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Friday, July 01, 2022

UF graduate assistants protest for better wages

About 70 protesters chanted for increased pay outside Tigert Hall

Members of the UF community protest for higher graduate assistant wages in front of Tigert Hall on Friday, April 1.
Members of the UF community protest for higher graduate assistant wages in front of Tigert Hall on Friday, April 1.

As cars drove past University Avenue, many honked their horns to support graduate assistants who were advocating for wage increases. People marched, chanted, held signs and used chalk to leave their message at Tigert Hall Friday. 

Graduate Assistants United at UF protested for increased wages after delayed attempts at bargaining. GAU normally reopens salary negotiations with UF at the beginning of every Fall semester, but the university has since delayed a deal twice, each for 90 days.

About 70 people showed up for support, including City Commissioner David Arreola, and a few attendees walked up the building's stairs to give speeches on their struggles. For two hours, attendees chanted phrases like “Top 5 school, Top 5 pay” and “gator pay bites” in hopes the university administration would agree to another bargaining session. 

UF and GAU didn’t make a wage increase deal by March 30. Instead, the university informed GAU Thursday that it would need a second delay lasting another three months to work out the numbers. 

It’s a stalling tactic, said July Thomas, a 30-year-old UF physics graduate assistant and mayoral candidate. The university’s refusing to meet in hopes that people lose interest.  

“What they're trying to do is they think if they wait long enough, it'll lose steam, and they're just making the situation worse for themselves,” Thomas said. “Especially now that the inflation is through the roof.”

Thomas has been an assistant in the college of physics for six years, but their pay increases have been basically flat, making them maintain a strict budget. However, rising housing costs and food prices have made it difficult for them to manage. 

UF cannot do anything about inflation, but it can at least help meet basic needs in the interim, they said.

The GAU initially asked for $38,833 salary but has come down to $29,450, which would cost UF an estimated $10.7 million, said Esteban Rodofili, a 30-year-old graduate assistant and GAU’s chief bargine.

The wage increase would amount to less than 0.5% of the $2,458,870 million spent by UF in employee compensation and benefits.

Based on the MIT living wage calculator, single adults living in Alachua County need $31,695 to have what is considered a living wage. The minimum stipend that graduate assistants receive at UF is $21,333, which is more than $10,000 below the livable wage. 

The wage GAU is asking for is based on the minimum pay graduate assistants at the University of Georgia receive. The group chose UGA based on location — Athens has comparable living costs to Gainesville. Previously, the union had also asked for $34,794, which is the minimum pay at the University of Michigan, a school closer to UF in university rankings. 

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“There have been delays, but I have confidence that we can reach a deal,” Rodofili said. “We’re all Gators here, and there is no reason for 29% of GA’s not to be able to buy groceries.”

The last time UF administration and GAU met was at a bargaining session at the end of February, where about 100 people questioned the university on its intent to provide increased wages. Soon after, the GAU held a protest in response to the lack of seriousness, said Meridith Miska, the 36-year-old co-president of the GAU and geology graduate assistant.

“We really are just here to get UF at the table to tell them to stop delaying,” Miska said. “We really just want to be able to pay for the things that we need to live our basic lives.”

Bryn Taylor, a 25-year-old graduate assistant in rehabilitation science and communication chair, said UF has given just one proposal since the bargaining session began. It included a one-time flat raise of $1,300 but would also get rid of the non-tuition fee relief that the university provides. It would be a raise of around $60 a month, Taylor said. 

“Why the hell would we do that?” Taylor said. “People aren't gonna improve their living conditions with 60 bucks a month — people aren't gonna be able to see the doctor with 60 bucks a month.”GAU is asking for a minimum wage increase to help the graduate assistants at the bottom who are making starvation wages, Taylor said. But a one-time raise that expires when the current union is gone isn’t enough.

“Do you want your teachers to not be able to feed themselves?” Taylor said. “Do you want your teachers to have to use food stamps? Do you want them to have to take out thousands of dollars of loans every year, to be able to afford their basic expenses — all of that is going to come back into their productivity and the quality of work that they do.”

Kasey Pham, a 26-year-old biology graduate assistant, is at UF on a fellowship and is paid around $31,000 a year. 

“I’m glad that I’m not being paid the minimum,” Pham said. “That’s the reason why I can actually afford to live here at all, and anybody who’s being paid anything below that is struggling right now.”

Ashley Hamersma, a 24-year-old biology graduate assistant, gets paid the minimum wage and has found it difficult to afford her medical expenses and housing. 

“I very much consider dropping out of my program because it is so stressful to find housing that has a price that I can actually deal with,” Hamersma said.

In the apartment she rented last year she paid $850, but it lacked heating and was advertised as a 1 bedroom apartment when it really was a studio. Now in her new apartment, she has dealt with flooding, cockroaches and mold, which she’s allergic to. It got so bad that she had to move into a friend's place.

Her medical issues have also increased her cost of living expenses as well.

“I have a chronic illness as well as ADHD, and both of those things are really difficult to deal with on the stipend we’re given,” Hamersma said.  

Her medication is difficult to afford because her university insurance only offers a couple providers meaning she cannot doctor shop. 

“I've just had a very stressful time actually affording everything and jumping through all the hoops that I've had to, with research, with teaching, with other work and with this unpaid stuff I do for the department,” Hamersma said. 

Contact Greg at Follow him on Twitter @GregRuizPerez1.

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