Petition: Abolish the Hours Cap for Graduate Employees

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The cap on working hours  at the University of Chicago has become untenable for the graduate student population. While the 19.5 hour cap for graduate employees at the University of Chicago has  been in place for some time now, in August 2015 the administration began including teaching hours in that calculation. With this new rule, many graduate employees have lost their jobs as lecturers, teaching assistants, and as vital part-time employees throughout the university. The hours cap has, in short, limited our access to professional development, and more importantly, to the work that many of us need in order to pay our bills.  This policy change was put into effect hastily with no advance notice, nor any explanation, in the middle of a year when employment decisions and work-study awards had already been made. The administration has yet to provide a logical explanation for it.

They claim that we are “students first” and hence should be focused primarily on our academic work. If the administration wants to continue to use this rhetoric that we are students and not employees and should thus focus on our academic progress, then they should pays us sufficiently so that we can do so. We would be more than happy to focus on completing our dissertations and research if we weren’t worried about how to pay the bills. No one is working extra jobs just for fun.

The administration’s arbitrary imposition of an hour cap disregards the following facts:

  • Limiting our ability to work adversely affects various groups of graduate students, including those that come from working-class backgrounds, non-white students, international students, student parents, and students in advanced residency.
  • Graduate employees are adults, capable of making our own decisions about their working lives, without paternalistic rules forced on them by the administration.
  • At many peer institutions the hours cap for graduate employees is significantly higher. Harvard, for instance, allows its graduate students employees to work up to 40 hours per week. At BrownUniversity and Cornell University there is no cap at all, and while they have recommendations, they treat graduate employees like adults and let them make their own decisions about employment.
  • For many student employees, teaching is a requirement of our academic programs, and hence should not be considered as extraneous employment. Additionally, the university is “double-dipping” by taking teaching pay out of the stipends of students on  the GAI on a prescribed schedule that does not work well for many individual students, and then insisting that those teaching hours be counted against the graduate student work cap. They do so using a formula that is opaque, and does not allow for any distinction among widely varying amounts of time required to lecture or TA in a specific capacity.
  • Many graduate students teach only during certain quarters each year, yet this policy prevents us from maintaining job continuity from quarter to quarter due to teaching demands.
  • Many jobs that we work are not ancillary to our “professional development,” but in fact contribute directly to it.
  • Rising costs for healthcare, in particular, but also for housing, and for the general cost of living in Chicago, make it increasingly necessary for many students to supplement an already inadequate income from the university, and this policy, poorly explained, and hastily implemented, makes it nearly impossible to do so.

With this petition, Graduate Students United demands that the university abolish the 19.5 hour cap on working hours for all graduate students.

 

Let Graduate Employees Decide How to Manage Their Own Working Lives

Graduate Students United categorically denies the administration’s oft-repeated talking point that graduate employees are students first. We are from day one employees of this institution, as well as being students. All of our labor—research, writing, teaching, coordinating workshops, planning and attending conferences, etc.—produces value for the university. We receive compensation and benefits for the work that we do here: that is an employer-employee relationship. We think thou doth protest too much on this point, showing that the administration has ulterior motives in repeating this talking point ad nauseum. It is not difficult to discern what these motives are: under current labor law, graduate students at private universities are considered students and not employees, and we thus have no collective bargaining rights. It is clearly in the interests of the administration and the board of trustees that this status quo continue, and it is clear that they have done everything in their power to preserve the appearance that graduate employees are just students. We believe that the 19.5 hour cap is in place as another attempt to preserve this myth that we are students and not employees.

According to the University of Chicago Employee Handbook, certain employment benefits kick in for employees that work 20 hours or more per week. Is it just a coincidence that student employment is capped at 19.5 hours? We think not. If graduate employees were receiving employment benefits like PTO and paid vacation and sick time, it would be harder for the administration to maintain the myth that we are students and not employees. The administration belies their own position when they claim that “like faculty, PhD students must juggle multiple responsibilities related to their scholarship and teaching.”

