Letter to the Editor: Why graduate workers are organizing

A difficult semester dominated by hurricanes and the pandemic has come to a close. Over 1,300 students contracted Covid-19 and our classrooms were filled with students trying to learn and thrive despite the most challenging of circumstances. Yet through the trials of the pandemic, one group on campus has been perpetually overlooked: graduate workers. We teach and TA classes, conduct research — including on Covid-19! — and assist professors with grading, technology, and managing online learning. We consistently rise to the occasion, adapt to new circumstances and work to ensure that undergraduate education and professor-led research continues unimpeded. Yet we have been uniquely harmed by the pandemic.

We sign contracts with Tulane that guarantee funding for a predetermined period of time — typically four or five years. During this time, we must finish our own research as well as complete work for the university, and we are compensated with a set stipend, usually around $20,000 per year (unless we happen to be graduate workers in the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, which promotes a message of equity while denying their own graduate workers any stipends or healthcare subsidies). In dealing with the pandemic, many of us have lost valuable time in completing our own projects. We have been unable to travel to conduct research, interview participants, or visit certain archives. Yet even as we devote renewed energy to teaching hybrid classes and helping undergraduates survive the pandemic, the time keeps ticking on our stipends.

Solidarity Tulane is a coalition of graduate workers that formed in 2018 to give graduate workers a voice on campus in policies that affect our work and our lives. We organize to improve conditions for graduate workers and demand fair treatment from Tulane administrators. We won two key victories last spring and summer: first, the elimination of the $30 installment fee the university charged students who could not pay their entire bill at the beginning of the semester, a regressive fee that disproportionately targeted poor and working class students. Later, we eliminated the $320 student health fee, which had prevented many graduate workers from accessing adequate health care. Now, we are demanding that Tulane fully subsidize health care for all graduate workers.

Graduate workers pay $1,410 to $2,820 per year on health insurance, plus an additional $2,820 for any dependents. This is unsustainable, especially for international students, students who are off-stipend, and students from poor or working class backgrounds. Tulane’s peer institutions  — such as Emory, Duke, and Washington University in St. Louis — offer 90-100%-subsidized health care for many of their Ph.D. students. We conduct research and run classes for the university for a pittance. We should not also be worried about whether we can afford health care and still make rent.

There are many reasons why Tulane should fully-subsidize health care. It would help them remain competitive and, specifically, recruit highly-qualified students of color and working class students. It would make the espoused values of their school of public health less hypocritical. It would allow graduate workers to focus on our research and teaching and reduce our stress and anxiety. Ultimately, it is just the right thing to do. A university as wealthy as Tulane should ensure that all its graduate workers have quality, subsidized health care, particularly in the middle of a pandemic.

We have asked Provost Robin Forman and President Mike Fitts repeatedly to fully subsidize healthcare. We submitted a petition signed by nearly 500 graduate workers. We reached out to the Tulane board to ask them to support us. We met with the Deans of each school. We sat down with Dr. Scott Tims, assistant vice president of Campus Health. We have followed the official chain of command, expressed our needs clearly, and yet we have heard nothing but silence from the university.

Graduate workers need to organize because Tulane is not going to improve our financial and working conditions out of their own good will. The university eliminated the installment fee and the health center fee because of the pressure we put on them. When we stand together, we will be able to create a just system for graduate workers at Tulane. We ask for faculty, staff, and undergraduates to support us. And we ask for graduate workers to join us. 

We need you to help us build community and create change. Email [email protected] to get involved.

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