Graduate Students United at the University of Chicago stands in solidarity with University of Missouri-Columbia graduate employees who have stated their intention to unionize.
The struggle came on the heels of a battle over healthcare access earlier this year. Citing changes in federal law related to the Affordable Care Act, the university abruptly ended its practice of providing graduate students with stipends to buy health insurance. Although the university knew as of July 21 that the system of subsidies for graduate employees who enrolled in the student insurance plan no longer met legal requirements, affected graduate employees were not notified until August 14, just 13 hours before many graduate employees’ coverage expired. The university announced that all graduate employees would receive a one-time stipend that would cover one semester of health insurance at the rate of the current plan offered to University of Missouri students in order to make up for the short notice.
The university claimed to have the best interests of graduate employees at heart, stating that they had “been working very hard to try and create the best possible alternative for those students to whom we have made a commitment.” However, at no point were graduate employees consulted over what they considered to be the best possible alternative. And at no point, it seems, did the university consider enrolling graduate employees in the employer-sponsored plan available to faculty and other staff and allowed under IRS rules, nor did they consider a permanent increase in graduate employee pay to accommodate for the loss of the subsidy. In addition, other universities, such as Washington University, do provide subsidized health care assistance and have not elected to remove those benefits. Therefore, it is hard to see this move by the University of Missouri as anything except an attempt to use federal law to justify a cut to graduate employee benefits.
In response to the university’s attack, more than 1,200 university workers, including teaching and research assistants, faculty and alumni, organized by the Forum on Graduate Rights, walked out on August 26 with the following demands:
- the restoration of health insurance subsidies by the spring semester, when the currently allotted funding runs out,
- the provision of more affordable housing and childcare facilities, and
- a guarantee that no graduate student will earn below the federal poverty line.
They declined to call off the walkout following a call for dialogue from the university administration, and in the process galvanized graduate workers and spurred a union drive. This is the kind of action that will be necessary if we are to defend our desperately needed benefits that allow us to carry out our day-to-day work that makes our universities run, and if we are to make full use of the professional development which graduate school programs are supposed to provide.
Beyond our general mutual interest as workers in higher education, our struggles are linked together. Earlier this year, we too were informed of changes to our health insurance plan that would increase out-of-pocket costs by 150 percent, at the same time that student fees used to pay health insurance premiums increased as well. With no inclusion of graduate employees in the process, the administration has both increased cost and decreased coverage, and has put the burden to cover the difference onto us. While insurance is still available to us, deductibles of $500 to $1,500 will put needed health care out of reach for many graduate employees, and will especially burden graduate parents. Your struggle inspires us to make similar demands and to organize to improve our standard of living.
Self-organization and collective action remain the best, indeed only, way to defend our basic standard of living, which is already precarious. Therefore, we, the members of Graduate Students United at the University of Chicago (AFT-AAUP) stand in solidarity with graduate workers at the University of Missouri as they form their union.