We are glad that the administration is trying to be flexible about the 19.5 hour cap. But many problems remain. The policy is inherently unfair: many graduate employees have teaching requirements that are a part of their academic program, while others do not; some graduate employees have recourse to financial assistance from their families, while others do not; international students cannot seek employment outside of the university; student parents often need to work more to provide for their families, and so on. Leaving the decision of whether or not to allow students to exceed the 19.5 hour limit entirely in the hands of the Deans of Students is, in our view, a misguided and dangerous policy. It opens the door to unequal treatment of graduate employees, without any oversight, and without offering any form of recourse to grads who think that they have been treated unfairly. Without a clear policy to guide decisions, and without a system of oversight, decisions are too easily open to nepotism or punitive motives.

It is also misguided–and insulting–to assume that graduate employees need a policy like this to manage our time and our lives. By this point in our careers, it is perfectly within our power to balance our teaching, research, and other work on our own. Other universities explicitly recognize this fact, and treat their graduate employees like adults deserving of basic respect: at Harvard graduate employees can work 40 hours a week if they so choose; Brown and Cornell have recommendations, but they leave the decision up to the grads. Chicago should follow the lead of these ‘peer institutions’ and let us make our own decisions about our working lives.

Cut Administrative Salaries to Ensure Living Wages for Grad Employees

In their recent email announcing stipend increases and higher teaching wages, Provost Isaacs and Sian Beilock claim that it is part of the University’s mission to “ensure students can operate at the highest level.” Assuming that this is not mere rhetoric, but represents an actual and ongoing commitment of the administration, let’s consider what this would actually look like. First, a living wage, such that, for example, a single student can live comfortably in a one-bedroom apartment, or a student parent can live comfortably and provide for their children, without having to supplement their financial support from the University by finding other employment. The median rent for a one-bedroom in Hyde Park is roughly $1,000 a month, or $12,000 a year, minus other costs like electricity, internet, etc. The Federal government claims that affordable housing should not exceed 30% of annual income. Thirty percent of the new GAI level of support of $28,000 is $8,400, or $700 a month—well short of what it costs to live affordably in a one-bedroom, or even a studio apartment in Hyde Park. Base-level compensation, by these standards, should be at least $40,000 a year, and then tied to inflation. If the University wants to continue to use this rhetoric that we are students and not employees and should thus focus on our academic progress, then they should pay us sufficiently so that we can do so. We would be more than happy to focus on completing our dissertations if we weren’t constantly worried about how to pay the bills.
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Second, affordable healthcare. Health costs are, and have been for the last several years, increasing at a rate that far exceeds increases in compensation. In 2008, when GSU was campaigning to push the university to pay for our premiums in the first place, the premiums for the USHIP plan were $590 a quarter. Now they are $1144 a quarter, a 94% increase since 2008. As opposed to this, from when GSU’s organising forced the administration to double TA wages to $3000 in 2008, they have now been increased by 33%. The Student Life Fee, most of which (roughly 77%) pays for Student Health and Counseling Services on campus, has increased by around 45% since 2008 when teaching wages were last increased. It is currently $1,089 a year, $1,375 a year if a student needs access over the summer. This year the deductible for the USHIP health plan increased 150% from $200 to $500 for in-network coverage, and 100% from $500 to $1,000 for out-of-network coverage. Hence, healthcare costs for a student that uses their plan and wants access to Health and Counseling Services throughout the year are nearly $2,000 (if not more), entirely offsetting the increase in GAI funding and increases in teaching wages. And this doesn’t even take into account dental and eye coverage. Given the existing state of financial precariousness for graduate employees, the increase in health costs are such that they will present a deterrent from seeking healthcare—hardly a state of being conducive to operating at the highest level as academics.
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The situation is even more bleak for graduate employees post-GAI. Let’s say that one taught a stand-alone lecture course in all three quarters—a nearly impossible prospect, of course, but the best-case scenario in terms of compensation. At the new level of $6,000 per course, that would amount to an annual income of just $18,000. Affordable rent at this level would be a mere $450 a month. This means that advanced graduate students inevitably must seek other employment to make ends meet, increasingly taking away the time that is necessary to complete their degree. Again, if the administration is truly committed to ensuring that graduate employees “operate at the highest level,” then they should compensate us so as to make this possible. What would this look like? It would look like the Faculty Forward campaign of the Service Employee International Union’s call for compensation of 15K per course. In addition to the meagre pay, students in advanced residency are hit with AR tuition to the tune of nearly $2,400 a year. After year seven, they are required to pay for their own health care, meaning that if they wish to stay on the USHIP health plan, they must cough up roughly another $3,500 a year just to pay premiums. As it is, it is virtually structurally impossible for graduate employees in many doctoral programs to finish their degree in five or six years. The University, rather than addressing this structural problem, is trying to force advanced students out of their programs through financial attrition. This is wrong.
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“The University, rather than addressing this structural problem, is trying to force advanced students out of their programs through financial attrition. This is wrong.”
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The administration will say that this is pie-in-the-sky utopian thinking, disconnected from the pragmatic realities of running such an institution. We do not think it utopian to claim that graduate employees deserve to live as adults and have a decent standard of living, without having to take on crippling debt, or seek financial assistance from our families. This is simple economic justice. Here’s an idea: let’s cap all administrative salaries at $200,000 a year—which is roughly what U.S. congressmen and women make, and surely plenty of money for anyone to live very comfortably on. This money could then be used to increase compensation for graduate students and other employees. How much money would be saved? Well, the University of Chicago has around 20 key administrators (“administrators who make more than $150,000 and are designated by the IRS as ‘key employees’”), who take home on average about $900,000 a year. This is a total of roughly 18 million a year in administrative pay. If these salaries were capped at $200,000 a year, that would leave around 14 million dollars extra per year that could be used to increase pay for graduate students and other poorly paid employees. That would be a good starting point.
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We are pleased to hear that the administration has committed to an ongoing dialogue with graduate employees about these issues. It is good that they seek feedback from the Grad Council. This, however, should not be used as an excuse to avoid or ignore feedback from other sources, including Graduate Students United. Grad Council is not a democratically elected, nor a representative body. They have no claim to representing the interests of graduate employees. Graduate Students United, on the other hand, has such a claim: we have over 600 members across all divisions. We regularly seek feedback from our members, and the graduate student body as a whole, on issues of concern through our member’s meetings, townhalls, surveys, and email correspondence. If the administration is truly committed to an open dialogue that takes seriously the concerns of graduate employees, then they must allow Graduate Students United to have a voice in that dialogue.

