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University of Maine Graduate Worker Union rally for a fair contract

On Tuesday, March 26, the University of Maine Graduate Worker Union (UMGWU) conducted a campus rally, drawing widespread support from graduate, teaching, research assistants, faculty, students and community members. During the afternoon’s contract negotiation session between the union representatives and administration officials at the Ferland Engineering Education and Design Center, all movement participants formed a unified assembly outside, advocating for an amenable agreement.

“We are here today to push the University to move swiftly towards a fair contract for workers who uphold these universities of Maine, who deserve better working conditions,” said Andrea Tirrel, a graduate teaching assistant and UMGWU organizer.

“We’re also here to show support for our bargaining committee: researchers, teachers, lab managers, philosophers and field scientists, who have spent countless hours, more than 20 hours a week, researching, writing proposals, and countering weak proposals put forth by the University of Maine bargaining team,” said Remi Geohegan a second-year Ph.D. student and teaching assistant.

The Graduate Workers Association established 14 bargaining goals, intending to implement proposals for higher living wages, medical benefits, non-discrimination protection, job postings, housing and childcare accessibility into the finalized contract.

Commencing from Martin Luther King Plaza, the crowd marched to the location of the contract negotiation session. Several union members delivered speeches amplifying their contributions to the university and the enduring challenging circumstances of balancing graduate workloads and research responsibilities in their enrolled programs with consecutive living expenses.

Diane Whitmore, a graduate Teaching Assistant, one of 40 cohorts of TAs whose positions will be terminated at the end of the semester, condemned the university’s decision in front of the crowd.

“In spite of being recruited to come to UMaine to fill a TA position because of my high school teaching experience, in spite of my fully enrolled classes and excellent student evaluations, I was told that my position would be eliminated,” Whitmore revealed.

According to UMGWU, the university has violated the agreement that “no graduate assistant working conditions would be changed while the eventual contract is being negotiated.”

Protesters stationed outside Ferland Engineering Education and Design Center

An international graduate student from Denmark, Mathilde Boerch shared her struggles navigating everyday living conditions while completing her research opportunity at UMaine. “Where I am from, education is free. The government pays every student a livable stipend from the day they turn 18. Healthcare is universal and free. What we are bargaining for today is the bare minimum of the rights I had taken for granted growing up.”

Referencing a recent interaction with a Maine State House legislator, Boerch described: “He looked me in the eye and told me that what we were bargaining for–affordable housing, healthcare, livable pay and protection for international grad workers—was pure fantasy. I was speechless because I have seen this in action, and it works better.”

Derek DeMello, a graduate worker and resident of University Park Family housing, disapproved of the UMS Board of Trustees 2023 decision to remove the remaining 17 buildings and 62 units from UPark. DeMello concluded by reading a statement from the university president regarding the purpose of UPark and expressed hopes that the administration will renew past priorities with future action.

“In the housing shortage communities surrounding the university, namely Old Town, Orono, Bangor and Brewer, those familiar with the local scene realized that students will be hard pressed to compete with the general public in the scramble for a place to live. In providing University Park at a cost to married students, the university simply chooses to render a service in the order that more students may complete their education,” DeMello said. 

Matthew Scandura, an out-of-state UMaine graduate worker, explained that he moved from a stable job in Arizona to conduct biological research in Maine. However, the difficulties of managing scientific research objectives with the required TA responsibilities initially caused him to regret his decision.

“I spent 30+ hours teaching and grading for an upper-level grad course. Most weeks, I was barely able to do the research that I came here to do just because there wasn’t enough time in the day for an experiment,” Scandura explained. “I support the UMGWU because I want the university to be a place for graduate students not just from the other side of the country like me but the other side of the world.” Scandura affirmed that a “strong union contract” will transform these idealistic goals into institutional reality.

The university published the following statement responding to the UMGWU rally: “Productive negotiations in good faith are newly underway with their representatives, and UMS is optimistic that their first collective bargaining agreement can be achieved in a manner that maintains meaningful graduate student work opportunities and conditions within the existing resources of our public institutions.”

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