GAU Bargaining Blog Update # 8

Hello again! We’re back with another update from the negotiating table. We’re going to recap three sessions from break, Jan. 9, Jan. 14, and Jan. 16.

In general, we made progress in discussing our goals for a better contract these last three sessions. We’ve covered articles from our non-discrimination clause to description of duties. We’re working on getting more things agreed upon and off the table, but in general the other side has a lot of questions, often that someone else at the university needs to answer. We’re looking forward to many things getting resolved soon.

TL;DR - We have talked about nine different proposals (in bold below) over the last three sessions, trading language back and forth across the table, but we all the topics are still open and waiting for resolution.

Wednesday, Jan. 9

Non-Discrimination: Today’s session picked up where we left off on Monday, looking at the contract’s non-discrimination clause. Our proposal includes a few categories previously unmentioned in our contract, specifically pregnancy and citizenship, that affect many of us and are protected categories according to federal law. We want to make sure that it is understood that decisions to keep someone as a Graduate Assistant should not be based on discrimination of these groups. The council understands our desire to include citizenship language that is articulated in federal law into our contract, though we have no agreement yet.   

Materials and Resources: We then discussed our proposals on improving access to software that we need for our academic work, which can be a challenge for many of us.  The other side of the table agreed to reach out to URI’s Chief Information Officer to clarify what capacity the university has to provide us with the appropriate software to be able to successfully do our jobs.

We also clarified our position with regards to reimbursement for when we have to pay out of pocket for lab supplies, textbooks, and other materials necessary to do our jobs here on campus.

Training: When you started as a GA, did you know how to do your job? Had you ever taught a class, conducted an experiment, or overseen a residence hall? To do your job and do it well, you need to be trained how to do it. We’ve been working with the Graduate School over the last few years to ensure that Teaching Assistants have at least one day of training prior to the start of the academic year, but that training isn’t exactly required, nor does it answer to the needs of non-TA positions. As such, we have a proposal on the table that would allow us to collaborate with the grad school to develop appropriate training for all of us.  

Holidays: Article 14 sparked productive dialogue. To this point, we have lost the thread on this conversation over the definitions of “holiday,” “essential,” and “nonessential.” Therefore, rather than focusing on essential vs nonessential, we need to make sure that Graduate Assistants know up front what the expectations are for them to work when it comes to holidays, snow days, over the break, etc. We’ll be coming back to this one at our next session with some ideas to put on the table.

Several logjams in communication seem to have been broken by the end of this Wednesday’s meeting. The council’s representatives seem to better understand the rationale behind our proposals relating to working conditions and leave time, and we are eager to continue the conversation.

Monday, Jan. 14

Conditions of Appointment: To kick off this session, we introduced our compromise to move expectations of when Graduate Assistants would need to work to the description of duties. This would include if there is an expectation of work at night, on weekends, or on holidays and make it clear from the beginning of any position of when you might be asked to come in to work.

Bus passes: It turns out that the UPass program that allows undergraduate students to opt for a bus pass if they choose not to bring their car to campus is a pilot program and that graduate assistants cannot be added to that pilot program at this time. Given this, we are going to come back with a new idea for how to make bus passes available to graduate assistants who do not need parking passes. There is a distinct need for transportation for many students and there are many accessibility issues, especially between our campuses at URI.

Personnel files: We started discussing personnel files in this session and explained more clearly our concerns. We have a legal right to see employment-related materials in our files, but right now most of this is on eCampus (for example, our pay stubs and W2 information). We agreed to continue discussing this at our next session.

Wednesday, Jan. 16

Personnel files: We returned to personnel files at the beginning of this session. Currently, all graduate students have an official file at the Graduate School and departments or colleges may also have a file. At this time, there is not a distinction between our files as students and workers. However, the threat of getting a “note in your file” is real. This is an interesting situation, because legally if we have never seen the note and cannot access the note, it is not supposed to be permissible in disciplinary hearings. The other side seemed surprised that this threat happens as often as it does and began to see our position on why having separate files that we could request access to is useful. We will continue to return to this issue.

Evaluations: Since we were talking about personnel files, we brought up evaluations briefly. We reiterated that many departments are not currently evaluating graduate assistants annually, despite the fact that this provision is already in our contract. Currently some departments fill out an academic progress report for students, but this is also inconsistent.

Length of appointment: We got a counter-proposal from the other side on the possibility of multi-year contracts. We had suggested striking just “up to one academic year” in the clause, which would allow our contract to align with current practice. The concern with this is that funding, whether state funds or grant funds, can change year to year and this could lead to someone being terminated after getting a multi-year appointment. We understand this potential issue and have agreed to come back with new language.

