Graduate students are calling on the UMaine System to recognize their union.
In this May 7, 2022, file photo, University of Maine students celebrate as they move their tassels and get their diplomas during graduation. Credit: Sawyer Loftus / BDN

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Amanda Gavin and Harrison Goldspiel are Ph.D. students at the University of Maine. Daniel Freedman is a master’s degree student at the University of Southern Maine.

As graduate workers across the University of Maine System, we have come out of our silos and joined together to call for unionization as means to make the University of Maine System more equitable, inclusive, sustainable and competitive with other land-grant institutions.

University of Maine graduate students are the lowest paid compared with other land-grant institutions in New England, according to internal UMaine research and publicly available data. We also are the only graduate workers in this group who receive less than 95 percent health insurance coverage and are expected to pay more than $1,000 to activate required health insurance before we even receive a paycheck.

The living wage based on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology calculator for a single adult with no children is $31,874 for the Bangor region (UMaine) and $37,039 for Greater Portland (University of Southern Maine). Ph.D. students on the minimum stipend at UMaine are more than $10,000 short of what is considered a living wage, while master’s degree students are nearly $15,000 short. In Portland, the gap is even more staggering.

It’s a misconception to think that it is acceptable to be poor during graduate school, that we will tough it out and make up for it in a tenured position later. This is neither true nor humane. Graduate workers are people in their 20s, 30s, 40s and beyond, who perform jobs and services necessary to the University of Maine System’s operation. We are people with families, children, disabilities and living expenses.

Being a graduate worker is not a calling one does in exchange for near-poverty wages, but a job that performs services a university cannot function without. Earning near-poverty wages isn’t ameliorated by taking home free cake from university functions to sustain ourselves, but a matter of struggling to keep teeth in our mouths and roofs over our heads. We often rely on food pantries for groceries (not cake). 

Further, as universities increasingly rely on teaching assistants, adjuncts and non-tenure-track positions to fill the roles of what used to be tenured and tenure-track positions, graduate students find themselves leaving school to enter a shrinking workforce. We cannot and should not need to max out our credit cards or take on additional loans, especially with limited job security on the other side of our degrees.

If universities have gotten into a situation where they rely on near poverty-wages to operate, that is not a burden for graduate students to bear. It’s the burden of administrators, who take home six-figure salaries, to reevaluate priorities.

In a statement, the University of Maine claims that it values us, but we are saying loud and clear that we don’t feel it.

The university seems to recognize that we are vital to its operation, but UMaine fails to recognize the poor working conditions and the real suffering that its employees experience. We deserve to have a set at the table to advocate for our basic needs. Now is the time for the university system to open that door.  

We are calling on the UMaine System to agree to a fair and expeditious process to verify that a majority of graduate workers have signed authorization cards in support of the union, and for it to recognize the union so that we can start bargaining for a contract. The UMaine System should join the administrators at Georgetown who took the high road to voluntary recognition,  and show the nation that they stand with graduate workers.

The sooner that the union is recognized and bargaining begins, the sooner graduate workers can stop worrying about unpaid doctor bills and making rent, and get back to the cutting-edge research and teaching they came to do at the UMaine System.