Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Graduate students present petition to chancellor

By Shelby Ashline

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Robert Rigo/Daily Collegian

Robert Rigo/Daily Collegian

Members of the Graduate Employee Organization (GEO) and its parent organization United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2322 presented the University of Massachusetts’ chancellor’s office with a petition and letter Thursday afternoon.

The petition, which rallied over 500 signatures in just a few hours, was formed to bring Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy’s attention to graduate students’ discontent concerning not getting paid for their work with the University in recent weeks.

“We have people who come all over the world who haven’t been paid in six to eight weeks,” said Manuel Matos, grievance coordinator with GEO. “There are people who can’t afford to eat, who can’t pay their bills, who can’t pay their tuition.”

After rallying on the lawn in front of Goodell Hall where they spent time gathering petitions Thursday morning, the group of 11 walked quietly over to Whitmore Administration Building. Upon entering Subbaswamy’s office, they were told that he was not in and instead could meet with his chief of staff Natalie Blais and vice chancellor for University relations John Kennedy.

As the group relocated to meet outside in the courtyard, Subbaswamy returned to his office. However, he was non-receptive, pushing through the crowd after saying, “I’m very busy” and uttering brief greetings.

The meeting then commenced with Matos and other members clearly stating the graduate students’ grievances. In addition to the lack of payment, co-chair of GEO Santiago Vidales explained that the graduate students who were paid were due to receive a 3.5 percent raise that was supposed to go into effect in September but had not come to fruition.

Matos, who led most of the discussion, also commented on the letter that was brought along. The letter was initially printed in the op-ed section of the Massachusetts Daily Collegian and addressed the payment issues.

Subbaswamy had allegedly not read the letter and Matos explained that the administration’s response simply worsened the issue.

“We know the administration reads what is written about them in the campus media,” said Matos, adding that it is insulting to GEO that the letter has been thus far ignored. “(Being busy is) not an excuse. We’re all busy.”

What is worse, Matos said, is that the administration has blamed the departments or even the workers themselves for the pay problems.

Vidales also voiced a grievance that the graduate students – whether they had been paid or not – want to see addressed. As a spokesperson speaking to 2,000 graduate students at the beginning of the semester, Subbaswamy stated the University pays all of its workers “a poverty wage” and boasted about its policy record. Vidales explained that the graduate students expect to hear a response from him on what was implied by the statement.

In response, Kennedy replied that he can only imagine the statement was “an ill-advised joke” and expressed the desire of the administration to help remedy the problem.

“We can come up with a process through (Human Resources) so that this won’t happen again,” Kennedy said. “We value the work that (graduate students) do at the University, in our classrooms. We want to fix this.”

Concerning the pay raises, Kennedy said that the situation may in fact be in accordance with “the accepted procedural practice of how HR does their payroll.” He believes there is a lag time between when pay raises are enacted and when they show up on workers’ pay stubs.

Ultimately, to solve the problem of the lack of pay, Kennedy suggested that the group sit down with provost Katherine Newman and dean of the graduate school John McCarthy. GEO intends to arrange a meeting, though the group still hopes to speak with Subbaswamy himself.

Although GEO was clear in stating their need to de-escalate the situation peacefully and civilly, Matos and other group members emphasized that the situation could easily escalate should the problems not be remedied.

What GEO has done, through President and Union Representative of UAW Local 2322 Jocelyn Silverlight, is contact the attorney generals of both Massachusetts and the United States. GEO will be filing a complaint with each, which will launch an official investigation into the pay issue. The group also may file an Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) charge against the administration.

According to Matos, GEO will keep organizing until they receive a response.

Their movement has gained a lot of support from the campus community, as the issue is “something that everyone can kind of rally around,” Vidales added.

“The working conditions of the grad students directly affect the learning conditions of the undergrads,” Vidales said.

“It’s the entire University that this is affecting,” Matos said. “(Graduate students) make the University just as much as everyone else does.”

Shelby Ashline can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @shelby_ashline.

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