University of Maryland graduate students packed the House Appropriations Committee room in Annapolis on Tuesday to support a bill that would give most state graduate student employees collective bargaining rights.
About two dozen graduate students attended the bill’s first hearing this legislative session. Another 70 graduate student employees and leaders from this university as well as Bowie State University and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore submitted written testimony in favor of the bill, and more than 500 other students and faculty members signed a petition supporting the legislation, communication doctoral student Katie Brown said.
“I’m really proud of being part of a group who, on a work day with everything else stacked against us, [came] out to Annapolis,” said Brown, president of the Fearless Student Employee Coalition, one of the groups heading organizing efforts behind the bill.
[Read more: UMD grad students think they can make progress toward collective bargaining rights this year]
This bill would give graduate student workers at the University System of Maryland’s 12 institutions and two other state public universities — Morgan State and Frostburg State University — the right the right to negotiate wages and terms of employment with their supervisors. If passed, it would not automatically establish a union for graduate students, as several delegates and activists pointed out.
That possibility, though, is what inspired biochemistry doctoral student Alessandra Zimmermann to submit written testimony in favor of the bill this year. For six years, Zimmermann said she watched graduate students in the chemistry department be forced out of assistantships after failing to please their supervisors.
One year, Zimmermann said she lost a teaching assistantship when her supervisor told her she wasn’t putting in enough hours and gave her the choice: either graduate early with a master’s degree or leave immediately.
“You can’t force a group out of the university, but you can force a person out,” Zimmermann said, adding that the mere possibility that graduate student workers could unionize would make supervisors treat them like “actual human beings.”
[Read more: UMD graduate assistants say they’re often blindsided by mandatory fees]
Since 2001, when Maryland passed a law excluding student workers from possessing what Brown calls “basic employment rights,” graduate student activists have repeatedly brought up similar bills in the state’s general assembly, only to watch them die in committee.
But graduate student activists said this year is different. For the first time, undergraduate student groups, including MaryPIRG and the UMD College Democrats, signed on to support the bill, after uniting with the FSE last semester to protest this university’s leadership.
The House Appropriations Committee also has a few new faces, after a round of midterms drew a more progressive crowd into the general assembly. Rookie member Del. Gabriel Acevero (D-Montgomery County) wasn’t shy about voicing his support for the bill and disputing testimony from this university’s graduate school.
As he did during the Senate Finance Committee hearing for last year’s bill, graduate school dean Steve Fetter came out to Annapolis to deliver written testimony against the legislation and add additional comments in person.
In his oral testimony, Fetter reiterated several of the points he made last year, when he was serving as interim dean for the graduate school: that giving graduate student workers collective bargaining rights would change their relationship with faculty members from one of mentorship to one of employment and that graduate students already have recourse to raise job-related concerns in a process called “meet-and-confer” that doesn’t result in enforceable agreements.
Additionally, Fetter said that graduate assistants are “first and foremost students.” Research assistants learn to conduct research under the guidance of faculty members, he wrote, and teaching assistants help lead discussion sections, which helps them understand the subject more deeply themselves.
“In this way, an assistantship is more like an apprenticeship or traineeship than traditional employment,” he said.
Acevero disagreed with Fetter’s assessment, noting that he was once both a student and a worker, and said it departed from the argument at hand.
“This is about whether these workers, like other workers — public and private sector — have the right to collectively bargain,” he said. “And I don’t think I’ve really heard a compelling reason why these workers — you could see them as students, but they’re also workers — should not have that right to collectively bargain as others do.”
Graduate assistants at this university earned $20,448 on average last fall, according to data Fetter presented in his testimony.
But this number still surprised committee members like Del. Kirill Reznik (D-Montgomery County).
“So I’m just curious how, on $20,000 a year, you expect them to eat, pay rent, pay for gas, et cetera,” he said. “Do you know what the definition of the level of poverty is to be able to access Medicaid? It’s right around there, just a little under.”
Fetter also highlighted the steps the graduate school has taken to improve the lives of graduate students, including raising the minimum stipend to put them on par with other Big Ten institutions.
After a 0.5 percent cost-of-living adjustment kicks in April 1, this university will offer a minimum stipend of $17,542 for a 9.5-month assistantship — the type all teaching assistants have, according to the graduate school. That stipend will rank sixth among the 13 nonprivate Big Ten schools, according to data Fetter provided.
But graduate student activists also pointed out in their testimony that this university has one of the highest discrepancies in the Big Ten between pay and cost of living in the area. According to the MIT Cost of Living Calculator, it costs $36,492 a year for an adult to live in Prince George’s County.
Joann Boughman, University System of Maryland senior vice chancellor for academic and student affairs, also made the trip to Annapolis to tell lawmakers in person that the system does not see a need for change, especially as graduate student workers are afforded tuition remission and health care benefits, she said.
Boughman added that the system of shared governance had not been given a chance to play out, as the USM student council hadn’t been apprised of the bill’s introduction to the legislature.
But Graduate Student Government president Annie Rappeport and government affairs vice president Rachel Lamb said they knew this to be inaccurate — because they had been the ones to apprise the body of the bill’s existence.
“She seemed to paint the issue as a pet issue for the University of Maryland College Park and that College Park was leveraging it for their own reasons, independent of student government bodies,” Lamb said, adding that favorable testimony from other system universities proved this false.
The bill was introduced to the Senate Finance Committee on Monday, and its first hearing in this body has yet to be scheduled. Brown says she expects an even greater show of support at that hearing.
CORRECTION: Due to a reporting error, a previous version of this article incorrectly stated that graduate students with full-year assistantships currently receive $22,158. Full-year assistantships currently have a minimum stipend of $22,048, which will increase to $22,158 after a cost-of-living adjustment takes effect April 1. This article has been updated.