As KU grad students negotiate hours and benefits, some look to union

KU forums for graduate students:

12:30-1:30 p.m. Monday in the Jayhawk Room, Kansas Union

2-3 p.m. Tuesday in Woodruff Auditorium, Kansas Union

noon-1 p.m. Thursday in the Mallott room, Kansas Union

Some Kansas University graduate students are looking to a long-dormant union as a way to strengthen their voice and bargaining power at a time when their work schedules and benefits are at stake.

KU has said the university is considering a reduction of total graduate student work hours to adapt to the Affordable Care Act, which requires employers to provide group health coverage to employees working 30 hours a week or more.

Most teaching and research assistants work 20 hours a week under the terms of their appointment, but many work second jobs on campus to supplement their pay. The proposal to limit total graduate student work hours to 20 per week would be a sizable hit to many students’ income.

Last week graduate students learned about a detailed draft of the proposed policy on cuts to work hours dated Jan. 21, 2014, causing a new wave of anxiety for students.

Looking for a voice

When the work hours issue first came up, hundreds of graduate students responded by signing petitions asking administration to keep their work hours intact. Since then, some have seen the need for yet stronger leverage.

A labor union for KU graduate teaching assistants has been gaining new interest. Founded in the 1990s, the Graduate Teaching Assistants Coalition is affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers. But it existed largely as an empty organizational shell at KU for the past several years, with no active leadership and scant membership or presence at the university, current members say.

In recent weeks a handful of graduate students have been trying to create a new core of leaders for GTAC. They have also been working to boost membership, which has been helped along by the work hours issue.

“This has been a big catalyst in getting people to sign up for the union and getting people involved,” said Shane Willson, a Ph.D. student in sociology and one of the students involved in trying to reenergize GTAC.

“It was clear we didn’t really have a voice,” said Laurie Petty, also a Ph.D. student in sociology involved in reviving the union.

Willson said he personally has signed up 20 new members since an April meeting among graduate students from several departments to discuss the union, and more are signing up through other channels. The union will host another open informational session for grad students on May 9 at 3 p.m. in the Ecumenical Christian Ministries on Oread Ave.

New contract

Willson and Petty will be part of a GTAC team negotiating the graduate teaching assistant job contract with KU beginning next week.

KU opened negotiations with the American Federation of Teachers, in April. Gavin Young, a KU spokesman, said KU wanted to address teaching assistant salaries covered by the contract, but he declined to comment on specifics before negotiations. The negotiations are unrelated to the work hours issue, Young said.

KU’s longterm strategic plan calls for increasing internal and external funding for doctoral students, and Willson and Petty said they hope that means KU wants to increase wages through the negotiations.

They also hope the negotiation process will encourage more grad students to sign up to the union as a way to have a greater say in their compensation. “This is why we need a strong union,” Willson said. “We need real input. We’re real employees. We’re grown people.”


In a March statement to graduate students about the work hours proposal, Diane Goddard, KU vice provost for administration and finance, said the university was committed to providing students with information and gathering their input before making a decision.

Next week the university will hold open forums for graduate students to discuss the work hours issue with administration.