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Labor Contract on the Horizon for UA System Grad Student Employee Union

by | Jun 25, 2024 | Education, Featured, News

Photo Credit: UAA

Grad students employed by the UA System are days away from working under their first ever labor contract. In May, more than 70 percent of the Alaska Graduate Workers Association (AGWA) voted to ratify a tentative agreement, effective July 1. The contract raises pay and improves conditions for grad students who teach classes and perform research.

Farthest-North Graduate Student Union

AGWA, the first graduate student union in Alaska, is affiliated with the International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Workers of America, better known as United Auto Workers (UAW), one of the largest unions in the country. UAW often partners with academic units, including student employees at University of Washington and University of California.

“We have stickers that say we’re the farthest north graduate worker union in the country, which is pretty fun,” says Sofia Sytniak, a grad student in UAA’s psychology department and a member of the organizing committee. Sytniak represented UAA on the twelve-member bargaining committee.

The May ratification vote was completed in a single day, which union organizer Abigail Schiffmiller says is “unheard of.” According to Schiffmiller, the shortest ratification drive that UAW representatives had previously seen at other schools was three days.

The current contract will extend from July 2024 to December 2026. The agreement represents the culmination of nearly four years of work by UA student organizers. Unit membership totals around 450 grad students across the UA system, says Sytniak.

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Schiffmiller is a PhD student in UAF’s biology department; she works under a research assistantship. She was a member of AGWA-UAW’s organizing committee, and later of the bargaining committee. She says union talks were prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic in fall 2020.

“There were definitely existing issues that a lot of students were struggling with, and then, unsurprisingly, when 2020 hit, a lot of those got exacerbated,” says Schiffmiller.

The previous channels for addressing concerns—namely, students going to their individual supervisor and department—weren’t working effectively and broadly enough.

Wages were an issue on which the pandemic shone a particularly bright light: from 2007 to 2022, the minimum wage for UAF graduate assistants stayed the same at $15.73 per hour. In the new contract, graduate students have higher wages, and increases to the minimums and percentage raises each year are built into the contract to prevent the minimum rate from staying the same for another fifteen years, says Schiffmiller.

Healthcare was another priority among the unit. For UA System grad students, in-network healthcare is very limited, and students often must travel to Anchorage for medical care. Coverage also does not include dental or vision insurance. Healthcare for the 2024-2025 school year had already been finalized prior to union negotiations in the spring, meaning that changes to healthcare for the upcoming academic year were not possible. Under the new agreement, existing healthcare coverage will not be diminished, and bargaining will reopen in fall 2025 for the 2026-2027 school year.

The contract also includes adjustments to dispute resolution and grievance procedures, and it changes grad students’ employment status from “at-will” to “just cause,” which requires employers to provide sufficient justification for termination.

Some issues in the contract are distinctly Alaskan: AGWA-UAW expanded shower access for dependents living in dry cabins in Fairbanks, which don’t have built-in water systems.

Fast but Careful Negotiations

According to a statement from the university, first contracts are usually negotiated in 465 days. AGWA-UAW and the UA System reached an agreement in 96 days, thanks in part to UA’s bargaining team working “tirelessly,” said UA President Pat Pitney in a written statement.

Not to say that union negotiations were without challenges; one issue AGWA-UAW faced was the “inherently high turnover rate of our unit members,” says Schiffmiller.

The problem is common in graduate student unions, where members are part of their institution for a limited amount of time compared to other industries. “That makes it harder to organize because you have to keep introducing the ideas and the problems to new people, and some people who have been really strong supporters end up leaving on a regular basis,” says Schiffmiller. A union is critical, she says, because it maintains a high level of advocacy even as members change.

AGWA-UAW also sees its contract as a draw for prospective grad students and a means to keep existing students as they transition from a master’s program to a PhD.

“[Alaska] is an amazing, beautiful place that people want to go to, but it’s also a place that has a lot of inherent difficulty,” says Schiffmiller. She believes the new contract will help ease that difficulty.

Sytniak characterized her experience with AGWA-UAW as “empowering” and a testament to the “power we have in community.” Working to establish AGWA-UAW was the first time she participated in organizing a union, or even being a member. Sytniak says her involvement with the graduate student union has made her “more confident that, if there is a group of people who care about something and want to get something done, it’s possible.”

Alaska Business Magazine July 2024 cover
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Welcome to the 2024 Best of Alaska Business special section! For the ninth time we invited our readers to tell us which Alaska businesses they love the most, this year in forty-four categories. Throughout the month of March, you told us who should be featured in these pages, and we're thrilled to be able to publish the results.
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