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The pressure is mounting at University of Massachusetts to do the same, we discuss the plight of graduate students in part time teaching contracts with Natasha Raheja at NYU & Anna Waltman at UMass

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore. According to the American Association of University Professors, non-tenure-track positions now account for 76 percent of all instructional staff in American higher education, including adjunct professors and graduate students. Across the country, we’ve seen these nontenured scholars fighting for fair treatment and wages. Now joining us from New York City is Natasha Raheja. And she is a member of the GSOC-UAW 2110. Natasha’s on the Graduate Student Organizing Committee. She is a teaching assistant and PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology at NYU. And she’s a member of Academic Workers for a Democratic Union. And thank you for joining us, Natasha. NATASHA RAHEJA: Thank you. PERIES: And also joining us from Amherst, Massachusetts, is Anna Waltman. Anna is a cochair of UMass Amherst Graduate Employee Organization, with union UAW 2322. She’s a PhD student at UMass Amherst’s Department of English and American Literature. Thank you both for joining us today. ANNA WALTMAN: Thank you for having us. PERIES: So, Natasha, let me begin with you. So what is exactly going on in terms of your situation there at NYU? RAHEJA: So right now at NYU with GSOC-UAW, our graduate student union, we’re in a very momentous and exciting time, because after over one year of negotiations and after nine years without a contract, we this week have averted a strike, which we were fully prepared to undertake, because we have reached a settlement with our university administration. And we have a tentative agreement that we are overall quite pleased with, subject to ratification. It will go into effect later this semester. PERIES: Now, Natasha, what were some of the issues that you were tougher to negotiate, I should say? RAHEJA: Well, some of the items that the university was most intransigent on that we made headway on include the bargaining of our stipends. So for over nine months–actually, for much longer than that–the university administration maintained that our fellowship stipends are not part of our compensation. And our bargaining committee and our membership was able to fight such that we pushed the university to acknowledge that 100 percent of our compensation is 100 percent bargainable. Next we also had to struggle with the University in securing significant child care and family benefits. Unfortunately, we were unable to secure specified benefits within the contract, but we were able to establish breakthrough funds for both child care and family health care subsidies. PERIES: Is that childcare on campus? RAHEJA: So the childcare fund will go to reimburse and support childcare cost not on campus. We currently do not have a childcare center on campus. PERIES: Okay. And, Anna, what is the particularity of your situation there? RAHEJA: Well, unlike NYU, we are a public sector union, which means we have limited strike rights in Massachusetts. Many northeastern states, public sector workers are not legally allowed to strike, and Massachusetts is, unfortunately, one of those states. So we don’t have quite as much potential for escalating as our friends at NYU GSOC. But we’ve been negotiating a contract since–I would say late June 2014 is when we started. And it’s been pretty challenging. Not having the ability to escalate that much toward a strike really limits what we can do to make the university feel forced to fairly negotiate. So we’ve been fighting for mainly a combination of things, but our three big issues this year have been fair wages, which is a huge fight. Governor Baker just released his higher ed budget about a week ago, and it’s pretty bad. So most of the unions in Massachusetts have gotten very low-wage offers from the university for this current contract cycle. Some of them have settled. We haven’t felt able to settle. Our members earn very little. Our salary, the GEO minimum that’s set means most of us earn between $17,000 and $22,000 a year. Some earn higher, but most of us are in that range. So that’s very little for this part of Massachusetts. Cost of living here is very high. We’re also fighting for fair and accessible and affordable health insurance. We used to have an excellent health insurance plan. It was unilaterally gutted by the university without negotiation in 2011. In our 2012 contract cycle, we were able to get some of those gains, but–. PERIES: Anna, how was that, that the university was able to do that, gut your health care without negotiation? WALTMAN: It’s through this legal distinction between a student and a worker. And, of course, as grad student employees, we are both students and workers all the time. But the law recognizes a pretty strong differentiation there. So what the university did, all of our grad employees are on the student health insurance plan at UMass. And what the university did was change the student health insurance plan. But because it’s a student plan, undergrads are also on it, and grad students who are not part of our bargaining unit are also on it. So that gave the university the ability to argue that the student health insurance plan fell outside the bounds of our contract and that they didn’t have to negotiate, which was really