UMass graduate students stage sit-in over lack of new contract

  • Matthew Donlevy, a graduate student at UMass makes signs during the day long sit in in the Chancellors office organized by graduate students to push for a new contractor. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Nyari Changamire, a graduate student at UMass talks about the day long sit in in the Chancellors office organized by graduate students to push for a new contractor. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Matthew Donlevy, a graduate student at UMass makes signs during the day long sit in in the Chancellors office organized by graduate students to push for a new contractor. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • left, Santiago Vidales, a graduate student at UMass, during a day long sit in in the Chancellors office organized by graduate students to push for a new contractor. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Graduate students at UMass during the day long sit in in the Chancellors office organized by graduate students to push for a new contractor. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • left, Santiago Vidales, a graduate student at UMass, during a day long sit in in the Chancellors office organized by graduate students to push for a new contractor. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 4/20/2018 4:09:06 PM

AMHERST — Nyari Changamire, a University of Massachusetts graduate student and a mother, says it is challenging to pursue a doctorate in the College of Education while providing for the basic necessities of her family.

“It’s important for me to be paid fairly to survive,” Changamire said Friday, who explained that a portion of her salary each semester is reduced by mandatory fees collected by the university. “I feel that I’m not left with much to live by.”

As the mobilization coordinator for the Graduate Employee Organization/UAW2322, which represents about 2,200 graduate students, Changamire is among those who have been negotiating for a year on a new contract that union members hope will lead to better pay, reduced fees and less expensive health coverage.

Sitting quietly in Chancellor Kumble  Subbaswamy’s office at the Whitmore Administration Building on Friday, displaying signs reading “Overwork is exploitation” and “One semester of fees is an entire summer of groceries,” Changamire was one of a more than a dozen graduate employees who got an early start on a planned five-hour sit-in.

An oversized letter, being signed by graduate students, was ready to be given to Subbaswamy calling on him to bargain in good faith.

The action came two weeks after the GEO joined other UMass Amherst unions in a rally outside the Old Chapel where the university’s board of trustees was meeting, and less than a week before the next bargaining session, to be held at the Campus Center on April 26.

“We are not happy with the progress we’re making,” Changamire said. “We would like the university to take us much more seriously.”

Mary Dettloff, a spokeswoman for UMass, said in an email that, “We acknowledge that the members of GEO are practicing their right to protest. However, we do not comment on collective bargaining issues.”

GEO Co-Chairman Santiago Vidales, who is in the Spanish and Portuguese program pursuing a doctorate in Latin American literature, said the sit-in was timed to the start of negotiations last April.

“We’ve been at the bargaining for exactly a year,” Vidales said. “We presented a substantial package of proposals last April, but are just now seeing some movement on our demands.”

He said part of the issue is that the union has sat across from the university’s lead negotiator, rather than Subbaswamy.

“We have to cut out the middle man and go straight to the boss,” Vidales said. “We need to put pressure on him to leverage our power and let him know these are not arbitrary demands."

18 percent wage increase

The GEO is seeking an 18 percent wage increase over three years, which Vidales said would ensure that its members can live in decent housing in the Amherst and Northampton area, and not in poverty while pursuing degrees. “The union believes in social and economic justice,” Vidales said.

Currently, the union members are paid a minimum of $25.23 per hour, but many are only paid 20 hours per week for the 38 weeks in session, which means those at the low end would earn less than $20,000 per year, Vidales said.

Meantime, the $300 to $1,000 per semester for fees can eat up an entire paycheck, he said. “That’s a really difficult way to start the semester,” Vidales said.

The graduate students said that those with families have to pay their portion of a family as well as individual health care plans, even though they do not need the latter.

Mathew Donlevy, who is pursuing a doctorate in English, is the chief negotiator for the union. He said it has presented reasonable demands, but members feel like are getting inadequate responses that do not address their concerns.

“Most of the responses we get from them are straight-out ‘no’s,’ or they don’t make sense,” Donlevy said.

As one example, instead of reducing the fees, the university offered to have them taken out of their checks as a payroll deduction. Donlevy said this is an option that already exists. The health care plan changes presented, he said, were “small and inconsequential.”

Though Vidales and others hoped that they might have direct interactions with high-level UMass officials, Steven Goodwin, deputy vice chancellor, was the only one to come out from an office when they arrived. He informed the union members that Subbaswamy was not in Amherst on Friday. “I have nothing to say about negotiations,” Goodwin said.

Vidales pressed him on why the university has been “disrespectful and offensive” in its bargaining approach. “If the university was a student, it would get a D-,” Vidales said.

Goodwin suggested that the union continue bargaining, though he added that he would accept the letter from the graduate students.

“We’re happy to receive your letter whenever you’re ready to deliver it,” Goodwin said, adding that he appreciated that the sit-in was civil and not disruptive, with members sitting in chairs and on the floor grading assignments and doing research.

Donlevy said he fears that part of the university’s strategy is to wait, with those who are getting master’s degrees only on campus two years and doctoral students four or five years, far less than a tenure-track professor.

“They try to take advantage of the fact our careers here are a bit shorter,” Donlevy said.

Still, Changamire said she isn’t discouraged by what is happening. “We always remain optimistic as graduate students, we remain unified in what are asking for from the university, and we will not stop demanding what we deserve,” she said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.

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