Massachusetts Daily Collegian

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A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Graduate students demand increased wages

(Jessica Picard/Daily Collegian)

Over 50 graduate students and their supporters protested in support of fair contract bargaining and a wage increase for graduate students at the “Halloween Rally for a Dignified Wage.” The event was organized by the Graduate Employee Organization (GEO), a labor union of graduate student workers at the University of Massachusetts.

Armed with personal testimonies and boxes of PayDay candy bars, members of the GEO gathered outside the Whitmore Administration Building to ask administration “if they’re enjoying their PayDay—because we aren’t enjoying ours.”

Santiago Vidales, a graduate student studying Hispanic literature and linguistics and a co-chair of the GEO, explained that the event was to put pressure on the administration to treat graduate students fairly in ongoing contract negotiations.

“GEO is demanding an 18 percent wage increase over the next three years, as well as a reduction to student fees to successfully finish their degrees.” Vidales explained.

Alyssa Goldstein, a sociology graduate student and fellow co-chair of the GEO, began the event with a short speech depicting the group’s grievances.

“We’re here because we’re poor and we’re not making enough money,” Goldstein said. “The University is exploiting us.”

In a letter to Chancellor Subaswammy, GEO accused UMass of forcing graduate students to take an “oath of poverty,” with “offensive” economic packages and “working long hours for low pay.” The letter, signed by the GEO Bargaining Committee, demanded “[Chancellor Subaswammy] bargain fairly, timely, respectfully and with our dignity in mind.” The letter also poses the question of whether UMass is an “institution for the many” or “a corporation for the many of an elite few.”

Vidales depicted the ongoing negotiations as a “Catch-22:”  negotiators are directing the group to speak to administration, yet the administration is directing the group to speak to the negotiators. Both Vidales and Goldstein agreed that the lack of communication has made the negotiations difficult.

“This year alone, [the University] took 3.2 billion dollars out of the pockets of graduate students through fees…and they couldn’t tell us where the money was going,” Goldstein said,

During the rally, the GEO members read anonymous “my wage is a nightmare” cards, each of which was a testimonial from a graduate student struggling with low wages. Some depicted issues with paying for their education, saying “I am constantly on the brink of debt,” or “I am constantly on emotional and financial precarity.” Others detailed the struggle to pay for heating in the winter, shelter and food.

“I need to go to food banks,” one card stated, read out loud by Goldstein.

Goldstein added, “I read a lot of these cards, and there were many that talked about having to go to food banks. It’s encouraged by the administration, rather than just raising our wages.”

At each visited office inside the Whitmore Administration Building, 15 GEO members stepped forward to read a “my wage is a nightmare” card. The card was then handed with a PayDay bar to a representative of the office. Calling the protest “reverse trick-or-treating,” the GEO members sought to bring their issues to the attention of all those involved in the contract process, such as the offices of Labor Relations and Finance.

Chancellor Subaswammy was not present to meet with the organization, but members of staff in the office did listen to the students’ read cards, and promised to deliver the messages and attached treats to the Chancellor. After leaving the Whitmore Administration Building, the GEO traveled to Goodell Hall to speak with Barbara Krauthamer, the Dean of the Graduate School at the University.

Krauthamer listened to the students reading out their “my wage is a nightmare” cards, and accepted the PayDay candy bars brought to her office.

“I’ve received your demands, I’ve taken notes, and I will take them to the appropriate people,” Krauthamer told the gathered members of GEO.

Manuel Pintado, who graduated from UMass in 2015 and works with the International Students Organization (ISO), carried a sign that read “ISO stands with GEO.” Pintado said he was very pleased with how the rally was going.

“So far, it’s been very peaceful, and I think that’s important for getting the message across,” Pintado said.

Several of the signs carried during the Halloween rally were demands for University administration to bargain with GEO, but also depicted a comical reference to the costume of the carrier. A raccoon-dressed member raised a sign reading, “I eat garbage but I won’t accept your garbage proposals.”

Another member, dressed as a green pea, carried a sign reading “Peas stand up for your workers’ rights.” Other themed signs included, “Trick or Treat your workers right!” with “Trick or” crossed out, emphasizing the appeal by members for continued bargaining.

Elizabeth Nielsen, a communications graduate student, talked about what they were told by Chancellor Subaswammy when they entered the graduate program three years ago.

“During our orientation, Chancellor Subaswammy said in his speech we were taking an ‘oath of poverty,’” Nielsen said. “Do you want to be taught by people who may not be able to afford to live?”

Kathrine Esten can be reached at [email protected].

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    MatthewNov 1, 2017 at 8:48 am

    Correction: she said 3.2 million not billion.