frustrating. PERIES: And what does that mean? What are you not having access to as a result of that decision, in terms of the different plans? WALTMAN: Well, the main shift was that we used to have a co-pay system. And when this changed, we went to a coinsurance system. Under a co-pay system, you know exactly what a visit is going to cost before you go in. You have a flat fee that you pay. Under coinsurance, it’s based on a percentage. So now if I want to go to a specialist, I have to pay up to 15 percent of the total bill. Of course, I don’t know what that’s going to be until I get the bill several months down the road. PERIES: Natasha, how does that compare to what you receive in terms of health benefits? RAHEJA: In terms of health benefits, we’ve made incredible strides this contract that we’re hoping to ratify later this semester. We have a co-pay system, fortunately, but the majority of our workers before our settlement this week did not have their health insurance premium covered. And with our settlement, over 50 percent of our workers now have 90 percent of their individual health care premiums covered. And we also now have support to subsidize family health care plans. So this is quite incredible. And as I highlighted earlier, this is not just a contract victory in terms of the incredible material gains that we’ve been able to achieve, but also a victory for social movement unionism. In our reunion, we now have social reform, social justice union reform caucus in the leadership. And this caucus has really led us and paved the way to build power in our union so that we can win such major material gains. PERIES: Right. And in terms of health care, where were you before this recently negotiated contract you’re putting up for approval among your membership? Where were you and what did you manage to gain? RAHEJA: Right. So, as I was saying earlier, we had over 50 percent of our workers with no support from the university administration for the coverage of their health care premiums. So we went from zero percent coverage to 90 percent individual health care coverage and from zero percent support for family health care to a $200,000 fund over the life of the contract to help subsidize family health care. PERIES: Right. Anna, are you able to hold up a contract like this one at NYU and say, look what other graduate students are getting? WALTMAN: Yes and no. Yes, in that it’s–the gains at NYU are wonderful. And if a private, extremely corporate university is able to make such sweeping changes to help its grad students, surely UMass Amherst should be capable. So that is–yeah, in some ways yes. In some ways not as much. We have an old contract. Our contract’s about 25 years old, which means we have a lot of these premium benefits already. So one of the things that happened when we had that health care shift a couple of years ago is that even though our premiums are largely covered by the university, we get either–I think it’s a 95 percent waiver for single people and a 90 percent waiver for people who are on our family plan. Despite that, the change from the co-pay to coinsurance shifted a lot of the cost burden of the care onto us, where it used to be in the university. PERIES: Now, one could assume that being a part of a government bargaining unit and a part of a union under a state of this nature, you would actually benefit from that kind of a scenario. But that doesn’t seem to be the case here. WALTMAN: Again, it is and it isn’t. The nice thing is that we can go to our elected officials and ask them to pressure the university. The problem is that, as you may know, we are kind of shifting from a Democratic-run state government to a Republican-run state government. We don’t really know what that’s going to mean yet. So, under our old governor, we could kind of–we knew who our allies were, and we were able to kind of use that to our advantage when we needed to. Right now, a lot of that is really uncertain because of the turnover in the Statehouse. So we’re doing our best to leverage our power as voters, as well as graduate employees and employees of the state, but it’s been a real challenge. PERIES: Natasha, Anna, I want to both thank you so much for joining us today. And I hope, Natasha, all the best in getting what was offered to you approved by your union, and congratulations on what you’ve managed to attain here. And, Anna, I hope you can continue as you have and get better conditions for students there. WALTMAN: Thank you. RAHEJA: Thank you so much. PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Anna Waltman has served as co-chair of GEO-UAW since May 2013, and has worked at UMass Amherst as a teaching assistant or teaching associate (instructor of record) since beginning graduate school in 2009. Her academic research examines the politics and political economy of contemporary USAmerican poetry vis-a-vis critical university studies. Originally from Millville, New Jersey, Anna holds a BA from Goucher College (2008) in Baltimore, MD and an MA from UMass Amherst (2012). She lives in Northampton, Massachusetts.

Natasha Raheja, GSOC-UAW Bargaining Committee member, is a teaching assistant and PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology at NYU. She is a member of the social justice union reform caucus Academic Workers for a Democratic Union. In addition to fighting for a fair contract, she recently completed a short documentary on the making of NYC manhole covers, Cast in India.