Grad Students’ ‘Fight for $15’

Graduate student assistants at campuses across the U.S. are pushing for $15 per hour, what they call a minimum living wage. Many labor for far less, but Emory recently upped stipends to effectively meet that target.

October 26, 2018
 
SEIU
Graduate students participate in a 'Fight for $15' rally at Washington University in St. Louis on Oct. 4.

Amazon announced this month that it would begin paying its workers at least $15 per hour, making it the latest employer to cede to labor activists who have been pushing for that new minimum wage nationally for several years.

Graduate assistants want $15 per hour, too, and are waging their own campus campaigns for it.

“Fifteen dollars an hour represents a living wage in much of the U.S.,” said Casey Williams, a Ph.D. candidate in literature at Duke University. “Grad workers, like all workers, deserve to earn enough to live decently in exchange for the research and teaching labor they provide universities, many of which depend on the work of grad students and adjunct professors to function, maintain prestige, secure key grants and attract tuition-paying undergraduates.”

Graduate students pushing for $15 per hour generally maintain that they are full-time, full-year employees, even if universities view them as part-time employees or as students learning to teach and do research. Fifteen dollars per hour times 40 hours per week, times 52 weeks per year, is $31,200. So $31,000 -- which is on the high end of graduate student stipends nationally -- has emerged as a new target minimum annual stipend.

Emory University recently announced that it had upped its minimum graduate assistant stipend to about $31,000, from about $24,000 -- a 29 percent increase. The official university notice said the change was part of a bigger academic excellence initiative. But graduate students have attributed it in part to their on-campus advocacy for $15 per hour.

Isaac Horwedel, a Ph.D. candidate in theology at Emory, said in a statement that the pay increase means “the difference between making rent or not for me and many of my fellow workers, and is a step in the right direction toward improving working conditions on campus.”

Service Employees International Union, among other organized labor groups, has supported low-wage workers in the Fight for $15 campaign, on college and university campuses and off, including at Emory. At Duke, SEIU withdrew its petition for unionization before the results of a 2017 graduate student union election could be certified -- a sign of unclear support for unionization or imminent defeat. But some graduate students are still seeking wage increases and better working conditions outside of collective bargaining.

That’s increasingly true across private campuses without recognized unions in the Trump era, since the future of a major Obama-era National Labor Relations Board decision in favor graduate student unions at these kinds of institutions looks grim. (State governments determine whether graduate students on public campuses are employees entitled to collective bargaining, and not just students.)

A spokesperson for Duke noted the union election outcome and said that most graduate students gets stipends of about $29,000 to $31,000 per year. SEIU’s accounting says grad students on campus tend to make closer to $20,000 to $25,000. The university doubled down on its numbers when asked about the discrepancy. Williams offered up his own example, saying he has a $22,470 base salary and no guaranteed summer fellowship this year.

Horwedel said he and his colleagues hope that Emory will “expand living wages” to all campus workers. Following a long tradition of student solidarity with campus workers on pay and other matters, $15-per-hour campaigns at numerous institutions have included lower-wage employees. Duke said last year that it would up its minimum wage for eligible full-time employees to $15 per year by next summer. The current minimum is $14 per hour.

Williams said that work in general in the U.S. “has become increasingly precarious and flexible.” Graduate students, in particular, can no longer count on “finding a decent-paying tenure-track position upon graduating, and so can't afford to make financial sacrifices -- or go into debt -- during grad school,” he added. And establishing a “living minimum wage” is one way to ensure workers can continue to take care of themselves, their families and their work.

Joseph Verardo, vice president and chief operating officer of the National Association of Graduate and Professional Students, said that efforts toward a $15 minimum hourly rate for graduate students will benefit their quality of life and increase their productivity. Such efforts should keep all graduate students in mind -- not just graduate assistants with stipends, he said, noting that many master’s and unfunded Ph.D. students work graduate-level jobs on campus for actual hourly wages, not stipends.

Nationally, stipends for funded students range from about $13,000 to $34,000, depending on the program, institution and location, Verardo said, emphasizing that $15 per hour is a target minimum, not necessarily a target.

Even on the high end of the stipend range, it’s “difficult to live on a $30,000 salary and cover living and academic-related expenses,” such as books and fees, he said. Of course, that’s “even more difficult when annual earnings are in the teens.”

Graduate workers at Illinois State University, who make about $14,000 per year on average, recently voted to form a union affiliated with SEIU. Macauley Allen, a graduate student in music, said he supported unionization because he was tired of “scrounging” for food money.

Graduate assistants at Loyola University in Chicago, where there is also an active $15-per-hour campaign, get a base stipend of $18,000, which a university spokesperson said is equivalent to $2,000 per month for nine months.

Again, graduate students involved in the campaign tend to consider themselves full-year employees, since their research -- which they say is part of their job, not just their training -- doesn’t stop. But most universities fund assistants for the academic year, when they're engaged in the more obvious work of an assistant, such as teaching. And many institutions say they see graduate students as trainees, not workers. 

Lacy Endicott, a graduate assistant in art history at Washington University in St. Louis, said her and her colleagues’ labor “extends outside our assistantship responsibilities.” They positions require “pedagogical training, mindful preparation of course materials and departmental service, in addition to completing our own research. Would a tenured professor’s continued pedagogical training and personal research be considered outside of their regular work responsibilities? No.”

Graduate stipends also are supposed to cover living expenses, she said, noting that graduate students are often discouraged from seeking additional work that could distract them from their programs. That's even if they need extra money to live.

Earlier this month, graduate workers at Wash U participated in a Fight for $15 rally on campus, with personal stories and chants such as, “What’s outrageous? Poverty wages.” Graduate student organizers report that the average annual stipend there is about $22,000.

Julie Flory, university spokesperson, declined to share the average annual stipend but noted via email that graduate students in the College of Arts and Sciences voted down an SEIU-affiliated union bid last year. Since that time, she said, “we have continued to partner and engage with our students about ways to improve their educational experience through direct conversation and by working with graduate student councils, departments and faculty to identify opportunities to enhance graduate education and support.”

As always, Flory added, “we are committed to providing the best environment for all of our students to succeed.”

Travis Dauwalter, a Ph.D. student in candidate in public policy at Duke and president of its Graduate and Professional Student Council, said his colleagues who are pushing for a $15 per hour wage appear to be doing so “thoughtfully and always with an eye toward collecting more data.” Let’s understand “the full scope of this issue and how it interplays with all the other things that a Duke student is facing, like rising housing costs, food insecurity, feeling a sense of community and finding a great job.”

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