We’ve scheduled another four sessions going into the beginning of February and based on the conversations we’ve been having, we are hoping to close discussions on several of these proposals and begin discussing some of our other proposals.

Watch out for another blog post next week! Our next negotiating session is Thursday, Jan. 24.

GAU Bargaining Blog Update #7: Keep those TA's Rollin'

Greetings from the negotiating table, brothers and sisters!

We are happy to report that today’s negotiating session we made significant progress on multiple proposals. Read on for the details.

Yesterday, we covered a series of counter proposals that focused on providing all Grad Assistants with clear information about our assistantship when we initially receive our offer letters. More specifically, we discussed what belongs in your offer letter, job descriptions so you know what you are expected to do as a Grad Assistant before you’re in the classroom, lab, or field, who you should be able to turn to with employment-related questions before you start your assistantship, and how far in advance you should be notified that you have secured a job. We also began discussing offering Grad Assistants who do not have or want to drive to campus bus passes in lieu of parking passes. We will continue to discuss this in subsequent sessions.

The council met many of our needs  outright, and on the other points, there was more than enough room to engage in fruitful discussions.

Offer Letters (TA’d = tentatively agreed on this session)

The Council agreed that our offer letters should universally meet some basic informative criteria, and we signed a tentative agreement on what that criteria should be. First and foremost, our offer letter should come in a timely fashion. We agreed that every effort should be made to provide offer letters at least one month in advance of the start of the semester, and if you are the instructor of record, you should know you have the position at least three months in advance.  Those offer letters should include a point of contact in your department that you can call for questions about your assistantship, a link to our current union contract, information on your health insurance, and tuition and fee information, among other things.

Job Descriptions

Your offer letter should also include a clear job description so you know what it is you’re signing up for. You wouldn’t believe how many people receive a “description of duties” page that is entirely blank. We agreed that that page must have a number of important pieces of information, and are close to an agreement on the details that should be included. Stay tuned.

Who is your Supervisor’s Supervisor? (TA’d)

Who is in charge of graduate programing in your department? After much back and forth, the council agreed to include a definition for the title of graduate program director. We’ve been looking for a definition for the person in your department who heads up your graduate program, as they are the person you’d go to if you needed to go “above” your immediate supervisor.

Bus Passes for Grad Assistants

We’re sure you’ve heard that undergrads who do not bring a car to campus get a free RIPTA U-Pass. What are we, chopped liver? Not all of us drive, and some of us would prefer not to. Given URI’s efforts to go green and reduce our carbon footprint, it only makes sense to extend this benefit to our members who do not want to drive to campus. Not to mention, we have to use RIPTA ($2 a pop!) to get from campus to Grad Village. This information was entirely new to the Council, and we’re hoping to explore this more deeply in future sessions.

Our next session will be on Wednesday (twice this week!), January 8, 2019 for three hours. Send pizza!

In Solidarity,
GAU Negotiating Committee

GAU Bargaining Blog Update #6

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Happy New Years, everyone!!!

As we ring in 2019, we have some great progress to report. We came to an agreement between the council and our team to finally articulate when a GA promotes from level 1 to level 2 to level 3 pay in our contract. Our contract, once ratified, will clearly articulate when we are eligible for a pay bump related to our academic progress. Furthermore, we will then be able to do something about it if we aren’t promoted at the proper time.

Grad Assistants have three levels of pay articulated in our contract. Here’s how you know what your pay level should be, and when you should advance from one pay level to the next:

Level 1: All Graduate students without a Master’s degree

Level 2: Incoming Grad Assistants begin at level 2 pay if they enter the university with a Master’s Degree. PhD grads advance from level 1 to level 2 pay following commencement that follows the completion of 30 credits.

Level 3: Grad Assistants who are PhD candidates advance from level 2 to level 3 at the start of the pay period that follows the certification of their comprehensive exam results by the graduate school verifying the exams were passed, with retroactive pay to the date of their oral comprehensive exam.

We also pushed hard to define a holiday schedule with mixed results, but we remain hopeful we will have clear language on this front soon.

It feels great to be making progress, but we will need to raise our collective voices to secure the rest of our proposed contract improvements. Looking forward to continuing to protect our rights as workers next year. :wink:

Please include a toast for GAU and our negotiations as you celebrate the close of a productive year!

Cheers,

GAU Negotiating Committee

GAU Bargaining Blog Update #5

November 30, 2018

Today’s session focused on two main topics: Clear job descriptions/offer letters, and workload.

