UMass Dartmouth grad student employees seek to unionize

Sep 27, 2022

Graduate student employees at UMass Dartmouth have begun a push to unionize last week as part of what organizers called a “last resort” to improve compensation and working conditions at the university.

“The bottom line is that UMass graduate employees have been asking for better working conditions for many years… and the conditions have worsened,” said AJ Vincelli, a seventh-year PhD student in Protein Engineering who is among those leading the unionization drive. “So they’re not hearing us and unfortunately I believe that unionization is the last resort and it’s the only method I can think of to get what we need.”

Graduate student employees — who can hold a variety of titles, such as teaching assistant/fellow, research assistant, graduate assistant, or administrative assistant — are postgraduate students who work for the university while completing their degrees.

These student employees are compensated for their work with stipends, but do not receive food or housing from the university. Vincelli said these stipends are often insufficient to live on, even on the tightest budgets.

“We have graduate students sleeping in the basements and the attics of campus buildings because they have no home,” she said. “There’s a large amount of food insecurity, so [some] students are eating one meal a day… and it’s not good food.”

Vincelli said that although the university’s Graduate Student Senate has lobbied UMass Dartmouth officials to increase stipends, decrease mandatory fees, and improve conditions, the university has fallen behind other public and private universities in the commonwealth in these areas.

University officials could not be reached for comment on the matter.

Data compiled by Vincelli and other organizers show that, once school fees are subtracted, some grad-student employees are making as little as $3,506 per year — less than 10% of the living wage for the area.

Even the best paid grad-student employees, research assistants who work through the summer, are being paid just over $20,000 a year, on average.

According to organizers, UMass Dartmouth is the only UMass campus other than the medical school that does not have a union for grad-student employees. It also has among the lowest compensation rates of the four main campuses.

The data provided by the organizers shows that a teaching assistant at UMass Dartmouth is paid about $7,500 a year after fees are subtracted, while an equivalent employee is paid nearly $15,000 at UMass Boston, over $14,000 at UMass Lowell, and over $25,000 at UMass Amherst, where such employees are offered summer work.

Union employees also typically have their fees waived, increasing their overall compensation by about $3,000 to $6,000 a year, Vincelli said.

And according to Vincelli, the relatively low compensation at UMass Dartmouth hurts more than just the students, it also affects the university’s ability to complete research and access grant money.

“There’s many issues that this results in, but it’s all stemming from the same impoverishment that’s really hampering our ability to be productive for the university,” she said.

Vincelli explained that for a research institution like Dartmouth, grants are typically awarded based on the university’s track record for completing and publishing research.

“So publications feed grants which feed publications which feed grants, and all of that is linked to data — you have to be able to collect the data,” she said. “The faculty are not in the lab, they’re not collecting the data, it’s graduate students.”

And those grants do more than simply accommodating the research itself, Vincelli said that about 60% of the money from each grant is taken by the university to account for overhead.

“So they are making a huge chunk of money off of the grants,” she said. “And that’s how it always works, but it is definitely in the best interest of the university to help the grants cycle process.”

Vincelli noted that, compared to the other UMass schools, Dartmouth is not being awarded as much grant money.

“Unfortunately we are really struggling in that area,” she said. “Based on UMass Dartmouth’s numbers, compared to our neighboring institutions, our publication level is very low and our grants are abysmal — absolutely abysmal.”

Another union organizer, Lucy McGinnis, a third-year master’s student in fisheries oceanography, said the low stipends also have a less visible effect on the quality of UMass Dartmouth’s research: they limit the kinds of people that can afford to study there.

“If we’re not offering competitive wages, then we’re not going to be able to attract the most qualified potential students,” she said. “So, we're really limiting our graduate student body to those people who have the financial security to be able to accept such low wages. And that's a real weakness of our program, of our research, of our work if we don't have those [people] — the diversity of background.”

Organizers say that by forming a union, they will get “a seat at the negotiating table.”

Overall organizers estimate that there are about 250 graduate student employees at UMass Dartmouth, though it is difficult to get an exact count as student employees can have a variety of titles.

“The university doesn’t even know all the titles that they give to their graduate employees — it’s not standardized,” Vincelli said. “They can call them whatever they want, pay them whatever they want, and have the contract hours be whatever they want.”

Erring on the side of caution, organizers are looking to collect 200 signed union authorization cards, which will then be submitted to the Massachusetts Department of Labor Relations to be verified.

In order for the unionization drive to be successful, the DLR will have to confirm that a majority of graduate student employees have endorsed the move.

Only then will the student employees be recognized officially as a “bargaining unit” that is empowered to negotiate on behalf of all such employees at the university. Once verified, the bargaining unit will also be able to affiliate with a national union organization and join or create a local chapter, Vincelli explained.

As of Sept. 24, two days after the unionization push went public, organizers had received 11 signed authorization cards.

One impediment to getting students on board is that many feel they are simply too busy to give the issue any real thought.

“UMass Dartmouth graduate employees are really, really busy trying to survive, and that’s all they have the bandwidth for doing,” Vincelli said.

Vincelli and McGinnis said that they will be working hard over the coming weeks to educate student employees about unions so they can make an informed decision on the matter.

“We really want our process of unionization to be 100% transparent,” Vincelli said. “We’re not interested in deceiving anybody.”