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GEO holds rally for better working conditions

Caeli Chesin/Collegian

An estimated 50 students marched from the Student Union to Hampshire House at 10:30 a.m. on Friday to command a new contract from the University of Massachusetts administration regarding working conditions for graduate employees.

“Mandatory fees are robbery. UMass get us out of poverty,” chanted students holding signs that stated, “Fair contract, fair wages, NOW!” and “UMass works because WE do.”

According to the Graduate Employee Organization Co-Chair Santiago Vidales, the rally commenced the start of a bargaining process with the University to increase wages, improve health insurance, change the anti-discrimination clause in the current contract, get better on-campus housing and try to get more graduate workers summer funding.

A group of about 20 entered a room in Hampshire House to begin their first round of bargaining in a meeting open to the public. Chief spokesperson for labor relations Brian Harrington, administrator for the Labor Relations Nicholas Marshall and director of the writing program and English professor Rebecca Dingo were the present administration. Harrington noted Vice Provost for Graduate Education and Dean of the Graduate School John McCarthy could not make it to the initial meeting Friday due to travel-related issues.

“I’ve never been on this side of the table before,” said Harrington, looking around the crowded room.

GEO committee members introduced themselves and GEO co-chair Armanthia Duncan read a prepared opening statement.

“As it stands, our members must endure the indignity of living under an oath of poverty, as the Chancellor himself has acknowledged, we must decide between feeding our families, paying for our health care or paying our rent,” Duncan said.

The GEO is a unit of Auto Workers Local 2322 that represents and protects graduate workers at the University which includes teaching assistants, teaching associates, research assistants, project assistants, assistant residence directors, graduate interns, fellows and trainees. GEO was first established after their first contract in 1991.

President of Auto Workers Local 2322 and service representative for GEO Jocelyn Silverlight attended the rally in support of the graduate students.

“Members’ voices are really at the forefront,” said Silverlight. According to Vidales, GEO created a survey that reached almost 800 members telling what they wanted from the union, and thus what the union should be demanding of the University.

Vidales said that University resources are there, it’s just a matter of priority. He said it’s about time to center these priorities around people who need it most, and not around the most profit they can derive from said resources.

“Given the political environment, the toxic environment that we’re living in, imagine if you are an international grad worker with a family from one of the countries that the Trump administration has put in a travel ban,” Vidales said.

Vidales stated that many students without a 52-week contract, putting them without work for the summertime, wrestle with the decision of leaving Amherst, especially in an age where getting back across borders has become increasingly more difficult.

“If this person has summer funding, a decent wage and an ability to have access to housing on campus, then that no longer becomes a worry for them. They can stay on campus, they continue working, they continue doing research,” Vidales added.

Alex Ponomareff is a Ph.D. student who has been working at the University in comparative literature for six years.

“It means a lot to me to have our rights protected,” Ponomareff said. “We have a lot of international students so it’s important to protect their visas.”

Vidales said the GEO has spent a year preparing for the bargaining process that led the organization to turn in about 15 proposals to the University Friday. GEO reserves all the rights to amend these proposals as the bargaining process goes on.

According to a press release from GEO, they are asking the University to agree to a contract that would guarantee an 18 percent wage increase over three years, as well as reducing out-of-pocket health and child care costs.

Yet, while the Union wants action, they understand that it will be a process of negotiation.

“Last time we bargained, it took about a year from day one until the signing of the contract. Our initial proposals are just as big as last time, if not bigger. So, I expect it to be long, complex,” Vidales said.

Vidales is going into his third year of being co-chair. He got involved with GEO after the first semester that he taught where he was initially paid to teach one class of Spanish 110 on a 20-hour contract. The semester after he taught two classes of Spanish 110 on a 20-hour contract.

“I was doing twice as much work for half the salary basically. I found that to be incredibly unfair,” Vidales said.

After the fact, he reached out to the Union, talked to administration and professors. In a year they were able to initiate a one-on-one schedule, which is a 20-hour contract teaching one class per semester.

In the past, GEO has been active with other social justice movements on campus, such as pushing for UMass to declare itself a sanctuary campus.

In a letter to the Collegian last month, GEO outlined the principles for their bargaining campaign. Health care must remain affordable and accessible. Members will only accept wage increase significant enough to get out of poverty. Protection will be provided for the most vulnerable of members. The University will be held accountable to its mission and values of inclusivity, diversity, social justice and progressivism. Families are ensured they can stay together through fair wages, fair house and affordable healthcare. Demand the University to penalize any practice of workplace discrimination, harassment or intimidation.

In 2015, GEO also sent an open letter to Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy addressing the poverty wages the administration pays toward graduate student-workers.
“I think the biggest thing about this kind of rally is that we need solidarity in numbers,” said Maria Hyde, first semester graduate student in the labor center department.

Caeli Chesin can be reached at and followed on Twitter @caeli_chesin.



2 Responses to “GEO holds rally for better working conditions”
  1. Anonymous says:

    In a year they were able to initiate a one-on-one schedule, which is a 20-hour contract teaching one class per semester.
    Which means that the second class wasn’t offered — something to remember when you can’t get into a required class.
    Undergrads need to understand that they are on the other side of the barganing table, that GEO wants them to pay more for less. GEO is well within its rights to do this — we’d all like to get paid more for less work — but the end result is that the undergrads will pay more for fewer classes.

  2. E.V. Debs says:

    All UMass graduate assistants earn a minimum of $25/hour for their labor. That wage far exceeds the median hourly rate paid to other university employees, even after working at UMass for several years. The idea that $25/hour constitutes a poverty wage, as GEO describes it, is absurd. Hey GEO: Check your privilege!

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