Job Descriptions/Offer Letters: What is your job title? What are your responsibilities as a Grad Assistant in your department? When should you know what your responsibilities are, and how do you know when you’re successful in your duties? We spent the majority of our time in today’s negotiating session attempting to answer these basic questions about the nature of our work here at the University. We are looking for the University to clearly articulate the basics about your job in your offer letter so you have clear expectations for your performance as a Grad Assistant.

We believe that all GAs should know who our supervisor is before we start the job. We should definitely know what our benefits are and where we can find more information about them. And most importantly, we most certainly should know where we can go if we need help on any issues that may arise as a graduate employee, especially if our supervisor is… less than helpful (Hint: You can ALWAYS come to GAU!). We’re making progress, and look forward to future sessions that get us closer to agreement.

Workload: It should come as no surprise to you that Grad Assistantships vary…. a LOT. Some GAs hold “classic” Teaching Assistantships where they act as support for full time faculty members teaching large lectures by leading recitation sections, grading, meeting with students, and administering exams. Other Teaching Assistants are de facto instructors of record, designing their own syllabi, teaching a course on their own, grading, meeting with students, and acting as a member of the faculty. Some “administrative” assistants work to support their departments in an administrative capacity, others work in residence halls and are on call 24/7. Then there’s Research Assistants, who are often in the lab way beyond 20 hours a week working on both their assistantship and their academic research. How does one differentiate between reasonable expectations for a GA’s workload and overworking with such a wide variance in what is “normal” vs what is too much work? We worked on getting firmer guidelines for workload expectations, and tied this directly back to job descriptions. You should know what kind of hours your supervisor expects you to work.

Our next negotiating session is on December 20th. We’ll report back soon!

GAU Bargaining Blog: Update #4

Three out of Five.

So much for a double-session week. Today’s session, our fifth on the calendar, was cancelled. Once again, the Chief Negotiator on the other side of the table was pulled away for another contract and had to cancel our session. We are frustrated, to say the very least.

We need a contract, and we need it NOW!

Our next negotiating session is on November 30th at 2pm.

Stay tuned. We expect to have much to say afterwards.

GAU Bargaining Blog: Update #3

The Good News:

Brace yourselves, it’s going to be a busy double-session week! Thank you for those who were able to attend Tuesday’s General Assembly in between sessions! Your input and support made our negotiation session go much more smoothly. Your input is truly valuable. This is YOUR contract, after all!

Contract Reorganization

So look, in case you haven’t noticed, our current contract is sort of all over the place. In today’s session, we proposed a fully re-formatted contract as our final “initial” proposal. We’ve grouped similar things together in our final initial proposal, including strengthening some of our legal language to ensure our union is able to continue to be strong in a post-Janus world.

Non-Discrimination, Reporting Overworking

We also discussed in detail the current article on Non-Discrimination, where we proposed further articulation of the rights of new parents, and stronger non-discrimination language related to a GAs political or national identity. We also expanded our article on Consultation with the President regarding complaints about overworking, (now “Involvement in University Affairs”) and included a proposal to allow GAU to attend department meetings to make sure our members and their supervisors know what our rights are. We also proposed adding a new article on personnel files.

The Not So Great News:

Today was our fourth negotiating session so far. We’ve come to the table eager to hit the ground running every time we’ve met, but unfortunately the administration’s chief negotiator hasn’t been present for two of the four sessions we’ve had so far. We’ve of course continued to present our material, and those who have been there on the other side of the table have attentively engaged with us. We have done our best to make progress however possible, but the reality is that our progress will be limited as long as we continue to have the key person on the other side of the table missing. Our negotiating team will be meeting to explore the options we might want to employ to get this contract moving forward at a much faster clip.

Blog Logistics

A quick note on this blog itself- We are working on creating a summary of all our proposed changes that we’ll color code for a quick reference so you can easily see our progress. We are excited to continue to share an insider view on how negotiations on your contract are unfolding. As always, please reach out to us at any time with your thoughts, your feedback, your concerns, and especially your support by emailing us, messaging us on FaceBook or Twitter, drop in at a General Assembly, join our Department Leadership Council… there are so many ways for you to get involved in this process.

Solidarity!

—GAU Negotiating Committee

GAU Bargaining Blog: Update #2

Over the last two years, we have been working closely with the graduate school and fellow graduate employee unions across the country to identify ways to improve our contract to support clear communication of our responsibilities as workers. On October 22nd, we had the opportunity to present all of our hard work at the bargaining table and advocate for our need for far clearer job descriptions, timely notification regarding whether or not our contract will be renewed for the next academic year, and even better, to strongly demonstrate our support for multiyear contracts.

