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UMass administrators exploit and disrespect graduate students

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(Collegian File Photo)

(Collegian File Photo)

I spent the afternoon of April 21 sitting at a plastic table in an eighth floor Campus Center conference room to observe a bargaining meeting between University of Massachusetts management and the Graduate Employee Organization, which is the union that represents graduate student workers on our campus. For those who don’t know, GEO’s contract protects the rights and working conditions of the people who grade most of our papers and exams and teach many of our classes. I should be upfront about my take on the matter: I am deeply pro-union, and if you’re interested in having a decent college life here at UMass, I think you ought to join me.

Graduate students at this University often live on poverty wages. Their health benefits are inadequate. Their workloads change drastically from semester to semester. Their right to make decisions about their reproduction is curtailed by the meager parental leave offered by the University, and many cannot be secure in the knowledge that they will be employed year to year. They are overworked, underfunded and frequently disrespected by the administration.

Under these conditions, graduate students are expected to provide us with all of the attention and intellectual labor we need to grow as scholars and citizens. The majority of classes taught to incoming students are taught by graduate students. Discussion sections, one of the only spaces we have to talk in a reasonably sized group about courses with enrollment in the hundreds, are led by graduate students. They are one of the most consistent, important parts of our classroom experience. Surely, I thought, a University that trumpets from every piece of promotional material that “UMatter at UMass” would be interested in making sure that its graduate students can put their all into teaching the undergraduate population.

Unfortunately, that does not seem to be the case. I’m friendly with most of the GEO bargaining team, and I’ve overheard complaints of disrespect from the representatives of the University, but I was not prepared for what I walked in on.

The meeting was scheduled to begin at 1 p.m. Management arrived 20 minutes late, which resulted in several members of GEO having to leave to teach classes before having the opportunity to look them in the eye. When I was introduced to the University’s representatives as an undergraduate student to support the union, expressions of mild terror swept their faces. They left the room, and then pulled GEO’s leadership into the hallway and demanded to know if I was a reporter for the Collegian. My impression is that, if I had been, I would have been asked to leave. We all need to be worried when people in positions of authority in our school quake at the thought of their behavior at the bargaining table being broadcast to the public.

Sitting in on the bargaining session was something like watching the Super Bowl: for every five minutes of actual discussion between the opposing sides, management spent 10 in another room, apparently arguing amongst themselves as the graduate students sat idle. The meeting stretched for two hours. In that period, I think I saw half an hour of discussion. In that half hour, maybe half of management’s behavior could be called bargaining and not petty bullying.

During a discussion of the union’s request that they be notified of any meeting where employees were being informed of changes to their scheduling or workload, one of the members of the bargaining team explained that, per the union’s Weingarten rights, union members are legally entitled to have a union representative with them at those meetings. This did not sit well with Professor John McCarthy, Dean of the Graduate School, who proceeded to harangue the bargaining team member for “lecturing” management and his “disrespectful” tone. I’ve personally seen students in grade school behave better under pressure, and it was shocking to see an adult in a position of authority explode at someone who was effectively helping him avoid legal trouble.

Throughout this meeting, I was frequently reminded of the disrespect, evasion and lack of transparency that the administration uses when it addresses the undergraduate student population. Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy offered us 20 minutes in a public forum to talk about racist death threats scrawled on the doors of students of color. The University spent millions of dollars on luxury dorms for the prestige students in the Honors College, while I’ve watched my friends drop like flies under mounting debts.

This University runs on the exploitation of its graduate students and the stolen futures of its undergraduates. The struggle of the graduate students is against an enemy we hold in common. Which side are you on?

Mason Weiser is a Collegian contributor and can be reached at [email protected]

6 Comments

6 Responses to “UMass administrators exploit and disrespect graduate students”

  1. Jimmie Hoffa on April 27th, 2015 5:10 pm

    So one of the problems with this “article” is the inaccuracy in the working conditions described. Chiefly the idea that GEO members work for “poverty wages” and that the information provided is not complete.

    I beleive the GEO mimimun wage is over $21 an hour, so that could hardly be considered a “poverty wage”. The failure to disclose other pertinent information such as the number of hours “worked” usually being a 20 hour a week contract for 38 weeks and that undermines the claims of “poverty wages”.

