Kayleigh Peterman, Vice President for member communications of GTFF, talks to passersby about the GTFF’s bargaining with the University of Oregon on Nov. 9, 2018. (Sarah Northrop/Emerald)
Notice: The author of this piece is a graduate employee.
If you’ve fulfilled any of your core or prerequisite course requirements at the University of Oregon, you have probably taken a class taught by a graduate employee. UO’s 1,500 graduate employees are the lifeblood of the university: We help pilot new research, write grants and run labs, teach or grade classes and staff tutoring centers. Most importantly, our work helps to raise the prestige of the institution — making every student’s degree worth more. Without us, the entire university would grind to a halt.
So why won’t the university fairly compensate our labor?
The university estimates that the annual cost of living in Eugene for graduate students is $15,400. Though that number already seems ridiculous, it becomes downright laughable when you realize that it only factors in living costs for the actual school year and not for the summer months. During the summer, we are expected to advance our research, write conference papers and prepare for exhaustive, demanding exams. But apparently the university believes that we accomplish all this while hibernating in the beautiful Oregon forest, making our summertime financial needs for food and rent miraculously disappear.
Let’s break that annual budget down a bit: $1,000/month for housing, $316/month for food, $1,146/year for books, $2,034/year for personal expenses and $366/year for transportation. But a quick glance at the local apartment listings reveals an average price tag of $1,200 and up for most one-bedrooms near campus — the only location where we can realistically live since nobody can afford a vehicle on just $400/year. You’ll also note that the budget expects us to spend less than $10/day on food.
For context, level I graduate employees’ gross salaries come in at around $1,600/month, and my personal take-home salary is usually closer to $1,400/month during the school year.
So, how is a graduate student supposed to make ends meet?
Well, for starters, you wind up living in crowded student housing for years and years. You apply for food stamps or go to student food banks. You only go home to visit once every year or two; or maybe just once during the entire six years you are at UO, if you’re an international student. You take the same minimum-wage jobs as undergraduate students because you can’t obtain a higher paid, full-time job (for which you are qualified) while also continuing to take classes and teach. Some graduate employees saddled with sick family members or debt wind up resorting to extreme measures such as selling plasma. Even qualifying for housing becomes impossible, as I discovered this year when I was told I’d have to pay a doubled security deposit — a whopping $1,450 — just to sign a lease for a $625/month apartment at my current income level.
These conditions of near-poverty persist long after graduation. The average graduate student is 33 by the time they receive their PhD and enter an academic job market in which 68 percent of faculty jobs are non-tenure track. Those jobs frequently pay less than even basic administration jobs at the university, while also offering no benefits, as the majority of workers are kept below full-time employment — even though they often teach the same courseloads as full-time faculty.
These factors add up to overwhelming financial insecurity. Graduate employees have no ability to save money, pay off debt or contribute to retirement accounts. We can’t make payments on a mortgage or vehicle or work towards other basic financial milestones that are expected of 20- and 30-year-olds. For most of us, starting a family also becomes impossible: no paid parental leave is offered, and putting off a pregnancy or adoption until your mid-30s can be risky. Those of us who already have children can barely afford to actually raise them.
Many of us wind up graduating with doctorates and no savings, no home, no family, no car, no retirement and few job prospects.
Meanwhile, President Schill’s salary will likely total around a million dollars annually over the next several years, averaging just under $100,000/month. Is his time really worth 67 times more than a graduate employee’s time serving the students of the University of Oregon?
The Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation is currently in bargaining talks over our contracts for next year, and our union has requested a raise of 9.5 percent to more adequately match the Eugene area’s cost of living. The UO bargaining panel has tried to sell us on a false 9.5 percent raise that is paid for by increasing our student fees and hacking away at GE health insurance benefits, especially those of GE families. The university’s proposed changes would ultimately only equal a 1 percent raise for some of us and would be a net loss for many others.
When asked for comment on the bargaining procedures, GTFF union president Mike Magee offered the following:
“We remain committed to bargaining in good faith with the university, but their proposals indicate that we hold very different priorities. We want economic security and dignity on the job; they want to give us a meager 1 percent raise and remove our ability to enforce our contract. We want to support our students through better training and protections against harassment; they want to increase student fees and tuition costs for undergraduate and graduate students. We want parents to be able to afford childcare and take paid family leave; they want to gut our health insurance and support for families. We think these proposals are reasonable and would be a no-brainer for a university supposedly committed to “academic excellence.” Disappointingly, the university again demonstrates that the lives of its employees and, by extension, the learning conditions of its students, are not their priority.”
Through these bargaining sessions, UO has shown that even though it works because we do, they have no intention to fairly compensate us. We aren’t allowed to have homes or cars; we aren’t allowed to have savings or retirement; we aren’t allowed to have families.
We aren’t allowed to have dignity.