. In addition to all that, there was no mention of cutting fee relief, which was considered an important step forward by the union’s bargaining team. They immediately submitted a counterproposal, bringing the minimum stipend down to $28,500. Finally, there was a feeling among union members that after 6 months of meetings, a proper negotiation could take place.

If it sounds like a duck …

All that went out the window when in the fourth bargaining session for spring 2022, on April 29, UF made their counterproposal. The minimum stipend was kept the same as in their last proposal, $22,753, while also offering one time payments to GA’s who make less than $18,500, something that was characterized as completely inadequate by GAs at that meeting, in addition to a 3 percent raise.  The jaw dropping moment was when Fuller announced that this was the university’s final proposal. 

“What happens when we offer you a counterproposal?” Rodofili asked.  

“We’ll decline,” Fuller responded. 

The same side that asked for an extension to the negotiations, now is flat out refusing to bargain further in good faith, declaring an unofficial impasse, without actually declaring it. 

An impasse is declared by one of the two sides when it looks like the negotiations are in a limbo without any hope of progress. In that case, a third party comes in and proposes a settlement, which is non-binding. Since that pendulum can swing in any direction, it is something that both sides have been trying to avoid, which makes UF’s ultimatum even more head-scratching. 

GAU is of course planning on keeping the pressure on UF to offer GAs a living wage. They are consulting their parent union’s advisory team regarding the legality of UF’s final offer in the middle of an extension and planning another protest in the meantime. 

Welcome to the machine

This fight is not isolated in UF, of course. In December, GAs in Columbia University reached an agreement with their university that raised their wages, expanded health insurance and work-space protections and insured the intervention of a third party in cases of harassment and discrimination.

GAs at the University of Illinois-Chicago are also on their second strike in three years, after one year of stalled negotiations with the university, demanding higher wages and lower student fees. In Indiana University, GAs are also fighting for recognition of their union. 

Even though graduate students across the nation are an indispensable component of higher education, they are also the most exploited. They conduct the majority of the research, teach labs and courses, live in a constant state of anxiety and get paid wages that would be laughable at any other sector that requires this degree of expertise and commitment from its workers. The only way that this status quo can change, is if GAs come together and organize against these powerful, corporate institutions that profit off of their backs and treat them like commodities. History has showed time and time again that collective action of workers is the agent of social change, and it is time to prove this once more.

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