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Thursday, June 20, 2024

Union under siege: GAU, SB-256 and you

This column was written by GAU Communications Co-Chair Cassie Urbenz and GAU co-presidents Eva Garcia and Jacob Fiala

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For those of you who are not already familiar, Graduate Assistants United is the labor union representing over 4,400 Graduate Assistants at UF. UF GAU is a family, a haven and a safeguard against entities that often don’t have our best interests at heart. 

Our job is to protect our members and ensure graduate assistants have a voice at UF. In the past, GAU has obtained tuition waivers, fee relief, stipend increases, academic freedom protections and more. GAU protects these rights via our Collective Bargaining Agreement, a legally binding document. GAU’s ability to represent graduate assistants and fight for better working conditions is at stake after the passage of Senate Bill 256.

Effective July 1, the Florida Legislature passed SB 256 — a bill specifically intended to limit the power of educators labor unions in the state. Among other things, the bill requires educators unions like GAU to obtain and maintain 60% membership.

If GAU does not reach 60% membership by February, we could lose our union. This is an immense challenge that the Florida legislature has forced upon us. Despite this, we continue our commitment to uplifting each other. 

What do we stand to lose?

There is too much at stake. Without a certified union, the rights and protections in the CBA could not be negotiated further. Without a certified union, there would be no entity that can legally uphold the clauses of the CBA. Here are specific things from our contract that we would miss out on without GAU: 

Article 9: Academic Freedom. Protects academic freedom of all Graduate Assistants at the UF. It ensures that graduate assistants can speak freely about matters of university governance and to speak, write, or act as individuals without fear of institutional retaliation. 

Article 10: Stipends. Stipulates a minimum salary for graduate assistants, and ensures that health ($142.29/semester) and transportation fees ($84.96/semester) are waived by UF. Without Article 10, graduate assistants could make less than provided ($17,000 for 9-month contracts at 0.5 FTE; $22,600 for 12-month contracts at 0.5 FTE) and pay more in fees. Salary increases would be left to the sole discretion of departments.

Article 11: Tuition Program. Ensures that graduate assistants employed at 0.25 FTE (10 hrs/week) or more do not have to pay tuition, including additional costs associated with out-of-state tuition. Without Article 11, all graduate assistants would be responsible for paying, at minimum, $4,038.57 per semester. 

Article 12: Health Insurance. Ensures that the university provides health care coverage for graduate assistants hired at 0.25 FTE (10 hours/week) or more, and establishes a low-cost premium of $12/month. Without Article 12, graduate assistants could be made to enroll in the university healthcare plan, costing the GAU $1,200 per semester.

How do we get to 60% membership? 

Besides requiring educators unions to reach and maintain 60% membership, SB 256 also revoked the university’s ability to conduct dues deductions for the union. This means the moment SB 256 went into effect July 1, all GAU members stopped being dues-paying members. This poses an additional burden for GAU, as we need to rebuild our membership from scratch. 

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Thanks to the help of our parent unions, GAU has been quick in adapting and already has an established alternative system to collecting dues from members: eDues. Florida Education Association, a statewide federation of teacher and education workers' labor unions, began working with the eDues system in 2011. 

As part of this new system, members can securely enroll for dues to be automatically deducted once every payday through Plaid. Plaid is the same platform that powers commonly used payment services like Venmo, Zelle and CashApp. 

The infrastructural support we have received from our parent organizations has made it easier for our union to survive. But the fight is certainly not over. Now GAU must ensure that all previous members make the switch to eDues, and that new members enroll to satisfy the 60% requirement. 

We are positive that we can save the union and continue building on a legacy of over 50 years of hard work and amazing achievements from graduate assistants — but this is a group effort, and we need all hands on board. 

Were you a GAU member before July 1? 

If so, you may have received an email from FEA CMS with a link to switch to our new eDues system. If you have not done so yet, please proceed to make the switch; you will not be considered a member until you are on the new eDues system. If you were a GAU member before July 1 and you did not receive the email, or cannot find it, please email GAU at organizing@ufgau.org — we are very happy to help! 

How do I become a member?

Becoming a member is easy and affordable. The only requirement to be a member and help reach the 60% goal is to pay dues. Dues are only 1% of your paycheck — for most of our members, less than a cup of coffee per paycheck! 

The benefits of being a union member are representation during grievances, free legal counseling, access to free food and drink at payday parties, local and national discounts, and those of maintaining the union far outweigh the 1% cost. 

If you are a new member, joining is easy! You can simply visit this website: https://feacms.floridaea.org/portal/fasttrack/79/form and complete the form. Otherwise, you can visit our website at www.ufgau.com and navigate to “take action” and “become a member” to access the form. 

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