Graduate Student Workers at BU Continue to Get the Shaft by Dan Johnson

 For graduate student workers at Binghamton and across the SUNY system, the economic crisis has merely compounded an already bad situation. Teaching and graduate assistants, who are integral to the functioning of the state higher educational system, and who are represented by the Graduate Student Employees’ Union (and part of Local 1104 of the Communication Workers of America), have been without a contract since 2007. They have therefore been working under a 2003-2007 contract for close to four years, despite a tentative agreement reached with the state in 2009 for the years 2007-2009, which the state has repeatedly failed to ratify.

Under the tentative agreement, teaching and graduate assistants (TA/GA’s) were to receive a permanent and general salary increase in annual stipends retroactively from May 2007, in addition to $500 bonuses for full-time workers, and $250 for part-time workers. Improvements to health insurance coverage, a professional development fund, and fee mitigation funds (which offset the costs of tuition-related fees) have also been unavailable for graduate student workers over these years, at a time when Binghamton University has decided to raise tuition and student fees, the latter of which amounts to around 10% of a graduate student’s yearly stipend.

The state’s failure to ratify an agreed-to pay bill for the years 2007-2009 has been devastating for TA/GA’s here in Binghamton. A TA/GA who worked during the years covered in the tentative agreement could receive close to $1,000, depending on the department, were the pay bill to pass. For working students trying to survive on between $10,000 and $15,000 per year at BU, this would obviously make a huge difference, yet the priorities among political elites are clearly not with working people, and the financial crisis has only made this neglect explicit. In order to be eligible for this retroactive pay graduate students must be matriculated at the school they worked at during 2007-2009. So if a student finishes his or her degree, they become ineligible for the pay for which they labored. What this means is that every semester that the state avoids passing this agreement, more people leave the system, the state saves more money, and negotiations for a new contract are further pushed into the distant future.

While unions across the state (including the CWA, in apparent disregard of its education division here in New York) have lent unwavering support to Andrew Cuomo, the new governor has maintained a hostile stance towards unions, particularly those in the public sector. According to the New York Times Cuomo “will mount a presidential-style permanent political campaign to counter the well-financed labor unions he believes have bullied previous governors and lawmakers into making bad decisions.” In what can only be described as a world-turned-upside-down denial of reality, Cuomo has claimed “corporate leaders in New York have virtually surrendered the field to big labor.” Farcical as this statement is, for graduate students in Binghamton such an attitude sends a clear message that their – and by extension undergraduate students across the state – needs will not be met under the new Democratic regime. Unlike larger and more powerful unions with a presence on SUNY campuses like United University Professions (UUP) and the Civil Service Employees’ Union (CSEA), the GSEU has little political influence in Albany. If Cuomo refuses to deal with unions well-versed in the dealings of the politically corrupt New York State legislature, what hope do impoverished graduate student workers have?


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