UF grad assistants to get 3.25 percent raise
Published: Tuesday, July 22, 2014 at 4:35 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, July 22, 2014 at 4:35 p.m.
After rejecting an initial offer of 1 percent, negotiators won a 3.25 percent raise for the University of Florida’s 4,000 graduate assistants, who perform a large portion of teaching and research assistance, union officials announced Tuesday.
UF negotiators offered a $3 million package that addresses the need for higher pay but leaves several issues — such as fees and health insurance premiums — unsettled for the future, said John Hames, co-president of UF Graduate Assistants United.
“At the end of the day, we did finally decide to sign the contract, that it benefited enough of the graduate assistants,” Hames said. “We believe enough in the importance of the raise and stipend we were able to sign. It was not an easy decision by any means.”
The renegotiated contract — hammered out during months of sometimes contentious and frustrating negotiations — includes the raise for all graduate assistants, as well as an increase in starting pay for about 1,100 graduate assistants from $11,000 to $13,000.
“That’s the bargaining process. You never put all your money out on your first offer,” said UF’s chief negotiator, Bill Connellan, when asked what prompted UF administrators to send him back to the table with the higher offer.
“Our interest was to increase our stipend levels to be more competitive. We said that from the beginning,” Connellan said. “I’m very happy with the contract. It’s a good contract for them and for the university.”
GAU now must take the contract to its membership for a vote. No date has yet been set for that meeting, Hames said.
While the 3.25 percent raise is a big gain for graduate employees, it doesn’t cover the fees they have to pay back each year to the university, Hames said. Fees have gone up 110 percent over the past several years and currently average about $1,400 to $1,700 a year.
For someone earning $17,000 a year, the raise would be about $552 — which covers less than a third of the $1,700 in annual fees graduate students are charged.
“That raise obviously is not going to cover all fees,” Hames said.
The new contract does include a $40 “fees relief” payment, which Hames said was a first step toward the union’s ultimate goal of eliminating fees altogether.
Hames said the negotiations were frustrating because UF didn’t share information used to argue its position on fees. Union representatives said they knew UF had the money to eliminate fees, which would have cost about $5.6 million to waive.
“We are cautiously optimistic going forward with our goal to ultimately end fees,” he said. “It’s a matter of fairness to the graduate assistants employees that are very important to keeping this university operating. We are the faces for lots of undergrads, because we are teaching so many of their courses.”
The contract also includes a clearer process for disciplinary proceedings. “It was very important to GAU that all employees receive due process,” union officials said.
“Both sides operate much better if we know what the process is and everyone is aware what is going on during an investigation,” Connellan said. “I saw that as a win for both sides.”
The contract doesn’t address the increase in premiums for dependents and spouses of graduate assistants, Hames said, an issue that made the negotiating team’s decision to ratify and sign the contract that much harder.
“We caucused for an hour because we were very disappointed and frustrated because our friends and colleagues that have dependents and spouses who are going to be very much affected by the raise in the premiums,” he said.
Connellan said UF has a very robust health plan for the graduate assistants, who receive it for free.
The union has taken issue with the administration’s decision to raise the premiums graduate students must pay for about 200 dependents and spouses.
Another issue the union didn’t get was language requiring the health insurance plan to cover medical needs of transgender graduate assistants.
GAU is committed to fighting for lower health insurance premiums, Hames said.
“To have graduate assistants who are such an integral part of the university struggle with things like buying food, paying fees and getting health care with the premium raise … is a shame,” he said.