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‘Poverty wages have got to go.’ UK union calls for better pay, health care for graduate workers

Originally published on the Lexington Herald-Leader on April 20, 2022 at 3:23 PM


Calling for higher pay and access to more comprehensive health care for graduate workers, members of the University of Kentucky union marched across campus on Wednesday afternoon.

Marching to chants of “Poverty wages have got to go,” the group of around 100 people delivered a copy of a petition to UK President Eli Capilouto’s office, although Capilouto was not in his office at the time. Among other requests, the petition calls for a $20,000 minimum stipend per academic year for graduate employees, as well as annual increases to the stipend, and comprehensive health insurance for graduate employees, including dental and vision coverage. The petition had more than 600 signatures in support, according to the union. The march happened one week after United Campus Workers, the union for UK employees, hosted a “phone zap,” directing calls to Capilouto and other administrators’ offices last week.

Goeun Lee, a teaching assistant in the anthropology department, said she faces barriers as an international graduate student. Her visa only allows her to work for the university, and her stipend is around $15,000 per year. Lee said while she is grateful for what UK provides, the rising cost of rent in the area has put pressure on her financially. “The stipend from the school is not enough,” Lee said. “When you think about inflation, and the housing prices spiking up around campus, how am I supposed to survive?”

In addition to her rent, Lee also has to pay for food, books and other school expenses. Because of her visa, her position at UK has been the only job she can get, she said. “I can’t work here outside of the university, and the university is not giving you enough money to survive,” Lee said. In a statement, UK spokesperson Jay Blanton said that graduate students “are important members of our community and, in so many ways, the future leaders of higher education.” “We take their welfare and advancement seriously,” Blanton said. “Issues of compensation for graduate students, who work as instructors and in other academic capacities, can be complicated as decisions on stipends are made at the college by college level and discipline by discipline. And those certainly vary depending upon a host of factors. However, over the last year and again this year the university has incentivized colleges to increase funds for graduate students as we know how valuable these young scholars are to the university as current teachers and as future faculty.” Earlier this month, Capilouto announced an increase in the compensation plan for employees, which proposes a pay increase for UK employees. In a news release, the union said it is currently unclear if that will also apply to graduate student employees.

“Graduate workers are the backbone of the university,” said Rachel Davis Young, a graduate teaching assistant in the sociology department. “We teach students, grade their work, and conduct the research that the university builds its reputation on. ... The least it can do is pay us a living wage, give us affordable, comprehensive healthcare, and treat us with respect.”