Graduate assistants, strong in numbers, begin bargaining

Membership in Graduate Assistants United, the union representing graduate assistants at USF, had dwindled in June to nearly nothing after months of turnover and declining interest.

Today, after an office-to-office campaign that has boosted membership to 140 graduate assistants, GAU enters the first round of its collective bargaining talks with USF administrators, in which it hopes to parlay its increased ranks intobetter pay and health benefits for graduate assistants.

“We’re always in a state of trying to reorganize so that we can have a critical mass of members,” said Jason Simms, co-president of GAU. “Membership was nearly zero. We’ve had to re-grow from almost nothing.”

In its current contract, which runs through 2008, GAU has the option to reopen negotiations with USF administrators every year on stipend-related issues, such as graduate assistants’ minimum pay rate and University contributions to their health care plans.

Key for the GAU in any bargaining session is to show administrators how the package USF offers stacks up to peer schools in the state, Simms said. A more competitive package means the University can attract better graduate students, which will presumably lead to the production of higher-quality research and a better reputation for the University, said Jon Belof, a graduate student assisting the bargaining session.

“The research that comes out of this University is built on the backs of graduate students,” Belof said. “We really enable the University to complete its mission.”

The minimum pay rate offered to graduate assistants – whose base is composed of graduate students who work as teaching, research and general assistants for the University – is comparable to the pay rates offered at the University of Florida, the only other school in Florida comparable to USF in enrollment and prestige with an active chapter of the GAU.

But the health care plan offered at UF surpasses USF’s, Simms said. UF subsidizes the health care plan for its graduate students, as USF’s plan pays $600 – half of the cost of the USF Student Health Insurance Plan. UF’s plan also covers mental health, dental and vision care, as well as spouses, dependents and domestic partners – USF’s plan covers none of these.

GAU will hold its first bargaining session, called the reopener session, with administrators today at 8 a.m. in rooms 123 and 124 of the Business Administration building. The session is open to the public.