Rights and Working Conditions

What falls into this category?

By forming a union we have more power to address not just certain economic issues (such as pay and health care) but also establish rights and protections that create a more inclusive, supportive and equitable working and learning environment.  

Currently, working conditions rely entirely on the “good will” of the administration and can vary by department. However, given the constantly changing makeup of the faculty and administration, graduate students do not have consistent advocates in this framework. Under the current system: (1) there is no formal mechanism for graduate students to give input on policies prior to decisions that affect them, (2) the administration is not required to transparently report on decisions as they are being made, and (3) there are no official avenues for graduate feedback or recourse in the case of problematic policies. Under the current system, even graduate students with good working conditions have no power or recourse if their department decides to change their pay or workload.

This page covers some of the common ways unionized student workers have achieved better conditions, including grievance procedures, appointment transparency and length, workload and working conditions.

Grievance Procedures

The current dispute resolution procedures in the UA system are non-transparent, difficult to navigate, and inherently prone to biased decisions.

In the UA system, an individual student worker with a complaint or dispute must navigate a complicated system of resolution procedures.  Grievances failing under the categories of discrimination or harassment (sexual or otherwise) and the like, are handled by the Department of Equity & Compliance (AKA Title IX office), and HR if a faculty or staff member is involved. While there are grievance filing procedures outlined and readily available for Title IX cases and ADA compliance, the filing process is less clear for other issues. For example, there is a reporting form for Employee conduct, but it is unclear what, if any, process that initiates to resolve an issue. If issues brought to the Department of Equity and Compliance are deemed not to “rise to the level of Title IX or Department of Equity and Compliance” they are handed back to the Center for Student Rights and Responsibilities (CSRR) and the Graduate School for an informal resolution.

Grievances related to grade or academic appeals, including issues with committee decisions etc, are ultimately handled through the Provost's office. This is of course if the grievance has already been run through lower administrative levels (departments, colleges, the Grad School) according to the Faculty Senate’s policy and not been resolved informally. In the event that the Provost's decision is called into question, the Provosts from the other UA campuses can be called in. 

Grievances related to employment contracts (including when a student worker TA or RA contract is not being honored, if the offered contract does not match with what the student had agreed to before accepting their position, or if problems come up) are dealt with informally by the department chairs, the Graduate School, and HR.

Under the current system,  the ultimate decision about how to resolve a grievance or complaint made by a student worker is up to UA administration.

No matter which process a student worker attempts to use, they each inherently give the university administration the power to issue a final decision.  They also put a significant burden on individual student workers to learn and navigate these processes - which disproportionately impacts those of us with fewer independent resources.  It is easy to see how this is inherently biased: without accountability from a neutral third party or peer, self-chosen representation for individuals facing problems, the administration has a significant amount of latitude to respond in ways that limit liability rather than support individual student workers. 

What could unionization do about it?

Union contracts typically include a grievance procedure, which provides due process, protection against arbitrary treatment, much greater transparency if a problem arises or the administration is not fairly adhering to the contract, and expert peer representation for affected individuals. Though many grievances are resolved quickly and informally, most contracts allow for unresolved grievances to be taken to an outside neutral arbitrator whose decision is legally binding. This type of system is fairer than a system that ends with a university administrator deciding whether the university violated any policy. UA does currently have this kind of grievance procedure established with the faculty union (United Academics).

A fair grievance process can also serve as a deterrent for violations by creating greater accountability.  This is especially important for issues such as sexual harassment, where it is critical that a survivor have access to fair recourse through a neutral decision-maker rather than someone who works for the University. At UConn, for example, graduate assistants have already successfully used their grievance process to address cases of sexual harassment. At U Washington, Academic Student Employees have bargained the creation of a peer-led sexual harassment training program, which works in tandem with the grievance procedure to prevent harassment. 

