Graduate student employees are finally receiving back pay from Oregon State University after months of bargaining, dispute, and settlement on cost of living adjustments in minimum salary negotiations.
Back in 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Coalition of Graduate Employees, the student-run and funded labor union for OSU’s graduate student-employees, and its negotiation team approached the bargaining table with OSU with proposals regarding health and safety as well as “relatively low cost of living adjustments”, according to Christian Solorio, vice president of Grievances for the CGE and fifth-year doctoral candidate in physics.
The CGE bargaining committee then revisited the topic of salary during the 2022 contract cycle. During this process, the university barely moved on adjusting minimum salary amounts to reflect the increased cost of living in Corvallis, explained Solorio.
However, OSU and the CGE signed a contract agreement in July of 2022 stating, what the CGE understood, secured a 9% minimum salary increase for all graduate student employees and a 4.75% increase for returning graduate students who met academic standing and employment standards for the following year.
“This was, from what (union leadership) understood, a historically high cost of living adjustment that CGE has secured, which was really exciting for us,” Solorio said.
But after the fall term of 2022 began, graduate students across different departments noticed a lack of proper pay increase on incoming paychecks as OSU applied the 4.75% pay increase before the 9% minimum salary raise. This equated to roughly $100 lost per month for impacted students and disproportionately affected the lowest paid range of employees.
“I think it was pretty frustrating for a lot of people,” said Cassidy Wagner, vice president of Communications for the CGE and second-year doctoral student in physical oceanography. “Especially because we had people who were members of our bargaining team who were in that lowest paid range, and didn’t get that raise.”
To recuperate financial losses for students, the CGE filed a grievance with OSU, though the university denied any fault on their behalf, leading the CGE to revisit the negotiation table and even consider arbitration. However, OSU offered to settle the dispute instead. During this bargaining process, union members and impacted graduate students were present alongside leadership and offered testimony on how this lack of pay increase has affected their day to day lives.
“We would give our proposal, (OSU) would discuss it and (union members) would watch OSU ask questions that felt critical and invalidating of the things we were asking for,” Wagner described.
Additionally, the contract also included anti-harassment training for supervisors and professors after reports of harassment from graduate students, according to Wagner, as she described the student testimonies given during bargaining.
“When you hear someone have a really meaningful connection to what we’re doing, it just makes it a little more important to keep going,” Wagner said. “Like hearing our members and colleagues and friends talk about what this means to them makes us wanna work harder.”
Solorio also explained the extensive process of “marathon sessions”, meetings that lasted over 12 hours and consisted of direct back and forth between OSU and CGE. However, the CGE was able to win back the expected result of initial contract negotiations with the OSU administration: proper application of a 9% minimum salary increase, 4.75% increase for returning graduate employees to adjust for increased cost of living, and back pay for graduate students whose salaries were cut.
So, how are these impacted graduate students doing now?
“I’m surviving,” said Brandon Gelvin, a fourth-year doctoral student in public policy and steward in the CGE. “For me, not that I couldn’t have used the money – I eventually did get it, of course – it was more of an insult than anything else. In my perspective, they are very consciously and willfully misinterpreting the contract.”
Gelvin became a steward, a liaison between the students in his department and the union, for the CGE during his second year of his doctoral program at OSU. He described his experience working in the labor union as “exhausting” and often “to the detriment of the academic work (he’s) supposed to be doing” in terms of workload, but wouldn’t change his decision to join after experiencing how graduate students are treated at OSU.
When talking about experiences from other graduates he has heard as a steward, Gelvin revealed he knew of another student in his department that was homeless while working for OSU.
“I don’t know if they still are, but the fact the university can be nickel and diming us over for (what), from their perspective, is very small amounts of money,” Gelvin added. “While at the same time, the people who are actually doing the work and keeping the university afloat, are homeless or next to homeless is really, incredibly exploitative and quite insulting.”
“It’s alarming the union had to catch that problem,” Ashton Cummings, a third-year doctoral student in biological and ecological engineering, stated. “The university is not gonna catch that problem if they’re underpaying us.”
Cummings’ spoke further of her concern on the issue, saying that, while she is in a financially stable situation, how the amount lost per month could have meant the difference between being able to afford groceries, rent or other expenses for graduates who aren’t. Additionally, she described neutral reactions from department heads who were hardly aware of the dispute, mostly due to lack of supervisor knowledge on contract specifics.
Gelvin, on the other hand, described an interaction with a department head of the School of Public Policy in which the director called campaigning efforts for a cost of living adjustment to be “naive”.
“He made it clear that he (didn’t care),” Gelvin stated. “Which is quite remarkable for the head of a program where the content of the program is focused on social and financial inequality.”
When talking about her motivation to become more involved in CGE, Cummings added, “I think it’s important for people to be asked to be treated fairly and that’s not an unreasonable thing.”
She went on to express a boost in morale regarding union work after successfully negotiating in this dispute.
Though the dispute has been resolved, union representatives continue to stand in defense of the labor rights of all OSU graduate employees.
To undergraduate students and families, as well as graduates, Gelvin expressed, “The vast majority of money you are paying for tuition is not going to the people who are teaching you, because that’s us graduate employees, we’re not seeing barely any of it. So the question comes then, ‘Where is all that money going?’”
OSU financial department and bargaining team members were unresponsive when asked for an interview.