By Jake Conarck

Amid chants of “equal pay for equal work” and “assistants need assistance too”, about 150 graduate students rallied at the fountain on the academic mall to protest what they viewed as an unfair raise of the stipends for some teaching and graduate assistants, and not others.

The stipend raise is part of Shirley Strum Kenny’s five-year plan to raise the status of the university and is necessary to compete with other research institutions which offer higher stipend rates. For example, the stipend at Stony Brook is currently just over $15,000. Rutgers, another member of the Association of American Universities (an elite body of schools Stony Brook recently joined—given our raised academic expectations, they are our new peers), situated in an area with a similar cost of living, offers stipends of nearly $20,000. However, because of budget shortages, Stony Brook does not have the money needed to raise the stipends of all graduate workers, so the administration has decided to grant the $2,000 increase to new hires only; creating, in essence, a two-tiered system of pay.

This inequality raised the ire of the Graduate Student Employees Union (GSEU), which had previously orchestrated a contentious meeting of the Graduate Student Organization (GSO) to inform Lawrence Martin, Dean of the Graduate School, of the unhappiness of graduate student workers.

“The cavalier manner in which the university ignores current TAs and GAs so it can attract incoming graduate students is less than laudable,” said Victor Rosado, business agent for GSEU.  “It ignores the real contribution TAs and GAs make to their departments and to the university.”

Feeling the need to pressure the administration to raise the stipend of all of its graduate employees, the GSEU decided to mount the protest, with additional help from the Communications Workers of America, its parent union.

After a short rally at the fountain, the protestors unexpectedly marched to the graduate school and chanted outside of Dean Martin’s office.  Inside the office, George Bloom, President of the CWA Local 1104, and Mike Murphy, Chief Steward of Stony Brook GSEU, met with Dean Martin, but were unable to reach an agreement.

“We think [the stipend raise] is ridiculous,” said Bloom.  “How can you start a tiered system without even negotiating with the union, and how can you justify that someone is worth $2,000 more than someone else?  They make such ridiculously low wages as it is.”

Joining the protest was Stewart Acuff, organizing director for the AFL-CIO.  Acuff, a veteran union organizer, spoke briefly at an impromptu rally, held inside the graduate school after it was announced a deal could not be reached.  “We’re in this for whatever it takes, for as long as it takes,” said Acuff.

After the rally, Lila Naydan, president of the GSO, Eran Shor, secretary of the GSO and Susana Huidibro, the Graduate Student Advocate, met with Dean Martin to discuss possible resolutions to the problem.  Martin expressed an interest in returning to a Senate meeting to discuss those resolutions and solicit opinions from students.

Martin explained that given significant cuts from state’s budget and President Kenny’s reallocation of $1.6 million from the Provost’s budget to the School of Medicine, financial prudence was necessary.
Although many ideas were brought up, such as decreasing the workload for current GAs and TAs, they were dismissed as improbable or impossible.

“It meant a lot to me, personally, that Dean Martin returned to further discuss the issue with the senators,” said Naydan.  “I think it meant a lot to the senators, too.”

The union, however, is not in such a conciliatory mood and is pressing to take the issue further.  Rosado has said he will make this a statewide issue in upcoming collective bargaining negotiations with SUNY administrators and the State of New York.  “This matter effects compensation paid to bargaining unit members, clearly a term and condition of employment,” said Rosado.  “It may well be a unilateral change in the negotiations agreement.”