(Above) Stony Brook’s GSEU at their May Day protest in the Administration building on May 2, 2022. Photo by Rafael Cruvinel.
After multiple semesters of protesting by Stony Brook University’s Graduate Student Employees Union (GSEU), Stony Brook University President Maurie McInnis announced in an email on Feb. 6 to faculty and staff that the university would be raising the stipends for graduate students to $26,000 per year, effective October 2023.
The current base stipend for graduate student workers is $22,500. According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the extreme poverty level for Nassau and Suffolk County is currently $32,350 per year. The annual cost of living for a childless adult in Suffolk County is $52,901. Even with the recent raise, graduate students remain far below the poverty line and even further from a living wage.
This is not the first small raise graduate students have been given. According to the GSEU, after a protest against the mandatory fees the university required them to pay in 2019, the administration raised their stipends by $2,000. Additionally, in 2020 the administration instituted a scholarship of about $2,000 that pays their fees.
Following a series of Living Wage Campaign actions and a protest in response to the president’s inauguration in November 2021, the administration raised the stipends from $20,000 to $22,500.
“We still don’t find that satisfying, and that doesn’t get us above the poverty level,” Doğa Öner, the GSEU president, said of the November 2021 wage increase. “Because of the current inflation that is incredibly high in Suffolk County and all the U.S, actually we find ourselves in a worse position than we were before we got the raise.”
Kaya Turan, a GSEU organizer in his third year of pursuing a doctorate in art history, shared the same sentiments following the recent stipend increase. “Inflation has basically made it so that the raises we’ve gotten over the past two years have been erased,” he said. “It makes our situation even more desperate. It means that moving forward, we want the university to give us raises that take into account inflation.”
In April, the annual inflation rate for the United States was 4.9% according to the U.S. Inflation Calculator. With the stipend increase set to take effect in October, graduate students remain in a difficult economic position. Between now and then, inflation, as well as the cost of living, could increase further, making the raise even more trivial for graduate workers.
Graduate students are not completely satisfied because it appears that the reason for the raise is not solely in response to their needs and concerns. Students were not sent the email announcing the raise — faculty members had to alert them of the news. However, graduate program directors did receive the email, and union members believe this was done so that the directors would advertise the new stipend to prospective students. Motivations for the raise didn’t seem completely altruistic to the students.
At a student media press briefing on Feb. 27, McInnis said she was not aware that the email was not sent to graduate students, and was under the impression it was a campuswide email. After the meeting, media relations checked the distribution of the email and confirmed that it did not get sent to graduate students.
Last semester, Daniel Greeson, in his second year of pursuing a doctorate in linguistics, said he felt like the administration was dragging its feet in regard to meeting the GSEU’s demands. Now, he is happy about the recent wage increase, but he still feels like the administration is not prioritizing current graduate workers.
“This is obviously a step in the right direction, but I think the fact that it’s going into effect in October and not now, when they’re announcing it, is certainly not a coincidence,” he said. “I think they’re sort of trying to have their cake and eat it too. They’re trying to wait as long as they can to pay us more, but they’re announcing it now so they can use it to recruit people to come here in the fall.”
Despite the current stipend still not being a living wage, the GSEU viewed the February’s raise as a win.
“We’re happy, this is the most significant raise we’ve got in a couple of years,” Turan said. “But we don’t see it as a gift from the administration. We see it as our victory, because we’ve been pushing the administration, and protesting.”
In the spring 2022 semester, the GSEU frequently held protests and voiced their grievances against the administration. Without any answers from the administration, the union increased the pressure in the fall 2022 semester.
Last September, they started their weekly action — Union Mondays: Solidarity for a Living Wage. They first began at the administration building, with graduate students distributing flyers and informational material and discussing their campaign with other university members. The GSEU continues to hold Union Mondays every week in the Student Activities Center, where they inform people about progress in the campaign, upcoming events and actions and distribute their publication.
When President McInnis delivered her State of the University Address on Oct. 14, attendees who walked into the Staller Center were immediately met with the chants of the GSEU members: “1, 2, 3, 4, No one should be working poor. 5, 6, 7, 8 Workers make this campus great.”
