USF, GAU work toward bargaining deal

Graduate Assistants United (GAU) started the Broken Hearts Campaign as part of its efforts to bring attention to Graduate Assistant (GA) struggles. During the GAU meeting Friday, GAs sported shirts and signs with broken hearts to symbolize the campaign.

The USF Graduate Assistants United (GAU) met with university negotiators Friday to continue bargaining for higher wages, tuition waivers and fee reimbursement for Graduate Assistants (GAs) across USF.

This is not by any means a new battle for GAU and progress has been slow over months of work. However, Friday’s meeting took steps toward an end by agreeing that the university will deliver written notice of non-reappointment with the ability for GAs to request more details concerning why.

GAU Co-President Megan Flocken led the bargaining discussion by explaining changes the GAU made to its proposed collective bargaining agreement based on concerns voiced by the university at their meeting in December. These included changing dates, shortening or lengthening deadlines, removing unnecessary words and moving parts around. 

The majority of the GAU’s requests focus around a more solid schedule for GAs, better communication between GAs and the university and to raise wage minimums to $12,000 for both masters and doctoral level GAs. This means specific dates by which a GA needs to be told if they’ll be rehired, notice of a missed paycheck, written letters of dismissal, 100 percent fee reimbursement and a minimum wage raise.

While GAs qualify for tuition reimbursement, this is not always guaranteed and does not extend to additional fees which, according to a survey done by GAU and presented at the meeting, add up to $838.95 on average a semester, or 12 to 15 percent of their gross income.

“Fewer mandatory fees would make a world of difference,” one anonymous GA said in the survey. 

“To be able to save $800 each semester, or even a portion of that, would make it easier for me to buy groceries, clothing and other necessities after my rent, car payment and regular doctor appointments are paid for. I might even have a little left over for outings with friends or for saving for the future, which would add to my quality of life and peace of mind immensely.”

Flocken also made the case that GAs often times don’t know if they’ll be returning the next semester, sometimes not until after they’ve already accepted another position to help pay for bills. They can also have periods during semester breaks without any income, adding to the financial worries.

“A (GA) has financial obligations, …” another anonymous submission said. “Thus, the (GA) will find alternate payment in the private sector, presumably in their chosen field of study, so that they can meet their financial obligations. 

“And if the university then decides to offer the former Graduate Assistant a new contract after they have already accepted a position in their field, then the university is placing the student in the position of either declining a valuable position as a graduate assistant … or breaking a contract with a new employer in the student’s chosen field of study, which may potentially sully they’re burgeoning reputation within that field.”

During discussion concerning wage increases, university chief negotiator John Dickinson of Constangy Brooks, Smith and Prophete, LLP focused on the health care provided to GAs through the university. This cost has gone up by about 30 percent in the last three years, which is a cost the GAs do not have to absorb. Flocken responded that health care is one of the main things keeping GAs from moving to another school. 

While the meeting did not bring any final verdict and there will be another meeting, which Flocken hopes will be within the next month, the university did bring forward a counter proposal to GAU’s request for a wage increase.

This includes a bonus of $500 to each GA within 60 days of settling on the contract. As well as a payment increase in the fall of 2016 to the GAs in the lower quartile with $400,000 to be evenly divided among those GAs. Finally, the university agreed to pay the full current amount of health insurance, establishing a cap for how much the university will spend on it in the future — although this is open to change in future discussion. Dickinson said that this results in over a million dollars in cost to the university.

“We’ve been somewhat surprised about the aggressive nature we’ve seen at the bargaining table,” Dickinson said at the meeting. “We are very proud as a university of our (GA).”

Flocken holds that the GAU’s concerns brought to the bargaining table relate to issues faced by GAs at the university.

“Just as with all the additions we are proposing and changes we are proposing, they are motivated by actual GA working conditions,” Flocken said at the meeting. “We are already full time workers. We don’t have the time to sit around dreaming of what our contract could be. We are responding to specific concerns.”