Like many industries, students graduating from colleges and universities across the country are demanding better wages and living conditions from their employers as inflation and high costs, especially rent, push them to breaking point.
Graduate students across the industry say their pay is unsustainable, failing to meet or catch up with inflation and soaring costs.
Before the pandemic, workers in academia, including graduate students and research students, felt their salaries and college and university benefits did not match the cost of living, Rachael Kuintzle, PhD student at CalTech University and co-founder of graduate student Action Network, told ABC News.
It’s a problem that’s been exacerbated by skyrocketing inflation and housing costs that have taken a “quantum leap,” Nelson Lichtenstein, director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy from the University of California at Santa Barbara. New.
The most common salary for working students at the University of California is $24,000 per year, according to Neal Sweeny. Sweeny is the president of UAW 5810, a union representing more than 11,000 postdoctoral fellows and university researchers at the University of California and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
Sweeny said wages were a crisis even before inflation hit. The majority of student workers spend more than 30% of their salary on rent. He said universities are not addressing this mismatch between salaries and costs with enough urgency.
Graduate students, especially those living in metropolitan cities, are being hit hard by inflation, with rents even outpacing inflation, Kuintzle said.
There is also less certainty that graduate students will be able to find tenure-track faculty or research positions upon graduation. The pay isn’t as good as it used to be and there aren’t many jobs available, Kuintzle said.
This is also echoed by labor experts who work in academia.
With cash-strapped institutions, jobs for graduate students have shrunk, there are fewer positions available, and universities have reduced the number of regular tenure-track faculty, Lichtenstein said.
A few years ago the Lichtenstein department recognized that there was a big problem finding graduate student jobs and decided to reduce the number of graduate students they were admitting.
“Well, the dean came in and said, ‘You can’t do that, we need graduate students to tutor these big courses. Even though the chances of getting good jobs had diminished, we still had to keep recruiting graduate students, and then they came to teach these classes,” Lichtenstein said.
Another labor expert agreed that earning graduate students is not a living wage, facing debt and a worse world than their parents. That’s what drives so many workers into unions, Kate Bronfenbrenner, a professor at the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations, told ABC News.
Unionization in higher education is new, and universities aren’t used to negotiating with graduate students and adjusting to student living costs, Bronfenbrenner said.
Graduate students and student workers do the majority of teaching and research at universities, but their salaries don’t reflect what Bronfenbrenner says.
Bronfenbrenner also said that universities respond to unionization in the same way as any traditional union-busting corporation in the private sector, by “playing tough.”
The terms leave many people wondering why they agree to these terms of employment.
“People ask the question ‘why should we tolerate this, not just the salaries, but the treatment we experience, the work-life balance and the abuse many students go through to get their PhDs. It’s not worth it anymore,” Kuintzle said.
Social media has played a role in the recent surge in worker organizing, even evident in the unionization of Starbucks workers, experts tell ABC News.
Young people are very good at organizing online and employers can no longer keep their salaries a secret. Workers from all industries more easily share sessions about their successes at other schools using social media, Bronfenbrenner said.
Kuintzle founded the Graduate Student Action Network, a group of graduate students and workers from colleges and universities nationwide that was formed in the wake of the fallout from Roe v. Wade which was overturned by the United States Supreme Court in June, which ended federal protections for the right to abortion in the United States
Since then, the group has grown to include graduate students from more than 60 universities in 34 states and it has become a forum where they discuss common issues, work organization and compare salaries and benefits offered by their universities. . The transfer of information allowed students who were able to make changes in their schools to give advice to others, according to Kuintzle.
There’s also been an increase in the number of graduate students and college workers organizing, with students willing to take more risks, Kuintzle said.
Kuintzle said graduate students at several schools are working to unionize or have recently voted to unionize.
Lichtenstein said one solution could be for universities to get more government funding, which he sees as doable in the United States.
It is also an issue that disproportionately affects workers from low-income backgrounds or those who do not have a spouse or family members to support them financially.
Bronfenbrenner warned that the cost of universities failing to respond adequately would be a decline in the quality of teaching at universities. It will also hit women, the working class and low-income workers the most.
Kuintzle warned that this could be an even bigger problem in the future if universities and colleges are unable to meet the needs and demands of their workers. Many even leave academia all together to work in their industries.
“There are Caltech students who are actively looking to transfer schools because, among our peer institutions, Caltech has by far the lowest allocation. And I know that will definitely start to play a bigger role in the programs to which students accept offers.” said Kuintzle.