Graduate Assistants United

Members of Graduate Assistants United met with UF’s chief bargainer, Bill Connellan, over five months in 2019 to negotiate the terms of their contract. The agreement to waive transportation and health fees for graduate assistants was the first of its kind in Florida, said Stephen Phillips, the union’s spokesperson.

After winning a battle for relief on fees, Graduate Assistants United is demanding that UF uphold its end of the bargain. 

GAU, a labor union, and the UF Board of Trustees agreed in August that the university would pay for all graduate assistants’ transportation and health fees. The agreement was supposed to begin Jan. 1 but has yet to take effect.  

As a result, the union filed a grievance with the university on behalf of its entire chapter Thursday. It asserts that the university has violated the collective bargaining agreement by withholding the fee relief and failing to provide a date by which it will be distributed, said Stephen Phillips, the union’s spokesperson.  

UF’s chief bargainer Bill Connellan said the delay is due to a technical difficulty within the university bursar. Once the issue is resolved, the grievance will be invalid, he said.

“It is absolutely not true that we violated the contract,” Connellan said. “We agreed to it, we’re doing it — there was a technical difficulty in implementing, and it’s being fixed.” 

Connellan wouldn’t discuss the nature of the technical difficulty, nor does he know when it will be solved.  

“I’ve been telling the union repeatedly: they [the bursar] are working to solve the issue,” he said. 

Because the university has yet to cover the fees, graduate assistants with financial aid saw the cost of the fees deducted from their loans, Phillips said. GAU is asking that those students be reimbursed.

The initial agreement was a major victory for graduate assistants and is the first of its kind in Florida, Phillips said. Once implemented, it will amount to a yearly savings of around $606 for the average assistant.

“Graduate assistants aren’t paid a lot of money to begin with,” he said. “This is something that’s really important to us.”

Jonathan J. Chiarella, a 33-year-old graduate assistant and organizing chair of GAU, said the burden of graduate assistant fees is one he feels every day. 

The salary he makes means choosing between visiting his family and paying his fees, he said. The car he drives is in need of major repairs; for now, he rides his bike.

“There are certain things my peers have done by this time,” Chiarella said. “I have friends who’ve settled into places with a career and home with a mortgage, a family.” 

Chiarella said he can’t plan or save for those kinds of milestones between his studies and duties as a graduate assistant, which he spends about 55 to 60 hours a week on. 

The promised fee relief would make a difference, he said. Without it, even small purchases such as new clothes or dishes are sacrificed to cover the cost of his assistantship. 

“I know wearing pants with holes in them might be fashionable, but if I have holes in my pants, it’s because I bought them like five years ago,” he said.

Contact Hannah Phillips at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @haphillips96.