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UMBC Graduate Assistants Push for the Right to Unionize

Graduate students at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County testified in the Maryland Senate in February 2023 in support of SB0247, which would allow all University System of Maryland (USM) graduate assistants and faculty to collectively bargain. The bill did not reach the governor’s desk before the end of the legislative session.

The bill has been stuck in Maryland’s General Assembly for years, but organizers have not backed down, meeting at Red Emma’s in Baltimore on September 28th to urge attendees to call or mail their representatives to support the bill in the coming legislative session, which begins in January 2024. 

Jessica Burstrem, a PhD candidate and current Vice President of the Graduate Student Association at UMBC, spoke at the Red Emma’s event about the challenges faced by graduate assistants at UMBC and in USM at large.

Burstrem revealed that graduate assistants are often unable to support themselves financially.

“Students are choosing to eat, pay their rent, or buy their books,” Burstrem said. 

UMBC has USM’s second largest graduate assistant workforce with 750 graduate assistants.

According to Fall 2022 polls of the UMBC Chemistry and Physics department GAs, about 75% of GAs report “frequently” or “occasionally” experiencing mental health issues related to their financial situation. About 58% of Chemistry GAs report not being able to afford their semester fees.

A majority of UMBC Physics GAs report skipping meals (69%), avoiding medical treatment (78%), and going without essential items (78%) due to insufficient finances.

Costs of living are increasing, yet graduate assistant stipends are failing to keep up.

According to the 2022 Graduate Assistant Advisory Council (GAAC) Meet and Confer presentation, the minimum stipend for GAs is $26,324, while the average annual cost of living is $28,080. This expense excludes child care costs for those with dependents. 

The “Meet and Confer” process supposedly helps graduate assistants adjudicate their concerns with the university administration, but graduate students say that this process is a hollow one. Despite voicing their concerns to university administrators during the Fall 2022 Meet and Confer, they saw no mention of their concerns in the administration’s Fall 2022 semesterly report on graduate assistants at USM. 

“They don’t have to take action, so they do not take action,” said Maryland Senator Benjamin Kramer during the SB0247 hearing in February, regarding the Meet and Confer process.

“These graduate students are worked like dogs,” said Senator Kramer, detailing the conditions that GAs undergo in USM. 

The September Red Emma’s panel, moderated by the Real News Network, focused on the need for collective bargaining rights for faculty and graduate assistants at all USM institutions. The panel delivered sober analyses of the conditions that graduate assistants work under within USM institutions, arguing that having the right to collectively bargain is a crucial stop towards better working conditions, earning a living wage and other benefits.

The collective bargaining bill aims to provide graduate assistants and faculty within all USM institutions the right to form unions and collectively bargain. Organizers expect the bill will make a return in the Spring 2024 General Assembly session, and are optimistic that it will finally make its way to Governor Wes Moore’s desk for signage. 

Collective bargaining rights have been in place for some 30,000 Maryland public employees since 1999 and 2001, when the Maryland General assembly passed legislation concretizing former Governor Parris Glendening’s executive order in 1996, which immediately established collective bargaining rights for thousands of state employees. 

These laws, although considered victories for many public sector employees, have notably excluded “15,000+ graduate students, adjuncts, lecturers, and full-time professors in the state-funded university system” from having the right to organize into unions, according to Red Emma’s advertisement for the September panel event. 

Organizers are optimistic that 2024 will be the year that these groups will finally win the right to organize, citing the large turnout at the Red Emma’s panel event and the sheer number of postcards and letters signed and mailed to various state representatives. 

The UMBC graduate student population has been pushing for this bill for years, testifying in favor of the bill and fostering connections with other like-minded graduate assistant groups across USM.

According to a UMBC GSA survey from Spring 2022, 90.5% of graduate students at UMBC support the Collective Bargaining Rights Bill. 

Elijah Sharp is a senior Political Science and Theatre Studies double major and a contributing writer from UMBC Professor Deborah Rudacille’s Fall 2023 Beats Reporting Class.