Maryland’s Senate Finance Committee chair said Thursday evening that she intends to drawer a bill that would give most graduate student employees in the state collective bargaining rights — marking the end to another impassioned battle by University of Maryland graduate student activists.
Sen. Delores Kelley (D-Baltimore County) told The Diamondback she will not be bringing Senate Bill 0491 to a vote on Friday, the last day the Senate Finance Committee will be meeting this legislative session.
The senator said that while she supports the spirit of the bill — which would give unionization rights to graduate employees within the University System of Maryland and two other public universities — she’s concerned about how much this would end up costing their institutions.
“I am for collective bargaining when we can figure out how to pay for it, because it’s going to cost something,” she said.
Unless the state comes up with more money for these universities, covering the cost of higher stipends or increased benefits — the byproducts of collective bargaining — would almost certainly require an increase in tuition, Kelley said.
The revelation that the bill would die in committee caught activists at this university off-guard. While they had heard rumors Kelley would be allowing that to happen, they hadn’t been able to get a clear answer for Kelley’s plans from her office.
Will Howell, a member of the Graduate Assistant Advisory Committee, said he and other graduate students have been trying to get a meeting with the senator since January. They’ve made phone calls, sending dozens of emails and even filing a paper request at her office — all to no avail.
“Whatever issues she had, she did not treat us with enough respect to share those with us and talk about those with us, and that is really incredibly disappointing,” Howell said.
Lawmakers seemed receptive to the bill in its House and Senate hearings, many jumping in to challenge graduate school dean Steve Fetter’s testimony opposing the piece of legislation. Kelley herself put her support behind the student activists, reminiscing on her experience as a teaching assistant at Purdue University, where she taught four three-hour courses a semester without an office, phone line or place to hang her coat.
In March, state delegates voted the bill out of the House Appropriations Committee to the floor, where it passed 94-42 with four abstentions.
This was the closest graduate student workers have ever gotten to receiving collective bargaining rights. Each of the seven bills put up in the state legislature over the past two decades that would have given them these rights died in committee before seeing further discussion.
That fact just made Thursday’s news all the more painful for Fearless Student Employee Coalition President Katie Brown.
“The idea that you’re going to drawer it and it’s not going to see the light of day in the Senate and you’re just going to kill it — I can’t fathom on a political or moral level how you could do that,” she said.
Howell expressed frustration with the reasons Kelley gave for not bringing the bill up for a vote.
Graduate student workers at this university need more money, Howell said. Activists have noted that this university has one of the highest discrepancies between pay and cost-of-living in the Big Ten.
But ultimately, Howell said graduate workers don’t just want collective bargaining for a higher paycheck.
“We need this for the job security that comes with a contract,” he said. “And that doesn’t cost a damn thing.”
Before putting up a bill for next legislative session, Kelley suggested that activists reach out to graduate workers at public universities in states that have already granted them collective bargaining rights, and asking about the costs and benefits of having these rights.
“You don’t want to be asking for this in the dark,” she said.
But Howell said activists submitted a folder of graduate worker contracts from such public institutions to the Senate Finance Committee. They also offered to connect committee members with graduate employees from Michigan State and Rutgers universities who had volunteered to discuss what they’d gained from having collective bargaining rights.
Howell said the senator was “incredibly condescending” in attempting to offer activists tips on how to proceed with the bill after not meeting with them throughout the legislative session.
“I don’t know what to do with any of this,” he said.