Impacted by inflation, workers in academia, make demands

(LOS ANGELES) — Like many industries, graduate student workers at colleges and universities around the country are demanding better pay and living conditions from their employers as inflation and high costs, especially rent, drive them to the breaking point.

Graduate student workers throughout the industry are saying their pay is unlivable, failing to meet or catch up with inflation and soaring costs.

Leading into the pandemic, workers in academia, including graduate students and student researchers, felt their pay and benefits from colleges and universities did not match the cost of living, Rachael Kuintzle, a PhD candidate at CalTech University and co-founder of the Graduate Student Action Network, told ABC News.

This is an issue that was exacerbated by skyrocketing inflation and housing costs that have taken a “quantum leap,” Nelson Lichtenstein, the director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told ABC News.

The most common salary for student workers at the University of California is $24,000 per year, according to Neal Sweeny. Sweeny is the president of UAW 5810, a union representing over 11,000 Postdoctoral Scholars and Academic Researchers at the University of California and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Sweeny said pay was a crisis even before inflation hit. The majority of student workers pay more than 30% of their salary toward rent. He said universities are not addressing this mismatch between pay and costs with enough urgency.

Graduate student workers, especially those living in metropolitan cities, are heavily impacted by inflation, with rents even outpacing inflation, Kuintzle said.

There is also less assurance that graduate students will be able to find tenure-track faculty positions or research positions upon completion of their degree. Pay is not as good as it used to be and there are not that many jobs available, Kuintzle said.

This is also echoed from labor experts who work in academia.

With institutions tight on money, jobs for graduate students have diminished, there are less positions available and universities have been reducing the number of regular tenure-track faculty, Lichtenstein said.

A few years ago, Lichtenstein’s department recognized that there was a big problem with getting jobs for graduate students decided they would cut back on the number of graduate students they admit.

“Well, the Dean came in and said, ‘You can’t do that we need the grad students to staff these big courses.’ Even though the chances of getting good jobs had diminished, nevertheless, we had to keep recruiting grad students, and then they came in to teach these classes,” Lichtenstein said.

Another labor expert agreed that graduate students’ incomes are not a livable wage, facing debt and a world worse off than their parents’. This is what is pushing so many workers toward unions, Kate Bronfenbrenner, a professor at the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations, told ABC News.

Organizing in higher education is new and universities are not used to bargaining with graduate students and they are not adapting to students’ costs of living, Bronfenbrenner said.

Withth Graduate students and student workers doing the majority of teaching and research at universities, but their pay is not reflecting that Bronfenbrenner said.

Bronfenbrenner also said universities are reacting to labor organizing that way any traditional private sector anti-union corporation does, by “playing hardball.”

The conditions are leaving many wondering why they put up with these working conditions.

“Folks are asking the question ‘why should we tolerate this, not only the wages but the treatment that we endure, the work-life-balance and the abuse that many students endure to get their PhDs. It’s not worth it anymore,” Kuintzle said.

Social media has played a role in the recent surge in worker organization, even evident in unionization of Starbucks workers, experts told ABC News.

Young people are very good at organizing online and employers can no longer keep their wages a secret. Workers across industries are sharing sessions form their successes at other schools more easily using social media, Bronfenbrenner said.

Kuintzle founded the Graduate Student Action Network, a group of graduate students and workers at colleges and universities around the country that was formed in the fallout of Roe v. Wade being overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in June that ended federal protections for abortion rights in the U.S.

Since then, the group has grown to include graduate students from over 60 universities across 34 states and it has become a forum where they discuss common issues, labor organizing and compare what pay and benefits their universities provide. The transfer of information has allowed students able to make changes at their schools give advice to others, according to Kuintzle.

There is also a surge in graduate student and academic workers organizing, with students willing to take more risks, Kuintzle said.

Kuintzle said graduate students at several schools are working to unionize or recently voted to unionize.

Lichtenstein said one solution could be for universities to get more funding from the government, something he sees as doable in the U.S.

This is also an issue that is disproportionately impacting workers from low-income backgrounds or those who do not have a spouse or family members supporting them financially.

Bronfenbrenner warned that the cost of universities not adequately responding will be the quality of education at universities going down. This will also hit women, working class and low income workers the most.

Kuintzle warned that this could be an even bigger issue moving forward if universities and colleges are unable to meet the needs and demands of their workers. Many are even leaving academia all together to work in their industries.

“There are Caltech students who are actively seeking to transfer schools because, among our peer institutions, Caltech has the lowest stipend by far. And I know that is definitely going to start playing a larger role in what programs students are accepting offers at,” Kuintzle said.

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