SBU GSEU’s Living Wage Campaign - A Biography

Anna Zarra Aldrich, Debjani Chakrabarty, Matthew Dickinson, Matthew Heidtmann, and Amy Kahng

It is no secret that wages for working people have remained stagnant for decades, while the cost of living has precipitously increased. As one of the most vulnerable classes of workers, graduate students at U.S. universities are no exception to this trend. While our employers have fully embraced neoliberal axioms and premises under which they continue to marketize and commodify higher education, many graduate students are unable to sustain themselves. Grad student workers at Stony Brook University in particular feel the pinch of rising living expenses and inflation. Between stipends that are far below poverty thresholds and a cost of living index that is about 150 percent of the national average, SBU grad student workers have been vocal about the unsustainable nature of these developments. Our efforts to achieve a living wage reflect all of these struggles. This article outlines a timeline of the Living Wage Campaign.

SBU GSEU Organizers at 1st Union Monday

October 2020 - Abolition of Broad-Based Fees

One of the major wins of recent years for grad student workers at Stony Brook was the abolition of the university’s “broad-based fees.” Following a culmination of several years of organizing on the part of the Graduate Student Employees Union (GSEU), and a particularly intensive few months in the fall of 2020 during which over 550 graduate students withheld paying their fees that cumulatively amounted to over $600,000, Stony Brook administration announced that “the university will provide scholarships to cover the broad-based fees of all students on graduate tuition scholarships in terminal degree programs beginning Spring 2021.” This fee scholarship was a huge victory for grad student workers, and it essentially amounted to the equivalent of a 10 percent pay raise for most grads. While this was a massive win for graduate organizing at SBU, Stony Brook graduate worker wages still only ranked 57th out of 63 members of the Association of American Universities, when taking into account the cost of living (a/o November 2020).

April 2021 - Living Wage Campaign Launch

Facing the reality of these unsustainable wages and the concomitant hardships experienced, grad student workers led by GSEU began organizing their Living Wage Campaign. The first step was to collect data. To this end, a survey of Stony Brook graduate student workers revealed harrowing statistics: 

- 85% of respondents indicated that their stipends are not enough to sustain themselves; 

- 99% of respondents indicated that their stipend is not enough to “live comfortably, and to focus on one’s research, without financial worry and stress”; 

- 79% of respondents have suffered financial problems during their time at Stony Brook; 

- 68% of respondents had their teaching or research impacted because of financial problems;

- 71% of respondents had their mental health impacted by financial problems;

and 99.6 % of respondents think that the base stipend is lower than what could be considered a living wage (a/o 4/5/21). 

Following this survey, GSEU formally launched the Living Wage Campaign on April 5, 2021 with a petition for a living wage and an email action to the President’s office, demanding a living wage. 

Graduate workers at a sit-in for a living wage in the Administration Building

September 2021 - Email Actions

In the fall semester, the Living Wage Campaign ramped up with several email actions to the president’s office as well as promotion of the Living Wage Campaign petition. 

September 2021 - Delivery of 10 ft-long Living Wage Campaign Petition

By the end of September 2021, there were already over 600 signers of the Living Wage Campaign petition. GSEU members printed off the 10 ft-long list of signers and hand delivered it to President McInnis’s office. This action brought publicity, including coverage from the Statesman.

October 2021 - Boycott of President McInnis’ Inauguration Symposium on “Tackling inequality in Higher Education”

President McInnis was given ten days to respond to the hand-delivered list. After receiving no response, on the eleventh day (October 11th, 2022) GSEU announced the boycott of the President’s symposium on social media. On the same day, GSEU received a response from the administration requesting a meeting in order to discuss the living wage and the boycott. While GSEU revoked the initial boycott, thirty GSEU members made themselves known by attending the October 23 symposium wearing red union t-shirts.

November 2021 - Wage Increase Announced

On November 15, the President’s office sent an email instituting a wage increase as a result of the GSEU Living Wage Campaign. This increase raised the base-stipend level for 9-month appointments to $22,500. The GSEU appreciated that this was a step in the right direction, but still not a living wage. As a result, GSEU announced that the Living Wage Campaign would continue, and the next step  would be participating in a campus-wide rally on November 17.

