Wages debated as union vote nears

Kelly Hildebrandt

When graduate assistants are making their decision on whether to vote in favor a union, wages will be a major factor.
Representatives of the Graduate Student Organizing Congress say a collective voice can help increase teaching and research assistant wages.
GradSOC members say improvements need to be made on University graduate assistant wages, which rank ninth in the Big Ten according to a 1997-98 Purdue University survey. Although the University is near the bottom, there are a number of factors to consider. When tuition and health benefits are added to graduate assistant wages, the University moves up considerably within the Big Ten.
“I think that the union can make the point that people need a better living wage,” said Curt Leitz, a member of GradSOC.
However, unlike some Big Ten schools, the University pays the tuition of all graduate assistants who work more than 20 hours a week. This compensation is not included in the University’s ninth-place ranking.
George Green, associate dean of the Graduate School, said although the University is ranked ninth, the reasons for the ranking and the other factors involved haven’t been explained.
Every year Purdue releases a study monitoring Big Ten graduate assistants’ wages called the Purdue Report on Graduate Assistant Compensation.
The study compares actual graduate assistant wages, as well as wages plus graduate assistant tuition waivers and health coverage.
When the tuition benefit is added to the wages, the University improves significantly — teaching assistants are ranked fourth while research assistants are ranked fifth.
Finally, the last category tacks on the health benefits, which are fully paid by the University if the graduate assistant works 20 hours or more each week. When these benefits are added, University teaching assistants are ranked third and research assistants are fourth.
Leitz said the Graduate School has done a good job improving some things while others still need work.
Although the University has improved the health plan, Leitz said it needs more continuity. Currently, the health plan is renegotiated every two years.
During the October meeting of the Board of Regents, Christine Maziar, dean of the Graduate School, addressed the issue of graduate assistant wages, which she said were hindering the University’s ability to compete with other schools.
Since 1993, teaching assistantships have dropped 16 percent at the University, while the Big Ten average was only a 3 percent drop. Research assistantships dropped 27 percent — 16 percent more than the conference average.
To fill this gap, Maziar said the University would need $1 million more allocated to graduate assistant take-home wages.
She cited three ways of doing this. These included additional funding for departments, which wouldn’t help research assistants because they are paid through grant money. The University could also increase the floor stipend.
In June, the graduate assistants’ basement rate will be raised 9 percent, Green said. Although this doesn’t mean everyone will get a raise, those at the bottom of the pay scale will receive a raise.
Green said he expects this to increase the University’s ranking in the Big Ten.
Teaching assistant wages are determined within individual departments and colleges, Green said. Although it varies from department to department, the income comes from tuition with a minimum amount from the state Legislature, he said.
Research assistant wages are determined by grant money, which Green said is predominantly from external agencies.
“There is nothing the union could do to influence the research assistant budgets,” Green said. He explained that if the cost to hire research assistants goes up, the number of assistantships and hours will go down.
A graduate school administrator from another Big Ten university with a graduate assistant union said the union has had little effect on wage increases.
In fact, the administrator said the union has created a barrier between the students and administrators:
“What happens is that you’ve created false tension between students and administrators so they can no longer work together to make improvement.”
In comparison, GradSOC cites the University of Michigan as an example of what a union can do.
Michigan, which has had a union since 1975 and only represents teaching assistants, has a flat rate of $16.34 per hour, said Dan Gamble, associate director of academic human resources at Michigan.
The Michigan union recently negotiated a new contract, which secured them a yearly increase equivalent to that of faculty members, which is now 4.5 percent.
In addition, teaching assistants who work more than 10 hours per week get a full tuition waiver. They also get full health coverage, which is the same plan as faculty.
“We have been, and continue to be, very competitive,” Gamble said. Although wage increases are determined during negotiation periods with the graduate assistant union, Gamble said increases are mostly determined by competition and the level of support graduate assistants need.
Gamble said the only school with better graduate assistant wages than Michigan in the Big Ten is the University of Iowa.
Iowa’s union was established in 1996 and represents both teaching and research assistants. The minimum wage for a graduate assistant working 20 hours per week is just less than $13,000 for a nine-month appointment, which is roughly $17 per hour.
Iowa students receive almost full health coverage, but they don’t receive a tuition waiver. So although they receive higher wages, a large percentage of their pay goes back to the university right away.