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.

Sometimes It Just Works: Organizing to Win at Mizzou

This past summer, after the University of Missouri administration announced sudden and draconian cuts to their health insurance (an issue we know well), GSU developed relationships with grad student workers there. They fought back and won a powerful victory.

Over the past couple of weeks, the fight at Mizzou led by ‪#‎ConcernedStudent1950‬ against racism on campus (also not an unfamiliar issue at U of C) has wrestled its way to public notice, led by the hunger strike by grad student Jonathan Butler. We were thrilled this weekend when the football team, led by its Black players, announced that it would strike in solidarity until the university president resigned. We were further thrilled when grad student workers announced a two-day strike in solidarity. And within the last few minutes, President Wolfe has resigned.

Institutional racism is as much a labor issue as health insurance. And solidarity across segments of a university has won a major victory today. Congratulations and thank you, Mizzou students/workers.

Much media on the topic has, perhaps predictably, treated the football strike as the sole factor in bringing about this change. Important as it was, it was but one action among many, fostered by and fostering other activism. This timeline from the independent newspaper The Maneater offers a great overview of all that has been happening on the Mizzou campus around racism, grad labor, health access, and more.

Our “Pay Dues” feature is back online!

After a summer of creative resistance, our “Pay Dues” button is now fully cooperating with our efforts to use it as a link for paying annual GSU membership dues online.

The backstory: Yesterday afternoon, GSU’s web team sat down with the “Pay Dues” button over lunch at Robust Coffee. The meeting can only be described as very productive. The button bargained hard: “I want a functioning HTML link,” it said. Recognizing the justice of this demand, we readily acceded to it and took immediate steps to rectify the problem. This involving a quick web search and some copying and pasting of code. Some minimal knowledge of HTML was deployed, and within minutes, the “Pay Dues” button was functioning again. (To join our crack web team, contact Maddy, Sharvari, or Fadi, or drop an email to us through gsu@riseup.net.)

… And the dues are pouring in! Now is a great time to beat the rush and pay your 2015-2016 dues to help keep GSU afloat. We run on the volunteer labor of grad students, but we still got costs: website fees, printing costs, food for Quarterly Members’ Meetings. We need everyone’s $5 to keep up the fight for grad students through the coming year.

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You Call This Insurance? U-SHIP Deductible Surges, Amounting to $300 Pay Cut for Sick Students

Last week, University of Chicago students received an email alerting us to some dramatic increases in our health insurance deductibles on the U-SHIP plan for the coming year: from $200 to $500 for in-network providers, and from $500 to $1,000 for out-of-network providers. This means that all of us on U-SHIP insurance will have to pay at least $500 out of our own pockets for health services before our insurance plan starts to kick in.

The email assured us, “This change was necessary in order to comply with revised state and federal insurance requirements,” adding, “Our priority in our negotiations with our insurance provider was to keep the impact on average costs as low as possible.”

Average costs for whom? For Ph.D. students whose health insurance premiums are covered by the university as part of their fellowship packages, a higher deductible simply means less insurance. It diminishes the value of our fellowships by making healthcare more expensive for us than it was before. Last year, a student with a  medical condition was expected to pay the first $200 of her treatment costs. This year, she’ll find herself paying the first $500 of those costs, making her $300 poorer. For anyone who needs medical treatment, the larger deductible amounts to a $300 pay cut.

The announcement comes very suddenly, about a month before the start of the academic year. What are we to make of it? One GSU member (alias Lil’ Sparrow) writes the following: “This is what precarization of labor looks like to me.” She points to the recent abrupt cancellation of healthcare coverage for University of Missouri graduate employees (which was thankfully rescinded after a massive outcry and the threat of a strike) and notes,

In my opinion, even though the situation at MU is clearly worse, there are some underlying tendencies common to the way universities make these decisions and what their effects are for graduate student employees. Both MU and U of C have presented these as necessary measures made while keeping students interests as a priority; however, the fact that neither MU or UChicago allowed grad students a say on the matter points in the opposite direction; the assumption is that grad students are not workers and can and should assume these costs without putting up a fight.

The lack of recognition of students as workers is of course at the heart of the issue. when it comes to health care the precarization of student life becomes even more salient as other employees within the university benefit from many of the health costs that as grad students we have to absorb. If we combine the increase in the Student Life Fee w/ the recent hike in the U-SHIP deductible, we are left with a situation that is definitely worth fighting against.

What do you think? Send us a message on Facebook or Twitter, and stay tuned for details of our next meeting!

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.)

 

Your Student Life Fee $$$ at Work

Hey folks, take a look at the new budget for next year’s Student Government that was approved by SG’s membership earlier this week. This year GSU was represented in the decision-making by several GSU members who serve on the Graduate Council, not to mention the GSU-endorsed leadership of Tyler Kissinger and his United Progress team.

As you surely know, Student Government is funded by our quarterly Student Life Fee (currently $347 for grad students, headed up to $363 per quarter next year). The chart below, then, is a plan for how to spend our money–or rather, the portion of it that Student Government controls. (The majority of it, some 90 percent, is under the control of various university administrators.) Below the budget itself, stayed tuned for some straight-from-the-hip analysis by GSU members.


As one GSU member (alias: Mr. Goat) notes,

It looks like this year’s increase to grad funding comes in the form of $10K more for travel, $55K more to Grad Council, and $7.5K more to Grad Mixers. (I believe that the proper responses are, respectively, Yay, Bleah (but maybe it’ll be better with Casey), and Huh?)

On the whole, it looks like with the increase, dedicated grad student funding ($214K) is slightly under 10% of the total allocated ($2.18M).

All in all, I think that it’s good that this went through.  We weren’t levying new fees; we were deciding where they went, and I’m glad that slightly more will go to grad students (particularly to the travel fund).  At the same time, I think that we need not fear in the least that the Student Life Fee is now justified.  “We don’t want your wine and cheese” can even apply to those grad mixers.

The question of the skyrocketing Student Life Fee is separate from how that money is allocated. Sure, grad students should get their fair share. But we also need to address how fees tie into the larger system by which the university funds itself and under compensates grad labor.

That’s what Mr. Goat thinks. Another GSU student (alias: the Fighting Frog) writes:

No way is this a legitimate use of our money, whether it’s allocated “for grads” or not. I have deep reservations about the undemocratic forced extraction of student wages for any purpose.

That’s what the Fighting Frog thinks. Is Fighting Frog a crank? Is there a point to Grad Mixers? What about the Sports Club Fund or the Coalition of Academic Teams? What do you think?