UMass Amherst: Graduate Student Workers Deserve Dignity

T.R. Whitworth interviews Tom Corcoran. Both are graduate student workers at UMass Amherst and members of the Graduate Employee Organization (GEO-UAW Local 2322).

Whitworth: Can you tell me a little bit about yourself? What did you do before coming to graduate school? What made you want to go to graduate school? What kind of work do you do as a graduate student worker, and does it pay a living wage?

Corcoran: I am a doctoral student in sociology entering my sixth year of the program. Prior to starting graduate school, I worked as a union electrician in New York City. Given my life and work experiences, I imagined graduate school as a space where I could do research to potentially help working people as I obtained teaching experience. At UMass, I work as a teaching assistant either teaching full courses and discussion sections or grading for large classes of undergraduate students. While the salary pays enough for a university-owned rent-subsidized apartment my spouse and I are fortunate enough to live in, we often find ourselves struggling to pay for groceries, unforeseen medical bills, or user-fees from the university. Sometimes bills or fees build up to a point where we cannot pay, so we put them on a credit card to avoid collections—as well as more fees. Of course, this isn’t a sound approach because afterwards we have to dig ourselves out of credit card debt. A pay raise would be a great help.

Whitworth: What’s going on at UMass Amherst right now between GEO-UAW and the university administration? Can you describe the situation?

Corcoran: Currently at UMass-Amherst, GEO-UAW—the graduate student workers’ union—is engaged in impact bargaining sessions with university administration. Given the recent COVID-19 outbreak, and its impacts upon the graduate student population at UMass, these negotiations intensified as the administration refused to disperse emergency relief funds to help with unemployment, rent payments, and food insecurity. In short, the administration’s response resorted to a rhetoric of fiscal austerity and budget constraints, rather than any commitment to relief or aid. In response, graduate student workers organized a campus-wide collective action where we applied for—contractually-guaranteed—vacation pay during finals week, while a group of around 60 graduate students withheld grades a week beyond the final grading deadline. We also organized a virtual reverse town hall meeting to voice the situations of precarity so many UMass students experience. These actions, combined with the sustained efforts of collective bargaining, incited administration to grant some concessions, including a summer hardship fund. Still, a number of issues remain unresolved, namely employment for future semesters, the pending evictions of graduate students and their families living in university owned and operated housing, and work and travel restrictions placed upon international students.

Whitworth: The administration is claiming that the university is broke due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Is what graduate students are asking from the administration reasonable?

Corcoran: For those who think graduate student workers’ demands are unreasonable, or asking too much of the administration, I would respond by saying that their demands make simple claims on the necessities any worker should receive. A living wage, access to safe and affordable housing, decent healthcare and paid-time off, represent not excesses, but a right to dignity. Moreover, as workers at a state university, graduate students are committed to the project of education and research that benefits the public. The very least the administration and university leadership could do is to help protect our future as educators and researchers.

Whitworth: What are the next steps for GEO-UAW if the university administration continues to reject the union’s demands?

Corcoran: Should the university continue to reject our demands, I would anticipate an increase in efforts to organize and engage in collective action. Campus-wide, nearly 600 graduate students participated in the collective vacation pay-out action; an astounding number given the circumstances of the pandemic and the short period in which the organizing took place. Once you build a base like this, create some momentum, and organizers gain experience, further actions are only likely to grow in size and strength.

Whitworth: What can other unions or organizations do to support UMass Amherst graduate students in this struggle?

Corcoran: The GEO-UAW local at UMass has already received an outpouring of support from not only other graduate student unions nationwide, but also state and area labor federations. Continued letters of support and solidarity directed at administration and university leadership from labor and social justice groups would help us in this movement, as well as those in the future. Furthermore, participation from other organizations and unions in future events or meetings organized by GEO-UAW or UMass graduate students can also assist in making our claims public and building broad coalitions.

Whitworth: There have been numerous strikes and workplace actions since the COVID-19 pandemic started, largely coming from “essential” healthcare, warehouse, and delivery workers. Do you see your struggle as a graduate student worker as connected to the broader labor movement?

Corcoran: Yes, I think given what is occurring nationwide, or perhaps even globally, as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, UMass graduate student workers do feel connected to a broader labor movement. There has not been much discussion about educators as “essential” workers throughout the COVID-19 crisis, however graduate students—along with primary and secondary education teachers—are an integral part of preparing young people to help make a better future for all. So yes, our position today, and moving forward, pairs directly with other essential workers engaged in different types of care work that all too often goes unrecognized.

Whitworth: What have you and your co-workers learned through this process so far? How has organizing changed how you think about your role at the university?

Corcoran: The mobilization and planning entailed in the collective actions up to this point has been time consuming. Those of us who have been heavily involved have spent a considerable amount of time with graduate students we either never met or didn’t know well before; new friendships have developed through this process. Moreover, something unique about our efforts is that they have demonstrated collaboration between international and domestic graduate students. While not often articulated in our planning or bargaining sessions, I think a strong sentiment of internationalism directed our objective of questioning what values a global public research university should adhere to, and how it should be held accountable for its actions. As far as continued work with GEO-UAW at UMass, I’m not sure where I might end up, though I would like to continue with organizing efforts in some capacity. I am hopeful, however, that the recent collective actions will create interest among newer generations of graduate student workers to get involved, and I believe that a space for union democracy has opened to shape the future of public universities.

Learn more about how graduate student workers across the country are fighting back against budget cuts and exploitation during the COVID-19 crisis here.