Published in the 10/5/2015 UMass Daily Collegian:
Dear Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy,
On Friday, Sept. 4, the University of Massachusetts welcomed thousands of first-year students to their new home. Many of these students will take up a number of leadership positions on campus throughout their undergraduate experience. Dozens, if not hundreds of them will become resident assistants and peer mentors. So it is quite disturbing that while the Graduate Employee Organization – the union that represents and protects thousands of graduate student-workers – welcomed these future leaders with information about the ongoing fight for the basic, common-sense right of RAs and PMs to not be fired without “just cause,” you welcomed thousands of new graduate student-workers by making light of the poverty wages that the administration continues to pay our graduate student-workers.
While GEO was advocating for the fair working conditions of undergraduate student-workers, you addressed hundreds of incoming graduate student workers at the graduate school’s first-ever comprehensive Graduate Student Orientation. As you well know, your words speak directly to a variety of constituencies. So when you told the congregation of graduate student-workers that they had “taken an oath of poverty, for the next five to seven years,” you announced to every graduate student-worker, past, present, and future, to the incoming and returning undergraduate students and to all faculty and the extremely marginalized University support staff, that the chancellor of the state’s “flagship” institution is content with the poverty wages that the University pays its graduate-student workers. These workers conduct the University’s world-renowned lab research, teach the overwhelming majority of undergraduate student courses and just about all of their discussion sections.
As the body that represents the collective bargaining interests of graduate student-workers, the GEO works very closely with the graduate school, department faculty and administrators to make UMass the destination of choice for people all over the state, the country and the world. Unfortunately, we are also keenly aware of the arguably criminal practices of discrimination and sexual harassment that characterize the experience of far too many graduate student-workers in just about every UMass school, college and department. These discriminatory practices often involve threats and intimidation around access to the poverty wage assistantships that too many faculty and administrators see fit to leverage for power and exploitation.
Sadly, we cannot say that we are surprised at your apparent endorsement of the poverty-wages UMass pays its graduate student-workers. Your words mirror the negotiating position advanced by the administration during its last contract negotiations with the GEO. Whereas the GEO fought to bring graduate students-workers out of poverty, proposing a 15 percent wage increase over the next three years, the administration fought to keep graduate student-workers deep in poverty, offering a mere 9 percent increase over the same period. With a chancellor who willfully strengthens the stereotype that graduate student-workers deserve poverty wages, the GEO’s ability to negotiate a 10.5 percent wage increase over three years is a remarkable feat.
We are not writing this letter to draw attention to a political gaffe or a public relations error. We are writing to make you aware of the harmful message your words conveyed. Regardless of your intent, you can be certain that your words have had the effect of emboldening those who would – and do – exploit, discriminate and abuse their positions of power through access to poverty wage fellowships and assistantships.
We demand a candid, serious, and public dialogue with GEO and the entire UMass community about the poverty wages that you endorse, and that far too many faculty and administrators believe graduate student-workers deserve. We believe that you owe the entire UMass Amherst community answers to some very pressing questions:
- Do you believe graduate student-workers deserve to live in poverty?
- What is the necessary minimum wage that the University needs to pay its graduate student-workers to lift them out of poverty?
- What are you doing to reach this minimum pay?
- Do you believe some faculty and administrators currently utilize access to graduate poverty-wage funding as a way to discriminate and coerce graduate student labor?
We invite you to respond to these questions through The Daily Collegian, so that the entire UMass community can participate in this important dialogue.
GEO Staff and Leadership