Great, a Raise! Now How About Admitting We Work Here?

In early December, University of Chicago graduate employees received a pair of emails from our Provost, Eric D. Isaacs, announcing substantial wage increases for graduate employees in the Social Sciences and Humanities Divisions, as well as the Divinity School and the School of Social Service Administration. These two e-mails say it loud and clear: the University is listening to GSU, as it has been since our founding back in the spring of 2007. After all, the last pay hike for graduate TAs and lecturers on this campus — way back in 2008 — was one of GSU’s first achievements. Since then, every substantial improvement in our work and study conditions, from the freezing of AR tuition to the creation of childcare subsidies, has come in response to GSU campaigns.

 

We regret that administrators continue to avoid acknowledging their implicit dependence on GSU’s advocacy on behalf of graduate students. After all, this latest win — a 20% payraise for TAs and lecturers — comes in response to the fees campaign we launched last year, which highlighted the steep rise in fees and our growing inability to pay them on our stagnant wages. Our townhalls and rallies were packed, and our petition to abolish the Student Life Fee got over 500 signatures and substantial press coverage. We also took the fight to Student Government, packing into a meeting with Dean Rasmussen to insist that administrators respond to our demands. Most recently, we worked hard to get to the bottom of the newly enforced 19.5-hour cap on graduate student employment — a new rule that administrators have had a hard time justifying.

