Graduate workers vocalized their financial struggles on Monday, May 2 at the May Day Open-Mic Action protest organized by Stony Brook University’s Graduate Student Employee Union in the west campus’ Administration building. Wearing GSEU t-shirts, graduate students carried a blue and red flag from the Communication Workers of America and posters with messages like “no more starvation wages” and “SBU counts on contingents. Can quotas count on SBU?”
While police officers and administration workers watched the protest from the second floor, protestors congregated around the spiral staircase and the dinosaur skeleton that decorates the lobby. The main lobby was illuminated by the sunlight that penetrated through the glass ceiling. As the group shared their stories, they drew solidarity from their collective struggle.
When Doğa Öner, the chief steward of the GSEU and a Ph.D. student in the philosophy department, asked who wanted to be next to speak, Gregory Lella raised one of his hands while he held CWA’s flag with the other. He’s a Ph.D. candidate in history and said that his department is having trouble recruiting new students because they are receiving better offers from public universities outside New York State.
“You are losing that talent,” Lella said, looking at the administration workers who were watching the speech.
He pays in-state tuition, has no student debt and has sizable savings. Despite all of this, he can’t afford on campus housing.
“I came here with every privilege you could imagine and I’m having difficulty,” he said. “Now imagine international students. Now imagine the students who came here with college debts.”
A research assistant who asked to remain anonymous for protection gave a testimony in which he revealed he has considered dropping out and leaving all of his research behind for lack of a better option. Even after working extra hours, he was forced to take out loans to pay his rent, putting him thousands of dollars in debt.
“Thousands of dollars that the university will not pay, will not reimburse me back and that they do not care about,” he said.
He emphasized that he found himself in this situation even before the pandemic started and inflation began to rise. Now, in the middle of an economic crisis, his future remains uncertain.
“I don’t know how I’ll be able to afford the rest of my [stay] at Stony Brook,” he said.
Following the open-mic session, the group gathered behind a chair where Öner sat while he prepared to speak with President Maurie McInnis during the University Senate meeting — which was being held on Zoom. When GSEU had their chance to speak, University Senate President Richard Larson informed them that McInnis had to leave because the meeting ran late and she had another call. Ironic and disgusted laughs echoed in the main plaza as the group argued that the meeting was supposed to run until 5 pm and it was not 5 yet.
On April 21, GSEU delivered a letter with their requests to the President’s office and read a statement to those present. On that day, Öner said that any prospective Stony Brook student should be attentive to the financial issues that SBU graduate workers struggle with.
“Unless this changes, this is most likely something you are going to face too,” he said.
Öner explained that their request is simple: a living wage. The Economic Policy Institute Family Calculator determines this value to be a yearly $52,901 salary for an adult with no children living in Suffolk County. The extreme poverty level for Suffolk County is $27,300 per year, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Stony Brook University’s base stipend is $22,500 per year.
“We want to be treated like people who deserve to be able to live with dignity, be able to focus on our research — which is why we come to this university — and the simplest thing that the university can do to ensure that is to give us a living wage,” he said.
Öner added that the unsustainable conditions students face can be harmful from an educational perspective as well. He said that for the highest quality of education to be ensured, graduate workers need better living conditions.
“It’s not beneficial for anyone that this situation continues because we know that this affects everyone’s research and ability to teach,” he said.
This is not the first wave of protests from graduate student workers — in November 2021, the GSEU held a rally outside the Administration building. On a sunny fall day, the students gathered around the fountain where they read testimonies from different workers through a speaker.
One of these was from an anonymous student in the department of computer science, who wrote that they struggled to find an apartment that fit their necessities with their low stipend. Because of their financial situation, they lived with a verbally abusive roommate.
“I have become afraid of him to the point that I avoid being in the same room as him,” they wrote.
Also at the November protest, Andrew Dobbyn, the GSEU’s New York State president, said that 60% of instructional employees on campus are graduate students, but they represent only 9% of all the wages that Stony Brook pays every year.
“It’s not a budget issue,” Dobbyn said. “It’s a question of priority.”
Additionally, he said that there is a disproportionate discrepancy between TAs’ and RAs’ salaries and those of educators in higher positions like vice presidents and provosts. For example, while some graduate workers live below the extreme poverty level, Rick Gateau — Vice President of Student Affairs — earns roughly $321,379 a year.
Beyond the letter given to McInnis, the statement read and the testimonies shared, the GSEU wrote a “Living Wage Campaign” petition to demand higher stipends from the university.
According to the petition, many of these workers are forced to live in “unsafe or abusive homes,” make choices between basic necessities like maintaining a car or buying groceries and commit to extra jobs. They say such conditions lead to mental health problems that become an obstacle to student success, going against the university’s mission statement of providing high quality education and research.
“Anxious, hungry, worried and financially struggling graduate workers do not make good researchers or educators,” the union wrote.
Moreover, the petition reinforced what the anonymous research assistant said about how undignified living conditions might lead students to rethink their future. The petition explained that students dealing with hunger, anxiety and financial problems cannot perform to the best of their ability, forcing them to seek other paths for their lives.
“Our financial struggles turn the disciplines that we love into an exploitative reality, a source of so much financial misery and unhappiness that some of us consider leaving.”
So far, the petition has been endorsed by 13 local organizations, including the Graduate Student Organization’s senate and executive council, and has nearly 1,000 signatures from students, graduate workers, faculty and staff members.
Recently, the GSEU also launched their own publication, The Stony Brook Worker, which explains a little bit of the history of the Living Wage Campaign and updates its status. The campaign started one year ago and, by the end of fall 2021, was able to raise the base stipend, which was $20,000 per year, by 10%. However, with US inflation rates at 7%, this increase didn’t do much.
When asked for a comment regarding the GSEU’s requests, a spokesperson for the university said that they are aware of the discrepancy between high living cost and low stipends for graduate student employees and that this is a “longstanding issue.” The spokesperson said that the university supports wage increases, but ongoing negotiations between the GSEU and the Governor’s Office of Employee Relations are holding them back from acting at this time.
“We will continue to work to strengthen graduate education and support for our graduate student employees who are key partners in our quest for academic and research excellence,” they said.
Although the Governor’s Office of Employee Relations is the division of the university responsible to do this strengthening work, the GSEU’s petition calls on President McInnis personally to solve this problem.
“You have professional, moral and personal responsibilities to ensure a living wage for graduate workers,” the union wrote.
President McInnis has stated multiple times that she cares about graduate students’ financial issues. The petition demands the president fulfill a moral obligation to address this problem as the leader of the university, a point that Öner agreed with.
“She has the power to give thousands of people a dignified life, which should be what the administration is doing,” he said.
On May 2, GSEU members left the Administration building without hearing a response from McInnis. However, their protests have been constant since the Living Wage Campaign started, demonstrating that they will not give up on their cause until they are satisfied with their living conditions.
Melanie Formosa contributed reporting.