To USF Graduate Assistant Union (GAU) Co-President Megan Flocken, the current financial situation graduate assistants (GAs) face is no laughing matter.
The USF GAU is currently bargaining with USF on multiple issues in a process Flocken called difficult and depressing, including a minimum wage of at least $12,000 a year, the strengthening of language used for tuition waivers and reimbursement for fees paid to the university out of graduate assistants’ (GA) pockets.
The GAU has been fighting for these things for a while, Flockensaid, and the time is ticking on some of its proposals as far as getting relief to those on the brink of poverty. The most recent meeting, which took place Dec. 16, was rescheduled the night before the original meeting, she said, because the university did not have its counterproposal completed. She said that when the two groups met on the new date, the counterproposal was still incomplete.
“By and large … there was really nothing that we saw them in support of or even offering a counter to,” Flocken said.
At the meeting, USF representatives were silent on the issues of minimum wage, tuition waivers and fee reimbursement, Flocken said. The GAU was also looking to strengthen notification for summer appointments that would let GAs know in advance whether or not they will be teaching summer courses.
USF brought no wage package, no counter for strengthening the language of the tuition waivers or for fee reimbursement. USF denied strengthening of notifications for summer appointments, refused accountability for cancelation of tuition waivers andrefused the description of fees GAs are charged.
“It seems like a bit of a lack of respect for the seriousness of our situation,” Flocken said. “When you have so many of us that are living at the poverty line, and you look at again just the wage disparity, not even just our president of the university, but all of these administrators … when we start thinking about how much a year that they are pulling in, it just really begins to seem like a position of injustice when they are just so silent to our proposals.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the poverty threshold for a single person household under the age of 65 was $12,316. In 2015, the poverty guideline for a single person household was $11,770, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Some GAs, however, are international students. Others have spouses, children, or other dependents they care for.
USF graduate assistants currently make about $10,000 per year, Flocken said, and doctoral students make slightly more than that. What the GAU is asking for is enough for GAs to live just above the poverty line.
“These are not lifestyle choices about dazzling travel,” Flocken said. “This is really the university that is placing us in position where we have to seek federal loans to supplement our income just to pay for our basic utilities and rent payments.
“Wouldn’t you be surprised to know that these people … are on food stamps?” she said.
Flocken said GAs take out loans to pay the fees charged to them by the university. For undergraduates, fees are part of their tuition. Part of being a GA is having tuition waived in exchange for employment. Fees are then an out-of-pocket expense for GAs. The fees can cost a GA 12 to 15 percent of their annual income, Flocken noted, and are due as a lump sum.
According to the USF website, the current cost per credit hour, including tuition and fees for an undergraduate resident at the USF Tampa campus, is $211.19. For a graduate student, that number climbs to $431.43. For nonresidents, the undergraduate and graduate tuition and fees at the Tampa campus are $575.01 and $877.17, respectively. Other charges separate from this, such as the Activities and Services fee, Athletic fee and Student Union Enhancement fee, all due once per term, add up independently of listed credit hour costs.
Flocken refers to the fees as something of a tax on their employment.
According to Flocken, approximately 90 percent of GAs receivesome form of a tuition waiver, which allows students to not have to pay tuition in exchange for their employment at the university. In order to be eligible for a tuition waiver, GAs must work at least 10 hours a week, work a minimum of 150 hours during fall or spring semesters and 100 hours during summer, according to the USF website.
GAs must also be enrolled as full-time students. If GAs do not meet all of their requirements, they become responsible for paying their tuition.
Flocken described her life of a GA in the Philosophy Department as a balance of being a full-time employee and full-time academic. GAs are responsible for their graduate work, consisting of three to four classes that require readings of at least a book a week and written work on those books, in-class lectures and writing 30-45 pages a semester. On top of that, GAs conduct original research.
When it comes to employment, the roles are diverse, Flocken said, which serves as a strength and weakness. GAs serve as research assistants in labs, teaching assistants in instructing and grading, among other roles.
“We are so multiple,” Flocken said. “We are a really pluralistic society.”
The GAU did make some progress with the university during bargaining. USF did accept one of the dates, with a modification, to notify GAs whether or not they would be teaching in the fall.
One problem, she said, is communication, as staff is constantly coming and going. The chief negotiators have changed, and recently, she said, the secretary has changed.
The chief negotiator for USF used to be Vice Provost Kofi Glover, Flocken said. She said he had a great reputation and would work with the GAU in a “good faith effort.” He no longer serves as chief negotiator and instead has been replaced by litigator John Dickinson of Constangy Brooks, Smith and Prophete, LLP. Flocken said the firm is known to be tough on unions. Glover still serves on the bargaining team, but he could not be reached for comment. Dickinson also could not be reached by time of print.
In previous interviews with the Oracle, Glover said he lived in poverty as a graduate student and that it was “nothing new,” and said that the education GAs receive during their employment is a “two-way street.”
The GAU at UF has also been pushing for lower fees and higher wages for GAs, according to the UF Alligator. According to an article by the Atlantic, the National Labor Relations Board doesn’t recognize students as official university employees, leaving out any obligation to follow standardized labor laws in determination of their compensation.
According to the USF GA handbook, GAs can’t work more than 30 hours a week or pursue outside employment.
“Suffice it to say, this university would not be able to function without us,” Flocken said. “We’re not asking more than what we need.”
According to Flocken, the next meeting is set for Feb. 12 at 10 a.m. in SVC 1070. The meeting is open to the public. Flocken encourages everyone, not just GAs, to attend.
“We really feel that the measure of an institution is not really the condition of the employer, of the highest power … but the measure of the institution is really its lowest power employee,” Flocken said.