Grad students are an issue in UR contract talks

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As talks between the University of Rochester and two Service Employee International Union units resumed this week, SEIU Local 200United’s hope of bringing some 1,500 UR graduate students into the union’s fold remain a sticking point.

In the talks, SEIU 200United and 1999SEIU, separate units that now collectively represent some 1,800 River Campus and UR Medical Campus workers, are bargaining in concert to strike new agreements for contracts that, after multiple extensions, ran out Oct. 31.

The SEIU units staged a one-day strike last week before returning to the bargaining table Monday. Accusing UR of stalling talks, the unions had filed a complaint against the university with the National Labor Relations Board before staging the walkout.

“The University has been negotiating in good faith since late August with representatives from 1199 SEIU and 200United SEIU to achieve a multi-year contract renewal that is fair, competitive and equitable,” UR said in a statement issued last week.

The union is seeking to also bring graduate students’ concerns into the talks, a move UR has so far resisted, says SEIU 200United organizer Jake Allen.

UR officials did not immediately respond to the Rochester Beacon’s request for comment on the graduate student question.

In arrangements long common to many U.S. colleges and universities, many UR graduate students including River Campus Ph.D. candidates and researchers working in UR Medical Center laboratories receive annual stipends in exchange for duties including conducting and publishing research and teaching classes.

To many, the bargain might sound like a fair exchange. Many doctoral degrees are potentially valuable commodities on the job market. And according to Best Colleges, the average annual cost of a Ph.D. at U.S. colleges is $40,900 a year. UR Ph.D. candidates, receiving annual stipends ranging from approximately $16,000 to $34,000, do not pay tuition.

The deal is not as sweet as it might seem, however, asserts Justin Grossman, a doctoral candidate in history, who says his $16,000 stipend does not come close to covering his living expenses. Nor does it fairly compensate him for the teaching and research work he has done for the university, Grossman adds.

Even though at the end of the process they can expect to be rewarded with a potentially valuable credential, “we are workers in every sense,” says Grossman of himself and other Ph.D. candidates.

At the start of what he expects to be a five- to six-year slog to earn a Ph.D., Grossman served as a teaching assistant, instructing undergraduates for five semesters. The position, for which he not only taught but developed coursework, amounted to a full-time job, Grossman says.

And while he is no longer shouldering those responsibilities, the research he is conducting on how members of the Massachusetts native American Wampanoag tribe’s identities have changed over the past half-century belongs not to him but to UR as will any publications that come out of it.

Such research, Grossman contends, “is the backbone” of a university that prides itself as a major research institution.

A onetime teacher in a Minnesota middle school, Grossman enrolled in UR’s graduate history program several years ago with an eye to eventually scoring a tenured position as a higher-education history professor.

While the cost of living has risen, UR history department stipends have not seen an upward adjustment since 2010, complains Grossman, who serves as president of the River Campus graduate student organization.

While graduate students have attempted to begin dialogue with the university, “they have not been responsive our financial concerns,” says Grossman, who adds that his first thought in reaching out to the school’s administration had not been to do so through a union. 

Grossman shares a South Wedge apartment with a domestic partner who works as Highland Hospital physician assistant. He says the only way he managed to cover his share of the rent and other living  expenses last year was by adding to his stipend with earnings from a summer job.

This year, Grossman says, his adviser told him it would be wise to not take outside work so as to devote more time to his research.

Alexis Feidler is a third-year Ph.D. candidate who works in the UR School of Medicine and Dentistry laboratory as a researcher studying fragile X syndrome, a genetic condition that can cause intellectual impairment.

Her $32,000 annual stipend is close to top of the scale and admittedly much better than stipends paid to lower-paid graduate students like Grossman, Feidler concedes, Still, she says, even on the higher end of the scale, “working conditions are not that great.”

Feidler, who lives with a roommate, says that even at the upper end of the stipend scale finances can be tight. That some graduate students like herself are paid twice as much as others is unfair, she adds.

UR has made some concessions to graduate students, SEIU 200United’s Allen says, putting them on a university health plan, for example. But while the plan covers medical expenses, it does not include any vision or dental care, benefits SEIU 200United would like to make part of negotiations.

Allen helped organize Syracuse University graduate students, whose approximately 1,000-member Syracuse Graduate Employees United Local 200 chapter is currently negotiating a first contract with that university.

Unlike Syracuse University, Allen says, UR has thrown a roadblock in the way of its graduate students’ attempt to organize, classifying them as fellows in 2017. As fellows, he explains, they are classed as independent contractors, a designation that makes their ability to organize as members of a bargaining unit unclear.  

“There could be a pathway to forming a grad student union at the U of R even though they are independent contractors,” Allen believes.

But so far, he adds, the university has cited unnamed provisions of the National Labor Relations Act, which, it maintains, would bar such a move. It has refused to identify any specific provisions of the 1935 law, however.

Will Astor is Rochester Beacon senior writer. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected]

2 thoughts on “Grad students are an issue in UR contract talks

  1. Did these highly educated intellectuals realize the system and the journey they had signed up for in their quest to attain doctoral status? They know this going in, right? Then all of sudden we want, we need, we demand and not just some, we want it all and then some. They are residing in a different world, period. Now a union for the privileged. And I thought the guy/gal on the corner by the traffic light was someone in need. Turns out to be a graduate student. Then we learn that health care is limited and dental and eye care is not included! The audacity! Welcome to the real world.

    • Can you imagine living on $16,000 per year? Perhaps if you lived at home with parents, but most grad students are on their own. Theoretically, a doctoral program takes 3 years after obtaining an undergraduate degree. With an assistantship, it is typically promoted as taking 4. The reality is that it often takes seven (or even more) because the student is doing someone else’s research rather than what is required for the dissertation.

      Universities take advantage of these students and the students need some way of countering that power. And when these students do finish, they are likely to be exploited again, working as adjunct faculty at a small fraction of what full time tenure-track faculty are paid. These students are not elites, they are more akin to indentured servants.

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