Graduate employees, University continue to negotiate earnings

By Drake Baer

The University and the Graduate Employees Organization are in continuing negotiations over the issues of earnings and insurance for teaching assistants and graduate students.

Steve Veazie, the University attorney involved with the negotiations, said that the University would like to make clear a number of ambiguities over GEO negotiations and the contracts that have been proposed.

He said that the remaining issues to be resolved are also perhaps the most important. The proposal made by the University was a three-year contract with increases to stipends in each of three years and changes made to the insurance plan.

The proposed graduate employee minimum salary rate for teaching assistants and graduate assistants, on average, was a $12,586 annualized salary or a 2.5 percent increase, whichever is greater, each year. The amount that graduate employees are paid varies for each department, with some, such as engineering, giving greater pay. He said that about 25 percent of the teaching assistants are paid at the minimum level.

“Graduate students are also getting a fee waiver, $12,500 added to the tuition fee waiver. It’s a pretty good deal,” Veazie said.

Others seem to disagree.

“It’s important to remember that a tuition waiver is not wages. A labor agreement includes wages, and tuition waivers are not included in our discussions about wages,” said Christopher Simeone, head spokesman for the GEO.

He also said that one would not want to be paid for one’s eligibility to be an employee and that if there was no tuition waiver, then a graduate student would have to pay simply to work at the University.

“The GEO is ignoring the fact that we’re putting substantial money on the line when we’re proposing a 2.5 percent increase for 2,800 assistants and about the same number of research assistants,” Veazie said.

Veazie said that one of the main reasons for difficulty in forging the contract comes from the fact that there are so many departments in the University, and each one has done something different.

“The University’s proposal is about $1.2 million, which is about the top administrators’ salaries added together,” Simeone said.

Brian Dolber, graduate student, said that the University has come across “as a completely disrespectful institution that doesn’t care about students or employees but only care about their bottom line.”

The GEO is not ignoring what the University has put on the table, but they are keeping things in “financial perspective,” Simeone added.

Departments are competing to attract the best students from California, Michigan and Wisconsin. The University is doing its best to bring in people at a competitive rate, Veazie said.

“It’s a sort of matrix of things,” said Veazie, referring to the complexities in the contract creation process.

The GEO is generally disappointed with the proposal, as it doesn’t meet the graduate students’ needs, Simeone said.

“We don’t want to talk about any wage deduction as a raise until it is a raise over the cost of inflation. Any raise under the rate of 3.6 percent isn’t really a raise,” Simeone said.

However, Veazie said that the inflation rate is not guaranteed to any University employee.

“There is no policy or practice to pay commensurate with inflation,” he said. “The cost of living is there, but there’s also the state budget, which has been pretty stagnant over the past three or four years.”

Veazie said that before his last meeting with the GEO, which was held on Nov. 14, the University was ready to “stay as long as it took to get things settled.” The GEO was unable to give any response that day and did not wish to meet for another four weeks.

The University would be willing to meet before then, he added.

“It’s very important at this stage of negotiations that the union respond directly to us, but instead they characterized our offer in the press,” Veazie said.

Simeone said that the union has been responding to the University throughout the process but that the public also has a right to know about the process.

“We’re not ashamed of anything that we’re doing at the bargaining table, and therefore we don’t have any problems talking about the bargaining process with the public,” he said.

“We think our offer is very fair given the context of state budget constraints and other employees,” Veazie said.

Veazie said that the University is ready to settle on a fair contract for graduate students and that they are frustrated by the delay, referring to the four-week break between meetings.

The University’s negotiating team has “repeatedly stalled and delayed” in regard to issues such as health care and wages, Dolber said.

This is not the absolute final configuration of the contract, but it’s close to that, Veazie said. He said that if the union wants “a lot more,” then the next step would be mediation.

“The next step for both parties is to listen. We’re happy that the University wants to settle sooner rather than later, but we won’t settle for anything that’s unfair,” Simeone said.

The next meeting will be held Dec. 13.