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University of Vermont graduate students discuss ongoing campaign to unionize

Several brick buildings, one with a steeple with a clock
Charles Krupa
Associated Press
The campus of the University of Vermont stands in Burlington, Vt., on March 11, 2020.

Graduate students at the University of Vermont are working to unionize. It’s part of a broader surge in grad student unionization. But UVM officials say there’s a better path forward that doesn’t involve collective bargaining.

Ayana Curran-Howes and Lily Russo-Savage are Ph.D students on the union organization committee. They say one of the top priorities in unionizing is to get graduate students fair wages.

"The concerns are that the cost of living in Vermont, it way exceeds what we are paid. The reallocation of funds to pay students a living wage is a top concern of ours," Curran-Howes says. "And then housing being a big portion of our budget each month. A lot of the time, over half of what graduate students make in a month is going towards housing."

In an administrative email, UVM said ongoing work is being done to ensure fair pay through the basic needs budget. UVM has been in an ongoing working relationship with the Graduate Student Senate. That partnership led to a stipend increase over the summer they say meets the basic needs budget recommendation, but Russo-Savage says that's not the full story.

"(UVM) cited that it has now met the basic needs budget, which they're citing to be around $31,000 a year. But the problem is that the university has kind of used, has used specific language to make that basic needs budget work for them. So basically, that $31,000 is based off of a total income of a two person household being $62,000 a year. So they cut that in half. But as far as I'm aware, the majority of graduate student workers are not necessarily a dual income household. And so the actual basic needs budget is closer to $42,000," Russo-Savage says. "They are making it sound like they have been meeting those goals for us, when in reality, we're still pretty far from those goals. And they don't have an actual plan to get us to that level that we actually need."

The unionization efforts also aims to implement a workload cap to protect graduate students from crossing 40 hours per week. Curran-Howes says that many graduate students that teach or act as research assistants in addition to their role as a student cross that 40 hours per week without fair compensation because they care about the work they do and the students they're teaching.

"The concerns are that the cost of living in Vermont, it way exceeds what we are paid. The reallocation of funds to pay students a living wage is a top concern of ours."
Ayana Curran-Howes, UVM graduate student union organization committee

Russo-Savage says people have overwhelmingly responded positively to the unionizing efforts.

"A lot of positive feedback, honestly, overwhelmingly, both from our unit that we would like to have from graduate student workers, as well as other workers on our campus, including the other unions on our campus, have been incredibly supportive. I've actually also been hearing from community members," Russo-Savage says. "It's been very heartening to see how much support there is for us out there."

UVM graduate students are unionizing through United Auto Workers, and are working in partnership with University of Massachusetts-Amherst. The union organization committee at UVM is currently made up of around 15 people.

"Because of it's being a collective, like, we've been able to come in and out as our workflows require different things of us in the semester," Curran-Howes says. "We've been able to, like, lean in and out and on each other to complete all the different things that we need."

Russo-Savage says the effort to unionize will benefit the university as well as the students.

"What I do know is that most graduate students, when they apply to a graduate program, they are looking for the benefits that they will get at that university because you need to make sure that you can survive where you're going, right? And I know for a fact that the benefits that I got here were the lowest out of any university that I applied to. And it was a really big struggle for me to decide to come here in the first place because of that," Russo-Savage says.

"We have actually struggled to get the people who we are accepting into our programs to accept our offers to come here. Because again, they are so much lower than so many other places, while our cost of living here is so high. And so in the long run, having a graduate student union here will significantly benefit the university to make sure that we are offering actual competitive benefits with other universities, and therefore we will get the people that we want to be coming here. We will be offering them what they need in order to accept those offers."

Ahead of the show, Vermont Edition reached out to UVM's communications office multiple times to request an interview or share a statement. We did not receive a response. Today's show also included Annelise Orleck, a labor historian and Dartmouth professor of history and women's, gender, and sexuality studies, who joined to provide national context to the uptick in unionizing efforts this year. Dartmouth student David Freeman also joined to comment on their ongoing, successful unionization experience. Dartmouth College declined to comment. We recommend listening to the audio provided above for the full conversation.

Broadcast at noon Monday, Nov. 13, 2023; rebroadcast at 7 p.m. 

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Mikaela Lefrak is the host and senior producer of Vermont Edition. Her stories have aired nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, The World and Here & Now. A seasoned local reporter, Mikaela has won two regional Edward R. Murrow awards and a Public Media Journalists Association award for her work.
Andrea Laurion joined Vermont Public as a news producer for Vermont Edition in December 2022. She is a native of Pittsburgh, Pa., and a graduate of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine. Before getting into audio, Andrea worked as an obituary writer, a lunch lady, a wedding photographer assistant, a children’s birthday party hostess, a haunted house actor, and an admin assistant many times over.