How Did These Graduate Students Improve Their Working Conditions? They Went on Strike!

By Michelle Chen

grad student strike
University of Oregon graduate teaching fellows picket on December 4, 2014, during their eight-day strike for better working conditions. (Justin Buchanan/AFT-OR Communications)
University of Oregon graduate teaching fellows picket on December 4, 2014, during their eight-day strike for better working conditions. (Justin Buchanan/AFT-OR Communications)

On their campus set amid the idyllic northwestern woodlands, graduate students at the University of Oregon stepped out of their classrooms and onto a historic picket line last week. The union, representing some 1,500 graduate teaching fellows, went on an eight-day strike and emerged Wednesday with a final deal, embattled but triumphant.

The agreement, now set for a final vote, fell somewhat short of their central request for paid family and medical leave. Instead, the university will establish a “hardship fund” to support graduate students who need time off to tend to healthcare needs, including students who are not employees or union members. From a fund of about $150,000 ($50 per graduate student), students will apply for grants “up to $1,000 in the case of serious medical issues and $1,500 in the case of the birth, adoption or foster care placement of a child.” The union also got a 10 percent wage hike over two years.

These benefits clearly provide just emergency supplemental support, but will make life a little easier for the graduate fellows, who teach about one-third of the university’s coursework while juggling their studies and caregiving duties. According to the GTFF, their gross annual income ranges from $12,000 to $19,000—in line with national compensation trends for student instructors. They’re part of an overall shift in academic labor toward lower-paid graduate student and adjunct teachers who lack the salaries and benefits afforded to established professors.

For young academics stretched between intense academic pressures, massive student debts and wages that put doctoral candidates on food stamps, benefits like paid leave may be the only financial buffer against a sudden illness or family medical emergency.

Throughout the strike, the union encouraged undergraduates to see the temporary campus disruption in the context of their teachers’ long-term well-being. GTFF Vice President of External Affairs Jon LaRochelle (a philosophy student) told The Nation just before the deal was reached: “Our working conditions are their learning conditions. If we are coming to work sick or injured or the morning after a birth or whatever else, we can’t teach. That’s just the nature of being a human being.… We are doing this in part so that we can do the best job that we can for you.”

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