Job Descriptions

We believe that all Grad Assistants should have a clear sense of what their job duties are, who they should report to, and what their expectations are so they can be successful in their assistantship. At the moment, many of us receive a missing, blank, or “to be determined” job description addendum when we receive our offer letters. (Did you receive a 3rd page for your offer letter? What did it say? We’d like to hear about it!) with our offer letters. How can you be evaluated on your performance as a GA if you don’t know what you are expected to do? Clearly articulated job descriptions, in writing, would be beneficial both to us and our supervisors.

Offer Letter Deadlines

Offer letters should be provided by a reasonable deadline, whenever possible, so we can plan our next academic year accordingly. No one should have to wait until the last minute to know whether or not they are going to be employed for the following semester. Timely notification allows us to plan accordingly.

We would also like to give our explicit endorsement for departments to offer contracts that last more than one academic year, so long as your description of duties are updated to reflect your current semester’s assistantship.

We look forward to the administration’s counterproposal to clarify funding and terminology as our initial proposal was received with interest and support.

GAU Bargaining Blog #1: Negotiations have begun!

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Last Thursday, the GAU negotiating team sat down at the table for the first time to begin collectively bargaining our next contract.

This time we introduced ourselves, established ground rules for bargaining sessions, and set a schedule for upcoming meetings. After our opening statement (see below), we walked through our proposed contract changes and had the chance to explain our primary concerns and interests.

Our dedicated members have worked hard over the last three years to explore and determine what changes to our contract will best improve the working conditions of all Graduate Assistants through meetings, surveys, data collection, and most importantly conversations with so many of you. Thank you for all the contributions!

We look forward to working with all of you to fight for the best possible contract for all Graduate Assistants at URI!


Opening Statement

“Good afternoon.

It’s been a remarkable three years since we last came to this table together. Some of our faces are new, some of us have known and worked with each other for many years. Meanwhile, URI has continued to grow and thrive. We are about to have a new research vessel over at Bay Campus. The university receives around 85 million dollars in competitive grants on average each year by URI researchers. The 150 million dollar engineering building is almost done and 68 million dollars in federal research grants come into the university on average each year.

All of this success did not happen in a vacuum. Graduate Assistants have played and will continue to play an integral role in putting these resources to work for the betterment of URI and Rhode Island overall.

Despite our significant contributions to the success of URI, Grad assistants’ stipends still lag behind the cost of living. By any estimate, many grads are stretched to the breaking point to meet our basic needs. Our first paycheck every year is often completely consumed by student fees. An emergency such as auto-repair, illness, or even common dental procedures puts additional pressures on the already strained finances of a typical graduate assistant here at URI.

Our members frequently deal with the additional strain of not knowing what their responsibilities are. The lack of clarity of job descriptions and expectations can itself be anxiety-inducing, but it also allows supervisors, often unwittingly, to bend the rules and overwork assistants.

Whether we are monitoring experiments in labs, instructing undergraduates, providing departmental support, keeping the peace in residence halls, or conducting research in the middle (or on the bottom) of the ocean, our work is an integral part of this university. Our University’s success as an institution is due in no small part to our energy and commitment.

Last night, we had a big meeting with our members to kick off negotiations and engage them directly in the negotiating process, and man did they have a lot they wanted us to say to all of you.”

What we need out of this year’s negotiations - directly from our members and blurred for their protection.

What we need out of this year’s negotiations - directly from our members and blurred for their protection.

We read direct quotes during the session. Here is a paraphrased summary of our member’s personal messages:

  • We are workers helping URI as an institution, we deserve respect and a reasonable quality of living

  • My stipend is below cost of living and insufficient to cover my basic needs

  • I need a raise to feed myself and my family

  • Student fees come directly from my paycheck at a critical time and make starting an assistantship difficult

  • Financial challenges exacerbate disparities between diverse populations and contribute to discrimination at our institution

  • Supervisors need to know the appropriate roles and capacity of the assistantships they oversee, and we would like to review their performance anonymously

  • I NEED VISION

  • I didn’t know I had a job until after it started

  • I don’t understand my responsibilities, where my office is, or most of what I need to know to start my assistantship

  • I NEED DENTAL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

“On each of these points, our peer institutions offer significantly stronger benefits and wages to their graduate assistants. We believe the University strives to uphold its academic integrity, and takes its responsibility as a public institution to improve the common good seriously. To that end, graduate assistants at URI must be offered genuinely competitive compensation and benefits that meet their basic needs, or else they can go right up the way to our peer institutions and take their skills and expertise with them. We deserve the same quality of life as other academic professionals at any of the myriad institutions that offer their assistants better, more competitive compensation.

We are happy to be here with you today, and are looking forward to productive, collaborative negotiations over the coming weeks and months.”