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Graduate assistants bargain for consistency, better benefits

Members of Graduate Assistants United (GAU) and the United Faculty of Florida met with University administrators for a third time last week to continue negotiations on a new contract.

With two issues still on the bargaining table, administrators and the GAU came to an agreement on two previously discussed articles.

The first was a year-round funding increase for a GAU administrator. Previously, administrators had only provided payment – called release time – during the spring and fall semesters.

The new contract will provide 1.5 units of release time during those semesters as well as one unit of release time during the summer.

The administration also agreed to help minimize the impact of administrative fees at the beginning of each semester.

Currently, graduate students incur a fee of $700 for in-state students, $1,100 for out-of-state students and more for international students. These fees must be paid by the first Friday of classes or students risk being dropped from their courses.

While administrators appeared amenable to restructuring the payment process, they bemoaned the difficulty of reconfiguring the current system.

“What it boils down to is not, ‘do we want to do this?'” said Sandy Lovins, USF’s chief negotiator. “The feasibility is the issue. It is much more complex. There are reconciliation issues, system issues, the need for systems to talk to each other and how we reconcile that.”

Still up for debate is Article 12, concerning tuition waivers, and Article 23, concerning graduate assistants’ stipends.

Although negotiations have proved to be difficult in light of recent budget cuts, both parties recognized that attracting the best graduate students and providing the best programs were of the utmost importance.

Jason Simms, GAU co-president acknowledged the University’s difficult position.

“(The GAU) has to operate within legitimate budget constraints,” he said. “Members of the administration have to answer to the Board of Trustees, they have to protect the interests of the University.”

Although Simms acts as chief negotiator for the GAU, he recognized that both parties have to make some concessions to reach their mutual goal.

“It’s interest-based bargaining. The core interest is the importance of bringing in the best graduate student,” he said.

Article 12 covers matriculation and tuition payment programs and has been heavily debated during the previous two bargaining sessions.

While the article states that tuition will be waived “if sufficient funds are available,” GAU has requested clarification for the inconsistencies of hiring and firing graduate assistants.

“The GAU wants language that defines the process for who is prioritized for receiving funds. We want consistency,” Simms said.

Associate Provost Kofi Glover agreed with Simms’ sentiment that while consistency is necessary, it’s not always possible. He said clarification would be addressed in the next session.

The GAU also presented its proposal for a revision of stipends. Graduate students receive $8,100, while students at the doctoral level receive $9,580. Each is paid over a nine-month employment term. The GAU’s proposition would increase master’s stipend to $9,500 and doctorate’s to $11,000.

Glover was unable to give any indication to what counteroffer he will bring to the table when the bargaining teams meet again.

“I don’t know right now – all we are getting is cuts and cuts,” said Glover.

He did, however, stress that administrators are doing everything to protect the integrity of USF’s academic programs.

“We are protecting the student aspect of the budget,” he said. “We are not cutting from tuition waivers at this point.”

Bargaining will resume April 1 at 3:30 p.m. in Room 2070 of the Student Services Buildings. Meetings are open to the public.