Grievance procedures are also important for economic issues. For example, GSOC at NYU won an arbitration case involving NYU’s wrongful denial of tuition remission benefits to workers in the School of Education and the School of Social Work. Affected graduate workers received a refund of approximately $1500/semester for each semester they were affected. At the University of Washington, the union over the years has recovered millions of dollars for members through its grievance procedure

Another example of they types of protections a union can achieve comes from Harvard where their union contract includes the following: 

Appointments and Working Conditions

Funding, working conditions, and expectations are not transparent for graduate workers currently.

Funding and Appointment Transparency 

Potential graduate students often receive offer letters that are not clear about what kind of financial support they can expect from the university beyond their first semester. This leaves many students in positions where they do not realize they need to apply to Fellowships/TA positions/RA positions until it is too late–or in worse cases, in positions where they are ineligible for those funding sources and must either pay their own way the rest of the degree or drop out. This issue is particularly important for international students.

Additionally the wide range of contract lengths (15 - 19 weeks/semester) can lead to extended pay gaps for many students. Additionally, there is no clear justification for why students in some departments receive pay over winter break and others don’t. These gaps are all too common and contracts are often delivered late or incorrectly, with the resulting burden being placed on ASEs, such as the fall 2022 delay in health insurance enrollment.

Working Conditions / Workloads / Training 

ASEs experiences vary widely across and within departments. These issues can arise from both systemic consequences of the administration’s actions or lack thereof as well as toxic work environments from an advisor’s inherent power over student employees. 

For example, TA workloads vary widely with no standards to adhere to. The number of hours worked per class or lab section varies widely from department to department; in some departments, a TA might be required to teach twice as many sections as another department without any increase in hours or pay. Frequently, the number of hours an ASE is paid for is determined by departmental needs, not a true reflection of the hours an ASE works. Additionally, TA responsibilities range from teaching independent sections as the primary instructor to teaching lab sections to teaching a section alongside a professor. Despite this huge responsibility, in many departments, TAs are given a day or less of training in teaching and pedagogy. Any required training sessions are often held before contracts start by up to a week–forcing students to arrive early in Fairbanks and quit other employment without being given any form of compensation.

Outside the classroom, the university system has influence over the physical accommodations and work spaces. Living in Alaska, especially over the winter can be difficult. The long dark winters can be both mentally and physically taxing, so it is especially critical for ASE health and productivity that work environments be comfortable. Many grad student offices are tucked into interior rooms or basements without access to natural light, with some buildings even lacking potable running water. 

In Fairbanks, where a large number of graduate students live in housing without running water (‘dry cabins’). Living in a dry cabin should be an option if people want to save extra money, but it should not be by necessity due to insufficient pay. Because of this, access to shower facilities is a major issue related to ASE health. Some buildings on campus do have showers available to students and staff, but they are usually closed during ‘non-business hours’ including early mornings, evenings, weekends, and holidays. This puts the burden on ASEs to take time out of normal work hours to shower and compete with others using the showers in the same timeframe. Additionally, shower facilities are restricted to people who are currently enrolled in classes or receiving paychecks. This means that ASEs without funding over the summer months are excluded from using those facilities.

How could unionization help?

Unionization would allow us to negotiate for fairer and more equitable hours, consistent access to water, and adequate and compensated training for TAs. Student worker union contracts typically allow student workers to protect themselves from working more hours than they are paid, but also the flexibility to work voluntary hours if desired.  To cite a few representative examples:  GEO, the graduate employee union at the University of Michigan, has established a grievance procedure for those ASEs who are working more hours than their contract stipulates–graduate students working more than their designated hours must receive an increase in pay or a reduction in workload.. At UConn, the Graduate Employee Union successfully bargained for any mandatory training, orientation, required meetings, and required conferences to be considered a part of graduate employees’ workload and compensated

Additionally, a union contract could help protect us from egregious lapses in contracts such as unnecessary and unjustifiable late start dates to our health insurance. When ASEs have an issue with late start in pay or healthcare, the union can advocate for those ASEs to have those issues addressed immediately and without further delay. 

What we want is not unreasonable or unheard of; as ASEs our teaching and research benefits UA. We deserve fair compensation, protections, and the rights of both students and employees.