We Support UMass Amherst Graduate Workers

Bargain fairly and support graduate workers at UMass Amherst.

Photo: PHENOM Organizers at Advocacy Day 2020. (PHENOM)

May 13, 2020

Dear Chancellor Subbaswamy and UMass Management,

We are seeing terrible decisions made across our public higher education system, with administrators using the coronavirus pandemic and economic crisis to implement anti-student and anti-worker austerity budget cuts without respecting democratic governance. This will change. For the good of public higher education, we will fight for that change sooner rather than later.

Thousands of PHENOM members across the state stand united in solidarity with graduate workers at UMass Amherst, and we demand that you bargain fairly and meet the needs of graduate workers and their families in this moment of profound global crisis.

Graduate workers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst have been in negotiations with the University administration for almost two months over the impact of unilateral changes in working conditions due to the sudden campus transition to online learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Many grad workers report today that they were unable to submit their grades on time yesterday for a number of reasons, including overwork, spotty internet access, and the stress of continued research under inhospitable conditions, teaching responsibilities under the selfsame, keeping their students engaged and on time with their work submissions, and the stress of having to bargain over minimum job security past May. Grad workers at Columbia and UCSC have been on strike for similar cost of living issues, NYU had a sick-out over their similar demands, and Harvard grad workers have been in a protracted struggle with the University over similar issues in their first contract. Massachusetts public sector strikes are illegal, but if we could, we would also be striking for fair and equitable working and living conditions.

The Graduate Employee Organization (GEO-UAW2322), the union representing graduate workers at UMass Amherst, has been negotiating fall 2020 job security, summer employment, legal and other support for international students, as well as a stay on evictions from graduate housing at University-owned North Village and Lincoln apartments and rent waivers for the residents there.

Graduate workers are not eligible for unemployment benefits, and most are contracted for only 38 weeks a year. Many are international students, and are therefore not eligible for stimulus payments, relief under the federal CARES Act, federal or private student loans, and most other safety net programs. Furthermore, most international graduate students are unable to work off-campus, due to visa restrictions. Graduate workers have repeatedly voiced concerns about being able to provide for their families and survive over the summer, most notably in a petition that gathered over 900 signatures. Graduate workers recently hosted a “Reverse Town Hall” with 200 people in attendance online – UMass upper administration were invited, but not a single one bothered to attend. The Chancellor, Kumble Subbaswamy, was officially sent a list of demands with a deadline of April 23 to respond, while a drive-in protest with a caravan of almost 100 cars mustered at his campus residence. Neither of these actions moved the Chancellor to engage with the pressing needs of graduate student workers at UMass Amherst.

TAs and TOs worked hard over their traditional vacation time, spring break, to prepare the University for remote learning. When GEO asked that grad workers be provided a payout for their lost vacation, UMass management said that workers could take their vacation time at another point in the semester instead. In response, almost 700 graduate workers collectively requested vacation for the week of May 11-15. The University then attempted to undermine the Union by ignoring the collective nature of the action and using pressure and intimidation tactics to create tensions between faculty members and grad student employees over these vacation requests.

UMass Amherst is forcing some of its most vulnerable workers to bear the brunt of this crisis and leaving many international students with little to no support as pandemic-related xenophobia and racism not only exclude them from state and federal support but make them vulnerable to deportation, imperil their ability continue their degrees and research at UMass, and position them as targets of other acts of discrimination and violence. Just this week, grad workers living in Amherst were shot at twice in 24 hours by hostile anti-Asian neighbors. We fear acts like this will continue as economic insecurity and scapegoating often go hand in hand.

We call for solidarity with GEO and call on UMass to do the right thing, bargain fairly, recognize the needs of graduate workers, and not retaliate against workers taking their vacation or whose grades are delayed.

Do better, UMass.


Zac Bears
Executive Director
PHENOM (Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts)