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UF Graduate Assistants United protest in an eight-month fight to earn a livable wage

Protesters signed a banner demanding livable wages for graduate assistants. As the protest ended, organizers hung the banner from the entrance of Tigert Hall, the administrative office building at the University of Florida. (WUFT News)
Protesters signed a banner demanding livable wages for graduate assistants. As the protest ended, organizers hung the banner from the entrance of Tigert Hall, the administrative office building at the University of Florida. (WUFT News)

According to a survey taken by University of Florida Graduate Assistants in August 2021, 72% of respondents say they cannot cover all of their living expenses, 50% say they cannot afford or had to delay medical care and 29% say they have been unable to purchase or had to delay purchasing groceries. The annual stipend for graduate assistants was set in 2017 and has not been raised to account for inflation since.

The UF Graduate Assistants United (GAU), the labor union representing over 4,000 university graduate employees, spent two hours protesting on the steps of Tigert Hall Friday beginning at 4 p.m. They chanted “Fair pays for GA’s,” “We can’t live on UF pay,” and “Top 5 school, top 5 pay.” Cars driving down 13th Street showed solidarity by honking along. The protest came on the heels of the twelfth bargaining session via Zoom on Friday morning.

The protest began with opening remarks from co-presidents Rachel Hartnett and Bryn Taylor, along with a speech from Gainesville City Commissioner and Mayoral candidate Harvey Ward.

“It’s not easy to stand in front of your employer and say ‘No, we deserve better.’ So, I appreciate that you’re doing this,” Ward addressed the crowd of about 50.

“The most obvious thing that we can do in this community to change the wealth gap, and really the only thing that changes it permanently, is for the University of Florida to pay everyone a living wage,” Ward said. “If we’re not paying the folks who teach the classes and sweep the floors and cut the grass and do all the things that get done at the University of Florida a reasonable, living wage then we all lose as a community, in my opinion.”

The GAU and supporters, argue that the university is not paying graduate assistants a living wage. The average cost of living in Gainesville for one adult with no children is $31,748 according to the MIT Living Wage Calculator.

The current minimum stipend for graduate assistants on a nine-month contract is $16,000 and the minimum for those on a 12-month contract is $21,333. Inflation since March of 2021 is up 8.5%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. And up 17% overall since 2017.

The latest offer from UF is a minimum of $22,500 for those on a 12-month contract and a minimum of $17,000 for those on a nine-month contract with one-time payments of $1,150 to those making less than $18,500 and a 3% raise across the board, according to the GAU Co-President Bryn Taylor. The GAU’s counteroffer is a minimum of $27,900 for 12-month contracts and a minimum of $20,000 for nine-month contracts.

The deadline for this session is June 28, but this comes after two extensions – the bargaining has been ongoing for the last eight months. Taylor said that she doesn’t see the GAU agreeing to another 90-day extension if a resolution is not reached by the deadline. The situation would ultimately be moved to an impasse.

“We (graduate assistants) are adding to the pool of people who are relying on community resources,” Taylor said. “We utilize and need low-income housing, we utilize and need food pantries, we utilize and need public transportation. …Frankly, UF is relying on the city to float graduate assistants.”

When asked to comment, Interim Director of Strategic Communications Cynthia Roldan Hernandez wrote in an email:

“The University of Florida will continue addressing these issues through the bargaining process.”

It was revealed in the Board of Trustees meeting on Wednesday, that 46% of those who use the Hitchcock Field and Fork Pantry on campus are graduate assistants. Taylor said that like many other graduate assistants, she utilizes the UF pantry and the Gainesville Free Grocery Store operated by the Civic Media Center.

Being an international student adds to the already long list of challenges, said Antonios Kyriazis, a second-year Ph.D. international student in the Pphysics department. Due to the nature of most international visas, graduate students cannot take a second job, Kyriazis said. “If there’s an international student who has a spouse or family and makes the minimum, it’s a very difficult life to live right now at UF,” he said. “And these are the kind of people we are fighting for.”

The fight, Kyriazis pointed out, stretches beyond the scope of importance for just graduate assistants. Undergraduate students and faculty have a stake in this fight as well, he said.

“…GA’s are the one’s who design first and second year courses, they teach, they have office hours and they grade homework, quizzes and exams, and they cannot really do that if they are not in a good state of mind and body,” he said. “And in order for that to happen the material conditions should be improved.”

Kix Patterson is a second-year graduate assistant in the College of Journalism and Communications. Ten out of the 14 students in his cohort are international students, most of whom have families. He said that the CJC pays graduate assistants above the minimum, and he feels blessed for that, but it’s still not enough to support families. Many graduate assistants, he said, resorted to selling their car just to keep up with the rent payments. Most of them are on nine-month contracts, but they are also not permitted to work another job.

“We don’t get paid in the summer, so during those nine months we’re supposed to pay rent and live normally plus save enough money to pay for the summer,” he said. “With all of that put together, it’s a tough situation for a lot of people.”

Patterson said he was there to “fight the good fight,” stating that this is a problem that affects all of campus life, not just the graduate assistants. Professors interact with graduate assistants daily – when they’re not assisting with grading and teaching, they work as research assistants working with professors on larger projects. Sometimes, he said, graduate assistants are doing nearly the same load of work as a professor, yet getting paid one third the salary of a professor. The crowd outside of Tigert Hall demanded action, but the protest remained peaceful and even lighthearted at times. Opening remarks were filled with frustration, but they were also filled with gratitude for those who came out to support the cause, whether attendees were struggling graduate assistants or caring professors who brought their kids along. After demands were made on the footsteps of the offices of university officials, local musicians brought a warm and upbeat energy with some acoustic sets.

As the sun set behind Tigert Hall and the crowd dwindled down to less than 10, organizers hung a banner that attendees had signed across the front doors of the office building. Big, bold red letters across the center read “We can’t live on UF pay.”

The common message that stayed solid throughout the protest was that the fight was not over and will not be over until graduate assistants are being paid a fair, livable wage. July Thomas, a sixth-year graduate assistant in the Physics department and Gainesville Mayoral candidate, left the crowd with an inspiring message during her remarks to keep fighting for the material conditions they deserve:

“I think we are sold this narrative that it’s a few brave people sticking their necks out that cause change,” she said. “But the truth is, it’s just as important who threw the first brick at Stonewall that the bricks didn’t stop flying.… I want to encourage you to continue to stand up. I stand with you. I stand beside you as a member of the union. And I love you all.”

Anissa is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.