 

Provost Isaacs’s e-mail confirms, and as our own research suggests, that the real reason behind the cap on employment is the University’s stake in keeping us legally classified as students, not employees. Isaacs writes, “We view graduate student members of our community first and foremost as students.” In keeping with this assertion, Provost Isaacs frames the wage increase as an expression of concern for the well-being of students.

 

As graduate students and employees who make our living working at this university, we say enough is enough. While we are certainly students, we see no reason why that fact should continue to serve as a fig leaf for terrible wages. Of course we see why administrators would be so eager to insist that we are “first and foremost students”: it helps to slow down our efforts to win formal recognition as workers entitled to form a union and bargain collectively for future wage increases and other improvements in our conditions of work at this university. We see a direct connection between the 20% payraise we’ve won and the recent successful unionization campaign among UChicago’s non-tenure track faculty. In light of this recent victory, and other victories among academic workers at private and public universities across the country, U of C administrators have good reason to worry. At the University of Missouri this summer, we’ve already seen what kind of power students can gain over their working lives when they organize to demand recognition as employees of the universities they attend, and which they sustain with their labor from the moment of their arrival on campus.

 

Like these other academic workers, we are employees of the university where we pursue our graduate studies.All of our labor—research, writing, teaching, coordinating workshops, planning and attending conferences, etc.—produces value for the university. We receive compensation and benefits for the work that we do here. It is not difficult to discern why the administration avers that we’re not workers. It is clearly in the interests of the administration and the board of trustees that the status quo continue. But until the University recognizes us as employees with the same collective bargaining rights as any other worker, we won’t stop organizing.

Whither Our Trajectory? Quick Takes on the UChicagoGRAD Rebranding

Earlier this week, we learned that the good old Office of Graduate Student Affairs has been rebranded as UChicagoGRAD. This relabeled administrative entity is being described by the Provost as “a new office and comprehensive program designed to make resources for graduate students and postdoctoral scholars more accessible and more effective.”

This all sounds good, and we wish to congratulate the the office on its rebranding. We don’t all love the weighty double-portmanteau of the office’s new name, but those of us familiar with Grad Student Affairs are very glad for the help of the people who work there. Many of us have benefited greatly from their services, whether Brooke Noonan’s fellowship advice or A-J’s help with cover letters. The other staffers are, by and large, exceptionally kind and competent people.

Still, we wonder: what does the change mean in more structural terms? For one thing, it clearly reflects a shift in administrative priorities, as “improving the graduate student experience” has become a major focus. At first blush, this sounds like a great thing for all of us. But as one GSU member (alias: Saucy Salamander) observed, that may not be the case:

My sense of these expanding professionalization services is that they are pushing the division of have and have-nots upstream into the graduate student experience. Although they are promising  services for all-stages, most of the programs they are rolling out are geared towards job placement (mostly academic job placement, but increasingly elsewhere), and thus preparing their most competitive students to compete with other top school’s most competitive students.  Advanced PhD students are already staffing a lot of the services that GSA are providing, trapping those students in underpaying jobs designed to help their peers move faster through the program. Taken to one logical conclusion, the underfunded will essentially provide support to the over-funded students, reproducing features of the tenure/adjunct divide at an earlier stage.

Another aspect of the rebranding that deserves remark is that the number of staff has been considerably expanded: the provision of services to grad students now encompasses more full-time administrative posts than ever before. Another GSU member (alias: Pointed Parrot) wondered if the expanded services will benefit graduate students at all:

I suspect the real reason such programs are being created is that they justify further administrative expansion. What [the provost’s] email in fact announces is not the provision of new services, but rather a reorganization of existing services in such a way as to justify new hires: we now have “a to-be-named Director of Graduate Enrollment,” a “Director of Graduate Student and Postdoctoral Experience,” etc.

The sassiest response of all came from someone in Anthropology, of course:

Friends, I think it’s time to celebrate. Our demands have been met in the form of a new office that will “capitalize on the upward trajectory of graduate students and postdocs”: I think they mean us

What do you think? Are you offended by being capitalized on, or are you mainly just relieved that someone thinks your trajectory is upward?

(See here for further thoughts on the matter.)

 

The Institution is the Problem: Graduate Students Respond to Racism on Campus

The recent post on a student’s Facebook page the week of November 17 frightened and disgusted graduate students across campus. We were horrified by the acts of overt racism and worried about the risk that such threats posed to students. But we want to clarify to the administration that the problem of racism on campus is institutional, not incidental. This event reminded us of the many other acts of discrimination and intolerance that have taken place on campus and in the South Side again and again:

As graduate students who study and work at this university, we stand in solidarity with the students and faculty who have publicly demanded that the university work to change the climate of hostility created as a result of acts of violence, intolerance and exclusion. Administrative equivocation and delay are inexcusable. This is not an isolated act, and it should not be treated as such.

Continue reading

The Last Lactation Station

What’s been frustrating graduate students lately? If you read the Maroon, you’ll know the absence of private spaces to breastfeed is on the list. As the article explains, “The complaints stem from the fact that the majority of lactation stations on campus are located in public spaces that have a lounge or in handicapped bathrooms. In addition, several of the lactation stations were reported as non-operational by graduate student parents.”

The absence of private spaces on campus for nursing parents to breastfeed or pump milk is a growing embarrassment for the university, and as the article points out, it also happens to be a violation of federal law. That may be one reason why the university a few years ago put together this list of lactation stations to include among its “Resources for Graduate Parents.” But the list appears to have been somewhat hastily composed and not adequately vetted — a wonderful vision that has yet to be matched with the kind of institutional support needed to make it a reality.

After the Maroon article came out last Friday, one intrepid student parent and GSU member decided to go on an expedition to complete her tour of the listed lactation facilities by visiting the “lactation station” identified on the list as Room 103 in Beecher Hall. Here’s what she found:

Beecher Lactation room

I just went and checked the last “lactation station” from the list. Most are locking bathrooms and/or public lounges, but this one is a locked asbestos-containing closet.

 

 

 

 

Just try expressing breastmilk under those conditions! (The sign reads: “B103 / Mechanical Room / DANGER / Thermal systems in this mechanical room contain asbestos / Avoid creating dust and breathing asbestos fibers / Cancer and lung disease hazard / Please contact Safety and Environmental Affairs at 702-9999 before disturbing materials in this area.”)

For an idea of what the U of C can aspire to, check out the list of Lactation/Personal Care Rooms available at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Not only is there a map, but the rooms are rated by a five-star system, ranging from “available for use but not recommended” (these are mostly bathrooms) to “designed with nursing mothers in mind.”

Update (11/5/13): Today’s issue of Inside Higher Ed has a reported article on the lack of places to pump on the University of Chicago campus (“A Room of One’s Own,” 11/5/2013). The article quotes a University of Chicago spokeswoman with the following statement:

We are grateful that a student alerted us that some places on this list were substandard as lactation stations, and have been working with graduate student parents and the University Deans of Students on updating this list over the last month. Leaders of Graduate Student Affairs are also working with graduate student parents to identify additional places on campus that could be used as lactation stations.

That’s an encouraging start. But let’s be clear: the challenge here is not to identify existing places to nurse on campus; it’s to create them. If there’s one thing we’ve learned so far, it’s that most of the spots already “identified” as lactation stations are not actually suitable for this purpose, and “additional places” on campus are unlikely to do the trick without at least a few modifications. What we need are dedicated spaces and equipment to make pumping easier for nursing parents.

This will take some time and money — i.e., university resources — to get right. But if the University of Michigan can do it, there’s no reason we can’t give it a try down here in Hyde Park. We look forward to working with administrators to get there, and we’ll keep folks posted on our progress.

Organizing Orientation on January 24

Calling ALL GSUers, new and old! Do you care about healthcare, gender equity, childcare, accessibility, labor relations, and graduate student life on the University of Chicago Campus? We do, and we believe graduate students can organize effectively to have a strong voice on campus and be a resource to our members and colleagues. Our success depends on your help and direction. We are hosting an Orientation to “Organizing an Academic Labor Union” for everyone interested in getting more involved. Continue reading