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Op-ed: Graduate union wins summer pay

JB Duck-Mayr | WUGWU Organizing Committee

Most days, I wake up at 4:30 a.m. I put in a couple hours of work, make my kids breakfast and get ready for the day, then say goodbye. Then I take a bus and two trains to Danforth Campus, which usually puts me in my office at Washington University by 8:30 a.m. By the time many students on campus are getting out of bed, I’ve already put in four hours.

At work, I conduct research and teach as a graduate worker in the political science department at Washington University in St. Louis. I spend my days helping students, grading their work and researching the court system using game theory and statistical models. My work is taxing and time-consuming. Although I try to get home for dinner with my family, sometimes I don’t get home until 10 p.m., and only have a few hours of sleep before the next day starts.

Despite working twelve hours a day at a university with $12 billion in assets, for the past three years I have lived in fear that I won’t get a paycheck during the summer. And I’m not alone. Wash. U. has refused to guarantee its graduate workers pay for the work we do over the summer months. Workers in my department received word only last week that we would receive a paycheck for our work this summer, $2,000 to live on for two months (imagine supporting a family on that). Our research does not stop in June and July, and neither should our paychecks.

As a father of two, I cannot wait until April every year for Wash. U. to decide if I will get a paycheck over the summer. That means that throughout the year, I must work additional hourly gigs for extra money—which takes away time from my research, from my students and from my family. Right now, I have three gigs in addition to my graduate work, and last summer I worked full time in food service at the St. Louis Zoo just to get by.

On top of all this, after I came to Wash. U., my wife suffered a medical emergency, but our plan through the University left us with huge medical bills. After paying our bills, our entire savings was gone. Adding insult to injury, my first year here, summer pay in my department was cut by 33 percent even while the University’s wealth continued to grow.

We have tried to talk to administrators about this, but they have refused to act or even meet with us. Wash. U. has given us no choice but to take immediate action to make our voices heard.

To compel administration to address these issues, grad workers at Wash. U. have come together to form the Washington University Graduate Workers Union (WUGWU). When we started organizing, our health insurance was terrible, and barely met the requirements of the Affordable Care Act. We also didn’t have employer-paid dental insurance. But by coming together, we’ve already won dental coverage and some improvements in our health plan. This semester we pushed the administration to guarantee summer pay. On Wednesday, the dean of our graduate school announced that administration would guarantee an eleventh month of pay (up from 10). Our campaign is working.

We have been able to make these improvements through a campaign of direct action, protesting Wash. U.’s treatment of grad workers. When workers come together as a union and take action, even multi-billion-dollar organizations like Wash. U. have to take notice and make changes. These wins, like those won by teachers across the country in the past few weeks, prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that teachers fighting through their unions can make incredible change in our education systems. We will continue to watch Wash. U. to make sure it follows up on these promises and continue fighting in the future for financial stability for grad workers at Wash. U.