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UMass Graduate Employee Organization stages sit-in at Whitmore

GEO gathers to ask university officials for better work benefits

April 20, 2018

AMHERST — In the middle of negotiations for a new contract, the Graduate Employee Organization at the University of Massachusetts staged a sit-in at the Whitmore Administration Building on Friday demanding better work benefits from the university.

Spread across the floor of the chancellor’s office were about 20 union representatives, students and supporters gathered to ask the university officials for higher wages, lower fees, fully funded childcare and paid unused vacation time.

“The university seems to have money to buy other things, like buying campuses in eastern Massachusetts and paying the athletic director a lot of money,” said Alyssa Goldstein, co-chair of the GEO and a graduate student studying sociology. “But when it comes to actually paying money to the workers who are doing the teaching, the research, the grading — they’re coming up empty.”

The GEO’s last contract expired in the summer of 2017, and since then, members of the GEO have been negotiating with the university’s bargaining team to create a new contract. The GEO’s former contract contains an “evergreen clause” that continues the contract until a new one can be made, Goldstein said.

(Elissa Borden/Amherst Wire)

“We just haven’t been getting enough counter proposals on things from the university, we have been presenting things that they have just rejected out of hand … so we want to actually be getting counters from them so we can bargain and that has been difficult to do for the past year,” Goldstein said. ”They have been slow about it and they have been tight-fisted with the money.”

Partway through the day, a few representatives of the GEO had a meeting with Andrew Mangels, the vice chancellor for administration and finance, for a meeting regarding the protest.

“It was very quick, only about five minutes,” Goldstein said. “He didn’t really give much of a response. I guess we’re going to have to wait for our next bargaining sessions to see if this made any impact and is going to materialize in the form of proposals that are more amenable to us.”

Among the demands the GEO is making is an 18 percent wage increase for members over three years, at an increase of six percent per year. The GEO says that these increases are to compensate for inflation and to prevent poverty for graduate students.

The GEO is also asking for the graduate service and engineering fee to be either waived or reduced. The service fee funds resources like the transit system and is charged to all graduate students based on the number of credits they are taking. The engineering fee, by contrast, is assessed to students in engineering to help pay for equipment and laboratories.

“The graduate service fee is generally is several hundred dollars at the start of each semester. I have to pay back my entire first paycheck of every semester to the university in the form of fees,” Goldstein said. “It’s incredibly burdensome. It really adds to the burden of poverty that we face.”

(Elissa Borden/Amherst Wire)

Christina Gray, caucus coordinator and a member of the bargaining team at the GEO along with her friend Louis Colaruotolo, chair of the Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) caucus at the GEO, were at the sit-in and said that graduate students should be paid for unused vacation time at the end of their contract.

“Paid for unused vacation time is standard practice at a lot of places, and it is here in the university; the MSP (Massachusetts Society of Professors) has paid for unused vacation time,” Gray said. “But grad students don’t have that.”

Colaruotolo agrees, that as a STEM major himself, he has responsibilities in his research that demands him to be at the university to take measurements seven days a week, that this constant work is taxing and doesn’t allow for much time off.

“I’m not expecting the nature of my job to change overnight,” Colaruotolo said. “I’m hoping to be compensated for working at a different capacity than your average worker.”

Joe Keady, a graduate student studying comparative literature said that he wanted the sit-in to show the administration that the GEO was serious about the demands that they were making.

“We want the administration to take it seriously and to show up,” Keady said. “They’re not really taking it seriously, they’re stalling.”

Email Mike Connors at [email protected]

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