Following the attendees, the GSEU members entered the auditorium, taking their seats besides students, faculty and administrators. McInnis began her speech and discussed the advancements the University has made in the past year. About 40 minutes into the address, members of the GSEU in the audience stood up and cut off McInnis.
“Graduate students are working at Stony Brook below the lowest poverty level,” a member said. “We are the largest group of instructors here, but our stipends are not enough to afford us dignified lives. We can’t even afford to travel and spend time with our families during holidays. If this is about the state of the university, our state is a state of poverty.”
Two more groups of GSEU members stood up following their statements. They explained that over 90% of the graduate workers at the university do not think their stipend is enough to sustain themselves and that their financial problems have impacted their mental health, teaching and research.
They exited the auditorium chanting, “Living wage, now!” After they left, McInnis continued her speech without addressing the interruption, acting as if nothing happened. Öner said that the administration was not aware that the union was planning to intrerupt the address. And afterward, they did not receive any direct communication concerning their actions.
For Halloween, they held a themed sit-in protest they called a “Scare-In” in the administration building to highlight how “frightening” their situation is.
Protesters came in costumes to deliver a letter of grievances and demands to the President’s office. Bags of fake blood hung around their necks with signs that read, “Will sell blood to pay rent.” Some wore masks of President McInnis’s face with green dollar signs over her eyes.
Daniel Greeson was one of the GSEU members who participated in the Scare-In. He highlighted how important actions like that one are in getting people more involved in their campaigns.
“I think we have a lot of momentum in the living wage campaign,” he said. “ I think that we’ve been really effective in getting a lot of people to show up to these things. And I think people are really mobilized…I think it’s hard not to jump into action when you’re making $22,500 and paying half of your paychecks on rent every month.”
GSEU and members met with Provost Carl Lejuez in November 2021 to discuss possible stipend raises. Lujuez suggested a maximum raise of $2,000 to $3,000 for graduate students. In response to this, the GSEU launched a new petition: Make the Next Raise a Living Wage, not an Average Wage. The recent wage increase is only slightly higher than the Provost’s original suggestion, still falling short of a living wage.
It certainly helps graduate workers, but it won’t fix the issues they face daily as a result of living below the poverty line. It takes a toll on their mental health and overall well-being. It also negatively impacts the quality of their teaching and research abilities.
“If I’m overworked and underpaid, that’s going to affect how well I can teach my students,” Kaya Turan said. “It’s also going to cut into my time where I can work on my own research outside of that.”
Over winter break, they sent holiday cards to President McInnis’ home. “Dear President McInnis,” one wrote. “Seasons Greetings! This holiday season, I’m barely able to pay rent and groceries! In this new year, wishing you the moral compass to pay graduate workers a living wage. Happy New Year! Sincerely, a hungry grad student.”
This semester, the GSEU is focusing on recruitment. In addition to their Union Mondays action, they are conducting recruitment and grassroots organizing events every day of the week. Members visit graduate departments to let graduate students know about their campaign and encourage them to sign their cards to become GSEU members.
“A union with active membership is the strongest union,” Doğa Öner said.
Their newest issue of GSEU’s publication, The Stony Brook Worker, was recently published online and in print. It includes updates on their campaign, interviews with affected workers and information about other unions that are also fighting for higher wages.
More recently, they are fighting the administration’s proposed changes to parking on Stony Brook’s campus by petitioning and taking part in rallies and protests. Their union contract states that the administration can’t enforce any parking change without their agreement. Stony Brook University’s Mobility and Parking Services recently announced that the parking plan will no longer be implemented in fall 2023, though it is not clear if the plan will go into effect the following semester.
With the latest raise, GSEU campaigns have significantly increased their stipends in the last three years. Even though their demands are not entirely being met, their efforts are slowly but surely paying off, and they don’t plan on stopping anytime soon. This summer, their contracts expire. They will negotiate new contracts with SUNY administration in the hopes of increasing their wages even more.
“What we’ve always said with our living wage campaign is that it’s gonna keep going until we get a living wage,” Turan said. “And that hasn’t happened yet, so we’re gonna keep pushing.”