Seventeen UF graduate assistants entered the conference room together, sat down and pulled out their proposals. They were determined to drive a hard bargain.

The members of Graduate Assistants United, a labor union for teaching and research assistants at UF, met with administrators Tuesday in a series of bargaining sessions over issues, including rising fees, health care coverage and disciplinary procedures.

The two administrators, Bill Connellan, head of bargaining for UF Board of Trustees, and Paul Duncan, associate dean of academic affairs for UF graduate school, cited increased health care costs as a reason for the rise in fees, but confusion over past data and the role of an outside accounting firm pushed the issue to next Tuesday’s agenda.

The opposing parties did agree on changes to grievance complaint procedures and to a revised article of the GAU-UF agreement, which now includes “domestic partners” among the list of people whose injury, illness or death could excuse the absence of a graduate assistant.

However, the main issue of UF’s rising graduate fees persisted. 

“UF’s fees are unsustainably high,” said 29-year-old GAU chief negotiator and co-president Emily McCann. “Unless the university is tacitly OK with sending its graduate students into debt.”

Fees for graduate assistants increased 110 percent over the past 10 years, and health care premiums rose as well, said McCann.

Proposed health care premiums are about $2,000 to $3,000 higher than last year. GAU asked the university to lower the premium portions considerably and to add vision and dental care to the plan.

“You realize that even those of us who work for the university have to pay for those?” Connellan said. The director of academic support services walked through the available numbers with GAU until the issue was put aside, again, until the next meeting.

There are more graduate assistants at UF than faculty members, said McCann. She said the line between student and employee is heavily blurred, because many graduate assistants have to register for credits in order to conduct research, even if they are not doing coursework.

“It is our position that no one should ever pay fees – ever,” said McCann.

Connellan said he didn’t believe any similar schools had zero fees.

“My position is negotiating a contract that we can all live with,” he said.

UF administrators plan to return with more compelling data for the increases, and the members of GAU plan to scrutinize it.

[A version of this story ran on page 1 on 5/15/2014 under the headline "Graduate assistants union meets with admin"]