    While the GEO wages may at first glance appear to be close to the Federal poverty level (which is $11,770 for a single adult and $15,930 for a family of 2) the facts belie a different story. $21 at 20 hours a week times 38 weeks is $15, 960.

    That figure does not include the tuition waivers included in the GEO contract and the health insurance, which I beleive is covered at 95% for a single and 90% for a family. Sure the deductables and copays aren’t great, but prehaps GEO should be fighting for single payer healthcare instead of complaining about an insurance plan which is still better then what many workers have access to in the private sector.

    If one were to do the math, all toll the “poverty wages” with other benefits is actually worth well over $30,000 I beleive. Not bad for a part time job for less then a full years worth of work. Of course the facts don’t sound as dramatic, but they are the facts.

  2. Kate on April 27th, 2015 8:35 pm

    I attended Umass as a single mom living well below the poverty level and had multiple classes with John McCarthy. He was by far the most compassionate and supportive person I dealt with in the entire school, and would often reach out to help grad students in his department that were struggling financially or emotionally.

  3. Alumni Achieved on April 27th, 2015 10:45 pm

    Easy, eliminate the tuition waiver and give the difference to graduate students. Charge them for the education.

  4. Jon on April 28th, 2015 12:20 am

    As Jimmie Hoffa has overlooked, part of the problem (and one of the things this article clearly states) is that GEO employees are routinely working more than 20 hours a week. It’s not as if graduate student instructors get to keep a time sheet and hand it in at the end of the week, and if they work more than 20 hours they get compensated for that extra time. No — instead they are expected to teach, grade, tutor, lesson plan and meet with students, and if that goes over 20 hours a week (which it easily can), then they are expected to work just as hard for what ends up being a reduced hourly wage.

    All GEO is asking for is a little more transparency in the rules and processes governing these grad students’ lives, and at the very least, a civil discussion. Doesn’t sound like they’re getting it. And the fact that they make SLIGHTLY above poverty wages (to be clear, your teachers living on $15,000 still qualify and rely on WIC, food stamps, and other federal welfare benefits for their daily necessities) doesn’t mean they deserve to be snubbed by administration officials who are supposed to have their students’ best interests in mind.

  5. Jimmie Hoffa on April 30th, 2015 4:55 pm

    Scouring the article (repeatedly) after reading another reader’s response to my comments I can find not a single mention of the hours graduate employees are expected to “average” weekly in their position.

    That is contrary to the writer’s assertions that, “(and one of the things this article clearly states) is that GEO employees are routinely working more than 20 hours a week.” Nothing could be less clear, all the article does is make a claim an unsubstantiated claim regarding grad employees “That they are overworked.”

    Regardless the article nor the respondent’s biased remarks do not address my point. If someone wishes to make a claim than it would behoove them to compare apples to apples. In this case making a claim that, “They are overworked” is not in anyway providing evidence of the claim that they “routinely work more then 20 hours”.

    A full-time worker works 2080 hours a year, yet a grad employee at a 20 hour position for a 38 week position works 760 hours a year. In what world can the claim be made that working for approximately the same money for work well under 1/2 the hours is poverty wages? Assuming of course they are using some common measure of what “poverty wages” are.

    I’d expect such as a lack of fact checking or accuracy from Fox News not from individuals who are attending a higher learning institute,

    Additionally, the information referred to regarding Weingarten Rights is also inaccurate and shows a total lack of understanding of the law.

    First it is questionable whether an employee could avail themselves of their Weingarten Rights at a meeting with their adviser as described, but even so it is the employees responsibility to request union representation. There is no requirement the employer notify the employee of their rights.

    So I fail to see how citing incorrect information regarding labor law was “effectively helping him (Professor John McCarthy) avoid legal trouble.”?

    Finally, maybe the bigger concern that grad employees should have is what are they going to do with their degrees when they graduate if there are no full time tenured professors positions available? As the writer did point out (correctly) grad employees teach approximately half of the courses on the UMass campus.

    That figure is no doubt similar at many other institutions, so shouldn’t at least part of the concern be what happens when they have no grad position and can’t find full time work? .

  6. cori on May 1st, 2015 11:11 pm

    lol jimmie hoffa wants to fire all the grad teachers

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