By Andrew Fraley
The graduate students here at Stony Brook are upset. This is because, on average, Stony Brook graduate students receive less money than somebody working for minimum wage at the nearby McDonald’s.
Battling against a yearly stipend which—especially on Long Island—can hardly be considered a living wage, The Graduate Student Employees Union is in negotiations for a modest increase to their salary among other things. At a mere $15,145 per year (before fees), the GSEU argues that this is far from fair compared to other SUNY employees. “Fifteen thousand [dollars], in my view, is below minimum wage,” said Kira Schuman, GSEU Business Agent.
With New York State, and the rest of the country, in an economic decline, prospects for a settled contract, which has been languishing for over two years, look grim. John Schmidt, President of United University Professions (UUP), was able to settle a contract for his organization on December 19, but only just. “If [the negotiations] had gone on one more week,” said Schmidt, “we would still be waiting to sign a contract.”
The contract proposal, in addition to modest yearly raises of 3-4% for Graduate and Teaching Assistants, also includes a $1500 addition for the higher cost of living in downstate New York—which has been given to other state employees, including members of UUP. Also included is a fair health care plan, a technology fee waiver, and an additional year of TA funding. “SUNY works because we do,” said Schuman. “We deserve a fair contract that will allow us to live properly and work efficiently.”
The grad students emphasized the immediacy of the situation by holding a calling campaign to Governor Paterson’s office during the week of February 9. During a press conference on that Wednesday, the students had a chance to voice their concerns and make phone calls. Over the din of attendees expressing their support for the cause, School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences Ph.d student Nuria Protopopescu said, “The suggested level by the dean is $26,000. It’s insulting that that’s one and a half times what people are actually getting.” Students were also quick to point out that a settled contract is a mutually beneficial relationship. “We are really important for incoming undergrads and incoming professors,” said Schuman. “[Well-funded graduates] bolster the undergrads, degree value and teaching community.” A living wage is also necessary for the international students. Since they cannot legally work outside of the university, international students rely on the money they make from stipends.
“There is still enough money,” said Kevin Young, Latin American History student. “Enough for fair pay for all students.” The most convincing argument for unfair wages is that the state has no money. At the Wednesday press conference, Young outlined a proposal by the Communication Workers of America for raising $5 billion, to relieve the burden on the students. The proposal includes modest tax increases to the wealthiest 4% of New Yorkers. Over the last thirty years, Legislature has reduced the tax rates on New Yorkers making over $250,000; the GSEU just wants them to pay their fair share during this deficit. “It has become clear that our public officials in Albany as well as the people who run Stony Brook are making grad student funding one of their lowest priorities for education, and thus, first on the chopping block for budget cuts,” said Dylan Selterman, Vice President of the Graduate Student Organization. The tax increase would not exceed 3.45% for New Yorkers making over $1 million, and there is widespread support for it from assemblymen and economists alike.
The GSEU is working with other unions to achieve their goals, and have the full support of the RA union, the UUP and others. “President Kenny takes great delight in being a prestigious member of the AAU [Association of American Universities],” remarked Schmidt of UUP. “I bet that other members’ grad stipends are a helluva lot more than $15,000.” The GSEU has a deadline of the end of the semester for a settled contract. “If we don’t settle the contract by the end of the year,” Schuman declared, “well, we’re just going to have to stay united for the next step.”