UMass graduate students meet with administrators to discuss late pay, raises

By Anthony Rentsch

Graduate students protest after UMass withheld paychecks from 517 graduate-student-workers in 2013.  Collegian File Photo
Graduate students protest after UMass withheld paychecks from 517 graduate-student-workers in 2013.
Collegian File Photo

Members of the Graduate Employee Organization and its parent organization United Auto Workers Local 2322 met with University of Massachusetts administrators Monday afternoon to discuss the ongoing discontent with graduate student pay, less than a week after presenting a petition to the chancellor’s office.

Nearly two dozen members of GEO and UAW met with Katherine Newman, provost and senior vice chancellor for academic affairs, and John McCarthy, vice provost for graduate education and dean of the graduate school, to discuss the estimated 400 students that weren’t paid on the first payday and the raises which have not yet been given, despite being slated to have been put into effect over a month ago.

Anais Surkin, union organizer and representative for the Graduate Employee Organization, said one of the chief points of contention was that graduate students have not received a 3.5 percent wage increase that was collectively bargained between the University and the GEO last semester. She said Newman and McCarthy promised students would receive increased pay on the next payday – this Friday – as well as retroactive pay for those who did not receive a paycheck Sept. 6.

Surkin said both Newman and McCarthy took responsibility for the late pay and apologized on behalf of the University. In an email to graduate students, Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy also apologized for a comment he made at graduate student convocation concerning graduate students taking an “oath of poverty” when they enroll.

“On the one hand, they finally took responsibility,” she said. “They said ‘Yes, it’s our responsibility and we apologize.’ So it’s a step, I guess.”

Previously, the University said in a statement to the Daily Collegian that student pay could be withheld for reasons such as improperly submitted paperwork, individual department error or graduate student failure to submit required documentation “in a timely and accurate fashion.”

Surkin said the apology was an important step but believes students shouldn’t shoulder the majority of the blame, saying that only a small percentage incorrectly filed paperwork two years ago in a similar instance in which hundreds of graduate student workers were not paid.

However, Surkin also said Newman and McCarthy refused to address several key issues at the meeting.

On Thursday, members of GEO and UAW brought a petition with over 500 signatures to the chancellor’s office in the Whitmore Administration Building. There, they were told that he was not in, and that they could instead meet with his senior assistant Natalie Blais and Vice Chancellor for University Relations John Kennedy.

Blais and Kennedy told graduate students Thursday that, despite their demands to meet with the chancellor, they would need to meet with Newman and McCarthy to discuss late pay and raises, according to Surkin.

On Monday, Surkin said that Newman and McCarthy refused to discuss these issues and told members of GEO and UAW that they would need to talk to assistant dean of the graduate school Susan Chinman.

“It was this totally circular thing,” Surkin said.

On top of the retroactive pay promised at the meeting, Surkin added that she wanted the University to pay interest for the weeks graduate students have worked without their raises and “late fees” to those who were not paid on the first payday.

“You can’t just not pay your workers and not pay the raises you were supposed to,” she said.

Per an agreement signed between the University and the union last year about late salary payments, the University is not required to release information regarding the number of students who were not paid on time until Nov. 20. Surkin and other members of GEO have requested that further information be released prior to the date, but said the University has been unwilling to do so.

Surkin said Monday the union had sent a “further information request requesting what communications happened between the graduate school and the departments regarding what people they knew would get paid late.”

“If they know who is going to be paid late, they’re supposed to send a list of those names to administrators at the department level to tell those administrators to notify their graduate student workers.”

She was unsure as to when the University would release that information. At Monday’s meeting, she said Newman and McCarthy said that the parties should meet again in a month, which is “really close to the November date when we’ll have that information.”

Surkin said if GEO didn’t receive at least some of that information, they would consider filing an unfair labor practice charge with the Massachusetts Department of Labor Relations and would look into filing a violation of wage and hour laws with the state attorney general’s office because of the non-payment of wages.

Anthony Rentsch can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @Anthony_Rentsch.