By UCONN YOUTH FOR SOCIALIST ACTION
Since Oct. 19, 2017, University of Connecticut’s Graduate Employee Union-UAW Local 6950 has been in negotiations with the university administration for a second collective bargaining agreement. Under the leadership of university President Susan Herbst’s administration and the state appointed Board of Directors, the university has hired the union-busting law firm McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter, LLP, all the way from New Jersey to represent Uconn’s “interests.” On the table are hard-won gains and protections from the first contract, including annual raises, affordable health-care, employee child care, and contractual safeguards against sexual harassment.
Reflecting the international wave of labor militancy shown through teacher strikes in West Virginia, New Jersey, and in Europe, an estimated 150 members of the GEU occupied administrative building Gulley Hall. The sit-in was full of energetic chants and affirmations of the value of their work to the university and the necessity of unionization.
The university is unjustifiably threatening to substantially increase premiums for members, which would make health insurance prohibitively expensive for many workers.
One graduate assistant told his comrades how he had four herniated disks the previous semester, and thanks to the protections won in the first union contract, he was not only able to afford spinal surgery, but also keep his job. Another GEU member told how she was able to begin seeing a mental health professional because of the union’s affordable, quality health insurance. A third simply stated, “I cannot pay double premiums because that money will be cut from my food.” The average annual salary of UConn graduate employees before taxes and student fees is $20,000, and some make $16,000 or less.
Working conditions at the University of Connecticut are indicative of the general situation in higher education. While a very small proportion of the faculty holds protected tenure positions at relatively high wages, the vast majority of educational labor is done by adjuncts and graduate employees making less than minimum wage.
On the surface, the public university seems like an apolitical space, yet it is conditioned by capital. Administrators like Susan Herbst are representatives of the capitalists and their state, mediating subsidies to corporate research through federal grants, state investment, and similar initiatives. Workers’ organizations like the GEU, then, are big thorns in the side of capital as a whole.
In this context, the efforts of the administration against the union make perfect sense. So too does the partnership between the president’s office and the campus police, who made a barrier between the demonstrators and Herbst, despite her having open office hours. As one GEU member noted, if TAs were to prematurely cancel office hours to avoid dealing with students, they would surely be reprimanded. The police also guarded all entrances to the building, preventing anyone from joining the sit-in, even though they openly admitted that Gulley Hall was not at holding capacity.
UConn’s Youth for Socialist Action group stands with our graduate employee members and mentors for a good contract and a fighting union!
Photo of graduate students’ sit-in by Evan Fritz/ Socialist Action