On the upper floor of Cypress and Grove Brewery, about 50 graduate assistants chatted over food and drink Friday night. However, ongoing disputes about union membership lay beneath the surface.
Members and guests of the UF Graduate Assistant Union gathered at the brewery for a “payday party” — the first the organization has ever held. It was advertised as a gathering to celebrate getting paid that week, but GAU Co-President Rachel Hartnett said it was also part of recruiting efforts to bring more people into their union.
GAU’s bargaining unit, the group that receives the benefits of negotiations, totals around 4,400 people, Hartnett said.
However, Hartnett said not all of them are dues-paying members. One of the issues GAU encounters, including at the payday party, is convincing graduate assistants to use some of their money toward the union.
Union members pay dues each year that are scaled according to how much they make: 1% of their stipend, according to the GAU website. Dues cover employment liability insurance and legal fees, as well as social events like the party. Hartnett used the free legal counseling when she was almost required to work in person during Spring 2021 as an immunocompromised person, she said.
Hartnett hopes events like the payday party, which offered free food, will show graduate assistants that the union is a community, she said.
Most raises came on the day of the party, Hartnett said. She, along with membership chair Cait Clark and previous GAU Co-President Meridith Miska, planned the event to foster togetherness among the union.
It was meant to be a night of celebration for the graduate assistants’ increased paychecks arriving that day. Instead, Hartnett said it was bittersweet.
GAU and UF recently negotiated a $1,420 increase to the minimum stipend — the money graduate assistants receive each year for their work — raising it to $22,753 annually. However, the package they secured Aug. 18 ended up $15,580 less than GAU’s original offer.
“It’s not the finish line,” Hartnett said. “But it’s a goal post along the way.”
Negotiations are scheduled to continue between GAU and UF Sept. 26 — this time for paid parental leave. GAU will start by asking for eight weeks of paid leave, the same amount granted to faculty in 2021, Hartnett said.
The payday party provided free food paid for by GAU membership dues.
Attendees from the union received two tickets for themselves and their plus one. The ticket was valid for a free entree from the food truck Tommyknockers, which serves Southern fusion food.
People who weren’t on the member list had to pay for food, but were still welcome to sit and eat in GAU’s reserved area of the brewery.
Most of Hartnett’s night was spent trying to recruit graduate assistants to the union, one of whom was Talia Jacobsen, a new graduate assistant from Chicago.
Still, 22-year-old Jacobsen said she wasn’t convinced to join.
“I’m not sure,” she said. “I’m going to look into it a little bit more.”
Jacobsen is a part of the Plant, Molecular and Cellular Biology Graduate Program. Her group of about seven fellow PMCB graduate assistants said they make higher stipends than the minimum: around $30,000.
The group of seven attended the party to get to know people in their program. Some of them were not union members, such as 25-year-old Emily Wolf.
Wolf first got put off from joining GAU during PMCB orientation when a GAU representative came to speak to her. They were a bit aggressive and off-putting, she said.
Wolf doesn’t quite see the value in being a union member. Their program pays them well, she said, so she feels no need to actively participate in negotiations.
“I get all the benefits without paying anything,” she said. “We’re students so we don’t get paid that much anyways.”
Just across the table from Wolf, 26-year-old PCMB graduate assistant Nadia Mourad said she doesn’t understand that perspective.
“People that are like that are really annoying,” Mourad said. “You’re sitting out while everyone else is fighting for you. That’s not fair.”
She isn’t a member currently, but she’s planning on becoming one this semester.
Mourad makes $33,456 a year, she said, making more than $10,000 above the minimum stipend. Those in higher-paying programs like hers should help others get higher wages too, she added.
“Maybe that will embarrass them to do something about their grad students,” she said. “They should be embarrassed.”
One of the goals of the event was to bridge the gap between graduate assistants making the minimum and those making more. Even though many of them don’t make much money anyways, it’s easy to fall into a sense of superiority if you make more, Clark said.
It’s also easy to be resentful if you don’t, she added.
“I think that if you’re sharing things together, especially a meal, it encourages a sense of community,” Clark said. “That’s why I feel like it’s hopefully something that’s going to be good for the group.”
Contact Siena at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @SienaDuncan.
Siena Duncan is a sophomore journalism major and the graduate school beat reporter for the Alligator. When she's not out reporting, she's typically bothering her friends about podcasts or listening to Metric on repeat.