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KU, graduate teaching assistants union at an impasse on wages after 15 months of bargaining

The University of Kansas and the Graduate Teaching Assistants Coalition, a union that represents KU graduate student workers, have been engaged in tense negotiations on a new contract for those workers since September 2020.

After delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic, public spats between the two groups and multiple GTAC protests seeking both livable wages and transparency from KU officials, KU and GTAC in December reached a joint impasse on the biggest issue facing a new contract for graduate workers: their salary.

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Joint impasse is a term for when an employee organization with bargaining rights and their employer cannot come to an agreement on certain terms and need assistance from their state’s employee relations board — in this case, Kansas’ Public Employee Relations Board. The members of GTAC in early December voted by an overwhelming 91% margin to reject KU’s most recent proposed contract, leading both parties to jointly file a petition with PERB for impasse proceedings.

“The parties jointly filed a petition for impasse proceedings and have selected a factfinder.  We are currently working on scheduling for next steps. The parties also have agreed that the only remaining issue is wages,” KU spokesperson Erinn Barcomb-Peterson said via email Tuesday. “The university is pleased to have reached tentative agreement with GTAC leadership on all other issues.” 

The process for PERB to decide a contractual dispute is a bit complicated. After PERB receives a petition, the board appoints a factfinder to gather information, and both sides pitch their arguments. The factfinder then makes a recommendation to PERB for a potential resolution, and then PERB delivers that recommendation to KU as the employer.

Three members of GTAC’s executive team said that KU as the employer then can unilaterally decide whether to implement PERB’s recommendation or proceed with the contract they last presented to GTAC. They expect it will be March before PERB’s factfinder comes up with a recommendation.

For Andrew Kustodowicz, GTAC’s president, and Katie Hinders and Zachary Madison, members of GTAC’s negotiations team, the joint impasse over wages is the culmination of more than a year of frustration trying to work out a new deal. The current GTA stipend of $17,750 for an academic year simply can’t make ends meet for most members, they said — especially when GTAs are discouraged from getting a second job, or they simply can’t because of the odd hours academia requires workers to keep.

The contract that GTAC members rejected called for a wage freeze at the current rate of $17,750 for one academic year, with the possibility of merit raises between 0.6 and 2% the following two years, in line with possible faculty raises.

KU views the offer as a one-year wage freeze, followed by raises. GTAC members saw the offer through a much different lens, Madison said.

“The way GTAC characterizes this is it’s a pay cut. KU is very upset that we characterize it that way, but our logic is our last raise, to $17,750, that raise came in August of 2020,” he said. “If you look at the (Consumer Price Index), since then we’ve experienced 8% inflation. Anything short of an 8% raise is a cut from our last raise. 8% on top of $17,750 brings us to at least $19,100, and that’s just to make the same amount. … We definitely think that a living wage is reasonable, but at the least, we need to keep in line with inflation so we’re not taking a cut.”

Members of GTAC’s executive team brought KU’s proposed contract to its dues-paying base with a neutral recommendation, meaning they neither supported nor opposed the deal on the table. In a message to union members days later, the executive committee said the near-universal rejection of KU’s offer spoke volumes.

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“The rejection of the proposed contract represents a democratic mandate from the membership to fight for fair compensation for our essential role as educators at KU,” the message said. “We must say in one voice – not just for GTAs but for all essential workers on campus – that we demand a fair and living wage now.”

Barcomb-Peterson did not directly answer questions on when the university hoped to see a resolution in the contract dispute, whether the university had a response to GTAC’s claim that anything less than a 6-8% raise actually constitutes a pay cut due to inflation, or how a roughly 13% decrease in GTAs since Fall 2020 is being accounted for in classrooms since undergraduate enrollment has stayed flat — if not slightly increased.

“The university will continue to employ graduate teaching assistants under current contract conditions,” Barcomb-Peterson said in an email. “Given budget limitations, the university and GTAC did not reach agreement on wage increases demanded by GTAC.”

Barcomb-Peterson also provided a Dec. 2 email to KU GTAs from Julie Thornton, KU’s director of employee relations. In that email, Thornton chided some of GTAC’s social media activity and pointed out that the two sides had reached tentative agreements on all matters except wages.

“GTAC’s negotiators proposed GTA pay raises of 35% over three years – increases totaling more than $11 million. While wage increases for all University employees are a priority for the University, GTAC’s proposed wage increase was simply not feasible given current fiscal conditions. Most recently, GTAC’s negotiators requested a 6% pay increase for 2022-23 and a 2% increase for 2023-24,” Thornton’s email said. “KU is unable to commit to such an increase, given the continued financial uncertainty due to enrollment challenges, the current $25 million budget shortfall and budget reductions anticipated in FY 2023.”

Kustodowicz, GTAC’s president, said although the organization understands university budget concerns, the fact of the matter is that a GTA’s current stipend from KU is forcing “really talented” instructors and researchers to ask themselves whether they can afford to keep coming to school. One of Kustodowicz’s friends, also a GTA, works as a golf caddie during the summer months when GTAs don’t get paid. Kustodowicz said if his friend were to continue caddying for just four more weeks, he would make double the amount a KU GTA makes during an entire academic year.

“I feel like it’s so shortsighted of KU, because in 10 or 15 years, who’s going to be teaching?” he said. “It’s really distressing to see an institution that claims to want to promote excellent research-based education care so little about those that are doing (the work).”

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“It makes it impossible for anyone without generational wealth to come to grad school, unless you can somehow pay for the degree on your own. You either come here and take poverty wages, and have to borrow money … as an adult woman that doesn’t feel great,” Hinders, a member of GTAC’s negotiations team, added. “If as an institution, you proclaim that you want to promote diversity at all levels of your institution, you’re making it so that everyone who comes here is rich. And in America, that means white a lot of the time.”

Beyond general concerns about KU’s budget brought on by the pandemic, GTAC officers haven’t yet received an explanation they’re buying as to why the university is unable to pay its 950 GTAs — who teach some 40% of undergraduate classes — a larger stipend.

Madison, for example, teaches four lecture sections — two per semester — of a course on the Labor Theory of Value. Each section contains an average of 25 students, roughly 15 of whom pay in-state tuition, and 10 who pay out-of-state tuition. The total tuition value in each of those four sections, Madison said, totals nearly $40,000 — yet with the set GTA stipend, he makes just $4,500 per class.

“Where is all of this other money going? Of course, you have to pay for the room, you have to pay for the electricity, computers, but it’s unclear to me where the rest is going. To be honest, I think most GTAs don’t really have a lot of outside support,” he said. “It’s not like this money is going to mentor us, train us, advise us, it’s not doing anything for us in our jobs. I know a lot of it goes to administration, student affairs, this and that. But as far as how does that come back to me supporting my job? It doesn’t.”

As it stands, GTAs at the university will continue to operate under their current contract and wages until PERB returns its recommendation on the joint impasse petition and KU institutes a new contract for the current academic year. After that, the parties will likely return to the negotiating table in late spring or early summer for a contract covering future years.

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Conner Mitchell (he/him), reporter, can be reached at cmitchell (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com or 785-435-9264. If you have sensitive information to send Conner, please email connermitchell (at) protonmail (dot) com.

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KU, graduate teaching assistants union at an impasse on wages after 15 months of bargaining

KU and the Graduate Teaching Assistants Coalition have reached a joint impasse on the biggest issue facing a new contract for graduate workers: their salary.

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