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University of Rhode Island grad assistants embrace NEA!

About 600 graduate employees at the University of Rhode Island (URI) this week became the newest members of NEA Higher Ed.

"It's a very, very significant movement happening here!" says Danielle DiRocco, executive director of Graduate Assistants United (GAU) at URI.

Like all unions of graduate employees, GAU at URI is accustomed to constant turnover among its members. Graduate employees work on campus for as long as it takes to earn an advanced degree. Within six or seven years for a Ph.D., or two for a masters, theyve come and gone from campus -- and their union. Meanwhile, GAU's executive board is elected annually. The only constant is the one staff person, GAU's executive director.

Previously, GAU had been affiliated with the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). To ensure continuity and increase stability, "we started thinking we needed a bigger ship," says GAU Executive Director Danielle DiRocco. NEARI became an obvious candidate for us. "They're the largest union in the state, and theyre in education. So, we approached them. It was us leading the charge."

By joining a larger group, GAU can save money in some areas. But more importantly, the Rhode Island graduate employees also can have a larger voice on issues that they care about, including funding of public education, and funding of academic research and the state of academic freedom, especially relating to oceans and climate change.

"We're an ocean-based universit....the impact of climate-research money drying up, or not being able to talk about climate change because youre on an EPA grant, thats a big thing here. The right to do the research that you need to do, controversial or not, is an absolute right in academic, and it has to be preserved," says DiRocco.

Federal immigration policy also has been an issue. Last year, some URI students and family members were caught up in the Trump administrations travel ban for travelers from Muslim-majority countries.

Solidarity in numbers

Across the nation, an increasing number of graduate employees are turning to unions. While NEA represents graduate employees in states including Florida, Illinois, and Missouri, the Coalition of Graduate Employee Unions (CGEU) points to nearly three dozen graduate student unions across the U.S., plus two dozen in the works. They all share concerns around academic freedom and research funding, but also in the more granular issues of their own workplaces.

"The primary issues are always going to include money, says DiRocco. (According to last years NEA Special Salary Issue, graduate assistant stipends in the U.S. averaged less than $16,000.) But theyre also very concerned with workload exploitation.

"When you're a grad assistant, your supervisor holds the keys to your future in a way that is very unbalanced. There is a lot of drive to keep your head down, focus up. Don't be a squeaky wheel. Get your program done and get out," says DiRocco. With their future careers on the line, many student-employees are reluctant to complain about their supervisors requiring them to work more than their contractual 20 hours a week. On some campuses, under the supervision of some professors, 30 or 40 weeks is more typical.

With a union, there is power in a unified voice, more strength in solidarity. "You don't want to bite the hand that feeds you, unless you know you can win," says DiRocco.


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