Grad Employees at University of Texas Push for Pandemic Protections Despite No Collective Bargaining
Graduate students at the University of Texas at Austin do not have formal union protections, but that has not stopped us from organizing to put demands on university administration during the pandemic.
UT-Austin transitioned online on March 30. Though graduate students—working as teaching assistants, assistant instructors, and research assistants—were an essential part of this transition, we were concerned about layoffs due to closures and the lack of on-campus job opportunities in the upcoming semesters. Lack of on-campus jobs mean losing tuition reimbursement and health insurance.
The workload also increased substantially for teaching assistants and assistant instructors as we had to adjust to online teaching and managing student emails and office hours. Many of us lost summer internships. UT decided to reopen research at the end of May with a restricted number of people allowed in labs or offices. Many graduate research assistants were expected to return to campus. UT relied on professors and principal investigators to ask if graduate students were willing to return to campus.
EMERGENCY ORGANIZING HELP
Texas law prohibits collective bargaining for state employees, though the 11,000-member Texas State Employees Union, a Communications Workers-affiliate founded in 1980, has pushed hard to defend pensions and win raises for state workers, including university employees.
Undeterred by this ban, Underpaid at UT—a group of graduate workers who successfully organized to win raises from the university in 2019—started holding weekly base-building meetings over Zoom.
Before joining Underpaid, one of the activists had contacted the Emergency Workers Organizing Committee (EWOC), a project of the United Electrical Workers (UE) and Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). EWOC was formed to help non-union workers organize COVID-19-related issue campaigns. An EWOC organizer provided Underpaid with ongoing feedback, and also shared a copy of the coronavirus-related demands that the Graduate Employees Organization at the University of Illinois-Chicago had organized to win, with a Labor Notes article outlining their campaign.
After reviewing demands put forward by various grad unions, Underpaid launched a petition drive with a set of eight demands specific to UT grad worker needs. One of the main demands was a universal one-year extension of funded time-to-completion, because many graduate students were unable to complete on-site research due to the pandemic, delaying graduation. Other major demands were the creation of new employment opportunities in the form of post-doctoral assistantships and lectureships for students graduating during the economic recession, and a guarantee that no employee would lose employment, income, or health insurance due to pandemic-related suspension of work activities.
Underpaid also demanded extended health insurance and expanded mental health access, because there were gaps in coverage for any student who was unemployed during the summer. Moreover, we demanded 50 percent reductions in summer tuition for graduate students.
The final three demands were financial and legal support for international grad students; a strong public stance against anti-Asian racism and resources to support students facing racist harassment; and a commitment that UT would not reopen until the CDC said it is safe to do so.
On May 14, we made our demand letter public in the form of a petition, and gathered 1,400 signatures from graduate students, undergrads, faculty, staff, and members of the community. On May 29, our deadline for a response, members of Underpaid held a demonstration holding posters with our demands in front of the administrative building. We collected and posted testimonials from graduate students on how they are personally affected by the outbreak and the economic crisis.
On June 5, the dean of the graduate school finally sent an email to all graduate students addressing the demands. The major wins included a 65 percent reduction of summer tuition for graduate students (15 percent more than our original demand).
Another win was a promise by the graduate school to create short-term job opportunities in the form of post-docs and lectureships as well as to increase teaching assistant and assistant instructor positions, for which the school would be allocating $1.2 and $1.5 million.
The graduate school also promised to work on a new health care plan that would not have coverage gaps between semesters and over the summer.
It also announced that students in programs overseen by the graduate school would not be required over the next two years to pay the already-planned 2.6 percent increase in annual tuition.
MOVE CLASSES ONLINE
On June 19, Underpaid sent a response to the school’s announcement, asking for clarity on many of the points. We want concrete details on addressing racism; re-opening the campus and handling any outbreaks on campus; and the new health care plan. We have additionally asked for concrete plans to help international students, as well as hazard pay for students and employees on campus.
Meanwhile, according to a report from the New York Times, UT-Austin has had the most COVID-19 cases of any U.S. university, with 449 as of July 29. Among these was a cluster of cases impacting campus custodial workers. One of them, Ural Wade Sr., died in early July.
With the semester’s start imminent, our organizing continues. Members of Underpaid and TSEU testified at a Board of Regents meeting August 19 and delivered a petition demanding hazard pay for all essential workers, free health care for students and university workers, an end to layoffs and furloughs for the duration of the pandemic, and that all classes be moved online. Classes at UT-Austin are scheduled to start August 26.
Megha Joshi is a Ph.D student in Quantitative Methods at the University of Texas at Austin.