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Friday, June 21, 2024

Graduate student union could lose recognition under new law

Graduate Assistants United has until Feb. 9 to reach 60% membership density

<p>Bryn Taylor, Rachel Hartnett and Jackie Schnieber table in front of the J. Wayne Reitz Union on Sept. 14, 2022</p>

Bryn Taylor, Rachel Hartnett and Jackie Schnieber table in front of the J. Wayne Reitz Union on Sept. 14, 2022

CORRECTION: The article has been updated to more accurately reflect what GAU dues fund. The Alligator initially reported otherwise. 

A law from Florida’s legislative session puts unions — including UF’s collective for graduate students — at risk of losing legal recognition as early as next year. 

Senate Bill 256, also known as Employee Organizations Representing Public Employees, strips unions of legal recognition unless they reach 60% membership of all employees.

The first part of the bill went into effect July 1, while membership quotas for union reinstatement go into effect Oct. 1.

If a union doesn’t meet the membership requirements, its employer is no longer obligated to legally recognize and honor union contracts, according to the bill. Failure to meet the quota triggers an application process for the union. 

It is unclear whether the union is able to collectively bargain while in the application stage.

“The University of Florida does not comment on pending legislation,” UF spokesperson Cynthia Roldan said.

At UF, the Graduate Assistants United union has bargained with the university administration on issues such as stipends and employee benefits. 

GAU and its parent unions: United Faculty of Florida, Florida Education Association, National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers also have negotiated thousands of discounts for members, ranging from local restaurants to phone and insurance plans. 

Eva Garcia-Ferres, a UF social psychology graduate student and GAU co-president, said meetings with university administration and bargaining should be expected of UF as an institution.

“It is the responsibility of the employer to also hear out the concerns and opinions of the people that they're employing and the people that they're working for, which would be the students,” Garcia-Ferres said. 

Without legal recognition, the union couldn’t require the university to meet with its representatives or engage in bargaining sessions. 

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Avery Bollinger, a UF public health PhD student and graduate assistant, is not a member of the GAU because of the dues, but still actively supports the union and attends its meetings.

“I am really glad for what the GAU has been doing and how much they’ve been advocating for all of us,” Bollinger said. “Especially those of us who aren’t able to always be super involved or always advocate for ourselves on a large scale.”

Bollinger is in opposition to SB 256 as many graduate students are often deterred from joining unions because of the dues associated with membership, which according to the GAU website are 1% of the graduate assistant salary or about $10 per paycheck. 

“I don’t think [SB 256 is] a great way to go about things,” Bollinger said. “Since you do have to pay in order to be a member does keep a lot of people from becoming full members.”

The union bargained for stipend increases in the last year, which allows graduate assistants to afford living expenses while working on their degree.

“When you’re a graduate student you don’t have time for a second job,” Bollinger said. “That’s a lot of money and [GAU has] definitely had a positive impact on me just on that basis.”

Bryn Taylor, a UF rehabilitation science PhD student and former GAU president, said communication between the university and GAU already often feels hostile.

“It's usually the university undervaluing us and our labor intentionally to try to convince us that we deserve less pay than we do,” Taylor said.

One issue GAU bargains for is graduate assistant wages. Many graduate student employment contracts outline 20 hours of work and another 20 hours allocated for academics. 

With 40 hours a week dedicated to the university, Taylor said it’s hard for students to pick up second jobs.

“We have to be able to eat and pay rent in order to perform this labor for you,” Taylor said. “So there is no other option but for you to give us a livable wage because what else is there to do? Otherwise, you're saying that only independently wealthy students can get PhDs at UF.”

SB 256 is the most recent attack on the wages of teachers by the state, she said.

 “If there's no employing contract, then they can pay whatever they want, and they don't have to give us a raise and offer health care,” Taylor said.

The union has until Feb. 9, 2024, to meet the 60% quota. GAU still has a long way to go as far as recruitment, Taylor said.

“A lot of the time people use money as an excuse not to join and it's absolutely true that GA's are strapped for cash,” Taylor said. “But at the same time our dues for the graduate student union are the lowest in the country at 1%.”

The dues go toward paying parent unions, hosting payday socials with free food and funding other budget items.

While meeting the 60% quota is vital for GAU to continue negotiating contracts and benefits with the university, all staff would benefit. 

Florida is a right-to-work state, meaning every employee receives the benefit of the contract and union negotiations regardless of membership.

“If we do not hit the 60% mark, UF will not abide by the contract,” Taylor said. “They will absolutely no longer offer fee relief. I can very much see a path where they no longer offer health care. They will bump down our minimum stipend. That is absolutely going to be bad if we do not have a union.”

Contact Megan Howard at Follow her on Twitter @meganmhxward.

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Megan Howard

Megan Howard is a second-year journalism major and the K-12 Education reporter for The Alligator. When she's not writing, you can find her rewatching the Eras Tour movie or reading The Hunger Games series.

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