A group of over 100 spirited students and faculty members joined forces in the University of Maine’s Martin Luther King Jr. Plaza to protest the unethical treatment and unfair compensation of graduate workers on Friday, March 24.
Graduate students at UMaine usually fund their programs by working for the University — teaching classes and grading assignments – but don’t receive a livable wage or even health insurance coverage. The hope to end grad worker suffering is exemplified in the newly formed University of Maine Graduate Workers Union.
Framed by MLK plaza’s plaque reading “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” graduate workers explained their lack of living compensation and basic human rights and how joining the union can help. The estimated majority of graduate workers have signed union cards, as there are now 500 cards signed.
Amanda Gavin, a Ph.D. student in ecology and environmental sciences, was a lead speaker at the event. “The reliance on highly-skilled, underpaid labor to teach classes is an issue across the university system,” she said. This was a key factor in what triggered the formation of the union.
UMaine is the only school in New England that covers less than 95% of insurance for postgraduate employees. They only cover 50%, on top of paying wages that barely cover rent in some local areas. Many grad workers are paid less than $20,000, even lower for Master’s students, and they receive no pay for the four months of summer.
These stipends do not encompass basic human expenses with balancing education and, for many postgrads, feeding a family. This salary also puts them as some of the lowest-paid graduate workers in New England.
Unionization efforts started in January 2021 when graduate workers became more and more concerned about being overworked and underpaid.
Dr. Sonja Birthisel is a Ph.D. graduate from UMaine and the director of the Wilson Center. She detailed that she was never compensated a real living wage between paying rent and medical bills.
“I felt betrayed by this system that wanted to put me on a pedestal and celebrate and tout my research accomplishments while then turning around and denying me the basic necessities that were needed for human wholeness and work with dignity,” Birthisel said.
“I hope that all the faculty listening will hear, embedded in these remarks, an opportunity that you have to allay the understandable fears of student workers, and let your people know explicitly that you support the efforts of free people to unionize and the autonomy of each student to decide if they want to join a union,” Birthisel said.
Current graduate students vocalized frustrations.
“We need systemic solutions, not bandaids for individuals,” said Vendy Hazukove, an ecology and environmental sciences Ph.D. student.“The minimum stipend is so low that we qualify for food assistance, and the little federal help that is available to low-paid American grad workers is out of reach for international workers. Moreover, international workers on visas cannot supplement their income by working.”
Tamra Benson is a current fourth-year at UMaine and shared an undergraduate perspective of these injustices.
“Grad workers are what make the university run,” Benson stated. “They need to be treated fairly through fair working compensation and general worker’s rights that they don’t have right now.”
Some signs carried by audience members were light-hearted, featuring “will grade for dental care” and “we can’t eat prestige,” but others cut to the root of the problem, urging living wages and stating that “UMaine runs on grad worker labor”.
“We very much value our graduate student workers, as they are a vital part of the campus community. We recognize the right to unionize. The university will await the outcome of the election and at that time we’ll have further discussions with our graduate students and/or the appropriate union representatives,” a statement released by UMaine said.
Sen. Mike Tipping met with a group of undergrad and graduate students on Saturday, March 25 to discuss details to add a student representative board to the UMaine Board of Trustees, which encompasses all campuses across the University of Maine system, to help students make decisions about their own campus, graduate worker equity and other dire issues.
Individuals who want to organize with the union or learn other ways to get involved can visit https://umaine-gradworkers.org to help put an end to injustice against grad workers.
(Feature image from https://www.wabi.tv/2023/03/24/maine-graduate-student-workers-hold-rally-organizing-union/)