After decades without recognition as employees of the university and often less than minimum wage pay, MSU graduate students of the Graduate Employees Organization (GEO) voted unanimously on Dec. 5 to ratify their first contract. The contract guaranteed graduate students status as employees and raised salaries.
A union comprised entirely of graduate students, MSU GEO was formed in 2012 and is the first of its kind at MSU. It is affiliated with MEA-MFT (Montana Education Association – Montana Federation of Teachers), Montana’s largest union.
Graduate students’ work on campus often includes research and the teaching of classes; however, in spite of their contributions, many have worked for below minimum wage, without benefits and without a channel to voice their grievances. Under the terms of the contract the minimum stipend graduate students receive for their work will be raised to match the legal minimum wage of $7.90 per hour. The total monthly increase will be $120 per month, guaranteeing a $1,200 stipend increase for the 10-month school year. In addition graduate students who were employed last fall and have continued their employment this spring will receive retroactive pay dating to Oct. 1, for a total of $360 of back pay.
The contract also guarantees in-state tuition status for all graduate employees and raises the minimum salary from $240 to $650 a month. The increased pay for graduate employees will be funded through MSU’s existing budget.
Jim Junker, MSU GEO’s president, who has been actively involved in the negotiations for the contract since they began in April 2014, said the contract was finalized with the Montana Board of Regents on Jan. 15.
“It’s a mutually beneficial situation to treat the graduate employees well because it helps fuel the research and the teaching that gets done here and maintains MSU as a competitive university,” Junker said.
“This is the first step, and in many cases, the most important one. The initial contract involved a lot of language that we had to figure out. We spent four months figuring out what exactly was in the unit … just getting that initial language set was a big step,” Junker said.
He added that the negotiation of the contract was not easy: “Most of the opposition was during the beginning. That was when we first filed; the university appealed that we weren’t employees of the university, that our relationship is not employee-employer, which we contested. Eventually we came to an agreement without it going to the labor board.”
In June 2015, the contract will be reopened for negotiation. Both GEO and the university will work to come to a mutual agreement to best meet the interests of both parties. As discussions continue, Junker and Danielle Ciesielski, GEO’s vice-president, expect further changes that will benefit both graduate employees and MSU.
Besides providing increased benefits through contractual negotiations, GEO guarantees a channel through which graduate students may voice their concerns and those of their departments. “You can help make your program better, you can make sure your needs are being understood, and you can make sure your program is being understood,” Ciesielski said. She added that the union provides a social network which creates opportunities for graduate students to meet colleagues from other programs.
At this point in time, roughly 200 of the 681 graduate students working at MSU are members of GEO. Members of the union have the opportunity to vote and direct the actions the union takes. “It’s important for all the departments to be there to make sure their specific needs are being met in the ways the union has to meet them,” Ciesielski noted. “If we don’t know what’s going wrong in your department, then we obviously can’t fix your issues.”
“The union is the graduate students,” said Junker, “I think there’s some stigma that this is some third party coming in and telling us what to do. All decisions are made by the input of graduate students … our union is the graduate employees.”
In coming weeks booths will be set up around campus to help people sign up for membership. Anyone interested in learning more can email MSU GEO at firstname.lastname@example.org. Additionally a social will be held on Friday, Jan. 30 at Bridger Brewing at 4 p.m.