Contract Breakthrough

February 28, 2005

Nearly two years after their last contract expired, thousands of graduate students in the State University of New York system have a tentative pact calling for raises, new benefits and major expansions of some existing benefits.

The contract provides the teaching assistants for the first time with a grievance procedure for those who are dismissed, full coverage of "in network" hospitalization, a fund to offset the growing cost of technology fees, and extra pay for those who live in the New York City metropolitan area.

Financially, the teaching assistants will receive:

  • A single, non-recurring payment of $500 as soon as the contract is ratified.
  • A 2.5 percent raise on April 1, 2005.
  • A 2.75 percent raise on October 1, 2005.
  • A 3 percent raise on October 1, 2006.
  • A $500 addition to base and minimum stipends on April 1, 2007.

Kathleen Sims, executive vice president of Local 1104 of the Communications Workers of America, which represents the SUNY graduate students, said that the actual paychecks of her members vary widely from campus to campus, based on how many hours people tend to work. But she said that across the board people "gained a lot of ground."

At SUNY's Stony Brook campus, for example, the average pay for a teaching assistant is now $11,548 and will increase to $13,608 over the next two years. At Albany, where Sims is a Ph.D. student in English composition, average pay will go from $8,894 to $10,791.

Sims emphasized, however, that for many graduate students, non-paycheck issues were very important in these negotiations and have the potential to have a big financial impact.

For example, the contract created a fund that will cover about half of the technology fees charged by SUNY campuses to students. Those fees range from $200 to $600 a year, and have been rising rapidly, she said. "We are being forced to pay for the equipment we use for our jobs," she said.

Sims called the change in hospitalization benefits "the crowning glory" of the contract. Until now, graduate students were only covered for 80 percent of hospitalization costs. While a 20 percent requirement may seem like something many professionals could handle, Sims noted that for graduate students on SUNY stipends, that 20 percent requirement in a number of recent cases exceeded graduate students' annual salaries.

"Not every brand new graduate student has had the life experience to know the value of this benefit change," said Sims. "But we've had members forced into bankruptcy by the 20 percent charges."

"Over all, we made great strides on a lot of fronts," Sims said. "Most of these are real bread and butter issues."

The 4,500 members of the union, who work on 21 SUNY campuses, will vote on the contract over the next month. Both state and union officials predict that the contract will be approved by a wide margin.

SUNY officials declined to comment on the contract, noting that all deals between the state and employee unions are negotiated by the Governor's Office of Employee Relations, not the state units that hire the employees.

In a statement, George Madison, director of that office, called the agreement "fair, equitable,and fiscally prudent."

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