The Alligator Opinion|Columns
By Cassie Urbenz
September 19th, 2023
Despite the attacks on unions from Florida's legislature, Graduate Assistants United has achieved a historic win for our members. As a certified labor union, we have the legal authority to bargain with our employer over our Collective Bargaining Agreement. Collective bargaining is essential to ensuring the dignity of our labor, as it is the basis for our right to directly negotiate terms of our employment contract, including working conditions and compensation.
The series of bargaining sessions that began in January of 2023 has resulted in the largest raise to the minimum stipend UF-GAU has seen in its 50-year history, more than doubling our historic win last year. Our bargaining team has reached a tentative agreement that results in a $2,200 raise for graduate assistants on 9-month appointments, a $2,847 raise for GAs on 12-month appointments, a $400 merit raise for all 9-month GAs who have not been formally disciplined in the past year, and 12-month GAs of the same status getting a $533 raise.
The implementation of this tentative agreement will improve the living conditions of most of our bargaining unit: around 1000 GAs across 145 departments will see a raise to their minimum stipend and most continuing employees will receive a merit raise. In addition to these raises, departments can no longer restrict outside employment unless prohibited by law, university regulation, or outside funding sources– meaning that domestic students can now work outside of UF to help make ends meet.
Nothing will radicalize you like a bargaining session.
January was quite some time ago, and the road to agreement was not easy. The lowest point in the negotiations was marked by a meeting in April where the UF bargaining team came without a proposal and instead chose to debate how GAs are expected to fund our education and livelihoods. At various points in the session, the university’s representatives said that we do not deserve a living wage and that loans are an option for supplementing our paltry incomes UF claims they are not responsible for keeping up with inflation or ensuring our minimum stipend meets the increasing cost of living in Gainesville. Even after this historic raise, our highest minimum stipend increase was in 2017.
Rather than trying to summarize the nuances of these crucial meetings, we strongly encourage as many people as possible to attend and see what’s happening at these sessions. The university works because we do– however, because we are forbidden from striking, it is difficult to demonstrate to UF how much they need our labor and how imperative it is to compensate us fairly. Consequently, we are left in the obsequious position of pleading with the university by sharing our experiences of hardship. It is always a jarring experience to newcomers and bargaining veterans alike when the university conveys its utter lack of concern for our financial distress in these public meetings.
The union’s message to all GAs and the University.
GAU’s long term goal is to achieve a living wage for all GAs, which according to MIT’s living wage calculator, is close to $34,000. We want our bargaining unit to know that any agreement we reach that falls short of this mark is a compromise and a stepping stone toward this larger goal. We also believe it is in the university’s best interest to maintain its top public university status by compensating us at a rate that will attract the best researchers and teachers in the country.
The reality is that, even with this historic raise to the minimum, we aren’t paid enough. When you aren’t among the long line of graduate students accumulating weekly at six in the morning on Thursdays at the Field and Fork food pantry, it can slip your mind. For those of us in those lines, it’s hard to forget.
For context, even those paid over $10,000 above the current minimum barely meet the cost of living for Gainesville. As one of the GAs that currently makes the minimum stipend, this raise will be life-changing, and I’ll be able to secure reliable transportation thanks to this win. For those of us with pets, debt, medical expenses, and children, it can mean even more. Nevertheless, we have to keep our eyes on the prize and be clear about what our goals are. Until all GAs have a living wage, the struggle for better stipends will continue. [...]
Want to make sure we keep our bargaining rights? Becoming a member is easy and affordable. The only requirement to be a member and help reach the new 60% goal required by the Florida legislature is to pay dues.
Dues are only 1% of your paycheck, and are paid on payday to ensure minimal financial disruption. The benefits of being a union member (e.g., representation during grievances, free legal counseling, access to free food and drink at payday parties, local and national discounts) and those of maintaining the union (like bargaining) far outweigh the 1% cost (~8/biweekly, or $192/yr for those soon to earn the new minimum) considering savings from GatorGradCare ($2,400-$3,000/yr), fee relief (~$700/semester), and the raises we bargain for.
For EVERYONE, joining GAU is easy! Due to a system update installed this past week, returning members can now use the new member link without creating a duplicate.
You can simply visit this website: https://feacms.floridaea.org/portal/fasttrack/79/form and complete the form. You can alternatively visit our website at www.ufgau.com and navigate to “take action” and “become a member” to access the form.
Cassie Urbenz, Brandon Silva, Hannah Jacobs, and Sikander Khare, GAU's Bargaining Chair, contributed to this report.
Collective bargaining is the process by which labor unions negotiate with employers to reach a contract on terms of employment, including salary, health care, benefits, and workplace safety. Each year, GAU bargains with UF over such terms.