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October 2, 2023

UMaine System graduate-student workers win union certification

group of people facing in one direction and raising fists Courtesy / University of Maine Graduate Workers Union-UAW Low wages and poor health care benefits were among the reasons cited by graduate students for seeking certification as a labor union.

Low wages and poor health care benefits were among the reasons some graduate students who work for the University of Maine System sought certification as a labor union.

After a majority of the grad-student workers signed cards supporting the formation of a union and the cards were verified, the Maine Labor Relations Board last week certified the University of Maine Graduate Workers Union-United Auto Workers.

The new union will represent the 1,000 graduate workers across all campuses of the University of Maine System, who make up a large percentage of the overall teaching and research workforce.

“Our work powers the educational and research mission of the university, and was instrumental in UMaine receiving the status of an R1 rated research university,” said Em Sowles, a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate and research assistant in the physics department. “In short, UMaine works because we do.”

She continued, “But for too long, we have struggled with low and inconsistent pay, substandard health benefits and the need for a voice at work. Today we are proud to have formally secured a seat at the table, so we can begin to improve our working lives through legally-enforceable contracts.”

Sowles was one of the students who, earlier this year, provided testimony in favor of the union. 

“Having no dental or vision insurance as a part of health insurance has put me in a position where I have to choose between ignoring my health or paying premium costs out of pocket to care for necessary health care,” she said at the time. “And the cost of non-insured procedures hits harder since I do not make much money as a grad student.”

Additional testimony called for a say in the decision-making process.

“Despite the fact that I love my research and community here at UMaine, it is unsustainable for me to live with such low wages, inconsistent or poor health care, and no seat at the decision-making table,” said graduate student Andrea Tirrell, a master of science candidate with the UMaine School of Biology and Ecology’s Ecology and Environmental Sciences program.

“The university repeatedly makes unilateral decisions that negatively impact grad students, which is harming not only our research and learning experiences, but our lives.”

Alessandro Mereghetti, a Ph.D. candidate with the UMaine School of Biology and Ecology’s Ecology and Environmental Sciences program, spoke about a lack of affordable housing.

“Housing prices in Maine have been skyrocketing over the last few years, and the university has not increased stipends for grad workers accordingly nor provided affordable housing options in adequate numbers,” Mereghetti said. “Having access to secure, affordable housing nearby the workplace would benefit all the graduate workers, especially international ones.”

'A valued part of our institution' 

UMaine President Joan Ferrini-Mundy said in a statement that the system appreciates the cooperation of all parties involved and looks forward to maintaining a supportive academic community.

“Graduate students are a valued part of our institution, contributing significantly to our academic environment, service initiatives, and research mission,” Ferrini-Mundy said. “We hope that this recognition will serve as a platform for an ongoing, productive dialogue between graduate students, faculty, and administration. That dialogue must recognize the important contributions of students and support opportunities for them.”

The process to achieve certification took years of discussion and months of organizing.

“Based on the strong support that exists across campus, and among faculty, legislators and community leaders, we are excited about the very real prospect of beginning negotiations for a strong first contract,” said Remi Geohegan , a second-year doctoral student and teaching assistant in the Graduate School of Biomedical Science and Engineering at UMaine. 

The graduate student workers union will be part of UAW Region 9A, which covers New England, New York City and Puerto Rico, said Brandon Mancilla, the region’s director.

The goal of the union is to improve teaching, research and employment conditions, with with improvements like higher wages, better health care and recourse for graduate worker grievances. Employment includes teaching assistants, research assistants and graduate assistants.

According to its website, the UMaine Graduate Workers Union chose to join the United Auto Workers because it represents more than 100,000 academic workers across the U.S., including more graduate student employees and postdocs than any other union. 

In the last eight years alone over 40,000 academic workers around the country have chosen to become part of the UAW.

The UAW has particular experience with helping to negotiate and enforce strong student worker contracts, the website says. At the University of California, for example, through collective bargaining drawing on the UAWʼs experience bargaining contracts with university administrators, the 17,000 workers with Student Researchers United-UAW won 25% to 80% increases in pay in their first union contract, as well as other improvements.

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