You fight back, you win.
Marc Kagan (l) and Anh Tran (r) are active in increasing union involvement within their chapter at the Graduate Center.
After pressure from the PSC and the union’s Graduate Center chapter, graduate assistants (GAs) who were denied a $750 signing bonus because they were on approved leave will be able to collect the bonus upon return to CUNY employment.
“It didn’t happen automatically,” Anh Tran, a Graduate Center chapter activist, told Clarion. “It happened because people from our core group of activists made it a priority.”
Graduate assistants who were either on approved leave during the Spring 2016 or Fall 2016 semesters did not receive signing bonuses: $750 for most Graduate Assistants and $500 for Graduate Assistants D. But now those GAs, as long as they return to work no later than February 1, 2018, will receive the ratification bonus.
Chapter activists said that they’ve seen some direct benefits from the organizing they’ve been doing in recent years. As a representative of graduate assistants, the Graduate Center chapter was practically non-existent several years ago. There are around 150 full-time faculty with central line appointments at the Graduate Center, but there are about 1,500 doctoral students employed as graduate assistants, usually working at one or more college campuses. To better represent themselves, graduate assistants have spent the past two years organizing, with the result that chapter membership numbers have grown and an increased number of delegates will be elected to represent the increased number of members.
Chapter activists also engaged PSC leaders during and after contract negotiations to ensure that graduate student stipends would not decrease once graduate assistant salaries increased. PSC president Barbara Bowen joined Graduate Center Chapter Chair Luke Elliott-Negri at a meeting with the Graduate Center administration last fall to demand that a previous practice not be followed: decreasing stipends once wages were increased so that the graduate employee’s total economic package remained unchanged. The result, on average, is a $1,000 increase per year for current graduate assistants from the contract.
Tran said that the chapter continues to engage members. She stepped up her commitment to the union during the strike authorization campaign last year, and she sees more people getting involved.
“Some people get activated because they get inspired by a campaign. Others get activated because of a direct benefit,” said Tran, who studies political science. “This is an opening for GAs to see this as a fighting union.”
The chapter in recent years has made “quantum leaps” in organization, according to Marc Kagan, who got involved with the union in 2015, during his first year at the Graduate Center. The chapter’s increased presence has helped in winning benefits specific to graduate workers. Kagan, who now serves as the chapter’s grievance counselor and is affiliated with the history department, recalls people coming to him about not receiving the ratification bonus.
“We knew of numerous instances where people had called us up and said, ‘I didn’t get the ratification bonus. What gives?’” Kagan said. “We investigated,” Kagan recalled, and GC Chapter Chair Luke Elliott-Negri contacted the PSC Office. PSC adjunct contract enforcement counselor Stanley Wine filed a non-payment grievance based on lists of GA non-recipients developed by the chapter with PSC Organizer Sam Lewis and then worked directly with university payroll to ensure that GAs – who often work at different campuses every semester – got their bonus.
In addition, the union negotiated an agreement to permit several dozen GAs on approved leaves during Spring and/or Fall 2016 to receive their bonuses when they return to work at CUNY. Elliott-Negri argued that if full-time faculty and staff on approved leaves receive their ratification bonuses when they return to work, so should part-time workers.
Subho Chakraborty, a graduate assistant in physics, may benefit from the new side agreement. He went on medical leave in July 2016, and therefore he did not get the bonus. He was in touch with chapter officials about the matter and is pleased with the agreement.
“I got the feeling the union keeps pursuing the matter with a lot of tenacity. They don’t take things lightly,” Chakraborty said. “They take it seriously – until the end.”