November 2021 - Rally For Respect And Fair Wages

The SBU Labor Council organized the “Rally for Respect and Fair Wages” in order to discuss and collectively work toward fixing stagnant wages and declining working conditions, addressing the rise in the cost of living, and finding solutions to dwindling state support. The rally was held at the fountain in front of the Administration Building and was attended by GSEU, CSEA Local 614, UUP Health Sciences and UUP. Speakers from each participating union spoke on each of our specific wage and labor issues.

April 2022 - Grade-in for a Living Wage

On April 4, the GSEU organized an in-person action in the Administration Building as part of the Living Wage Campaign. The campaign presented a public press statement, and grads marched to President McInnis’ office to submit a demands letter. Workers then remained in the Admin Building, where we held office hours, graded assignments, and discussed the campaign.  

May 2022 - May Day Protest

As part of a “May Day Action for Living Wage,” GSEU organized an open mic, in front of the Admin Fountain, for graduate student workers to share their experiences of financial struggles. 

May 2022 - Launch of The Stony Brook Worker

The inaugural May Day edition of The Stony Brook Worker was published in Spring 2022. Editors in chief Doğa Öner and Kaya Turan worked with Assistant Editors Lindsay DeWitt and Amy Kahng, Consulting Editor Dr. Matthew Heidtmann, and Designer Amy Kahng to create the publication. The issue introduced the SBU GSEU, covered SBU and labor news, and featured articles on local housing issues, the graduate fee elimination victory, and May Day. The publication concluded with reviews on the art exhibition, Printing Solidarity: Tricontinental Graphics from Cuba and the Global 60’s in the Global South Conference, which were both hosted at Stony Brook University.

Fall 2022 - Email Actions

Beginning September 8 and following throughout the semester, GSEU began a series of email actions directed at administration, informing that graduate worker wages are well below the lowest poverty level noted for Suffolk County and demanding an immediate increase to stipends. Utilizing data from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, these actions highlighted that the base stipend fell $7000 short of the lowest poverty level income bracket as well as conveyed findings from the GSEU’s internal surveys that revealed ninety percent of responding graduate students believed the base stipend was far too low to subsist on.

September 2022 - Launch of Union Mondays: Solidarity for a Living Wage

In mid-September, GSEU began a series of weekly actions taking place each Monday. Union members gathered in front of the Administration Building and distributed flyers, informational material, and copies of The Stony Brook Worker. Members informed campus community members of the Living Wage Campaign. These actions continued throughout the semester. As of the frist week of the spring semester, the weekly actions have taken place for nineteen weeks.

October 2022 - Picketing at University Senate Meeting

GSEU members picketted the University Senate Meeting that was attended by President McInnis, administrators, and faculty. GSEU members informed those in attendance of the financial conditions as grad workers, reiterating calls to end these unacceptable circumstances.

October 2022 - Action at the Presidential State of the University Address

Prior to the SOTU address, GSEU members gathered outside of the Staller Main Stage to chant and distribute flyers informing attendees of the financial conditions under which Stony Brook graduate students are working as they entered the Staller auditorium. GSEU members then took seats in small groupings scattered throughout the auditorium. During a pause in President McInnis’s address, graduate workers one by one began announcing various hardships that occur because of living in poverty wages. The declarations by graduate workers forced the campus president to delay the remainder of her speech until these student speeches were completed.

October 2022 - Scare-In for a Living Wage

On Halloween, GSEU held a “Scare-in” action inside the Administration Building. Members gathered, some dressed in costumes related to the Living Wage Campaign such as blood-plasma selling grad students, vampire administrators, and, Maurie Moneybags. Graduate workers made a public address describing the “horrors” of living on poverty wages. 

Graduate workers attending the December 2022 University Senate Meeting on Zoom

November 2022 - University Senate Meeting on Zoom

While initially organized to be an in-person meeting, the format was changed last minute to a virtual meeting. Over thirty graduate workers joined the Zoom senate meeting sporting Zoom backgrounds and profile icons that read, “Graduate Workers Deserve a Living Wage.” 

November 2022 - Petition Launch, “Make the Next Raise a Living Wage, not an Average Wage”

In early November, GSEU organizers launched a new petition to “Make the Next Raise a Living Wage, Not an Average Wage,” in response to Provost Lejuez’s suggestion of providing graduate students with a maximum $2,000-$3,000 raise to bring the stipends up to the average of AAU public universities. While acknowledging that Stony Brook University graduate student workers’ stipends are not competitive compared to peer institutions and low compared to the cost of living, his proposal for stipend increases does not sufficiently address these facts. This proposal, which would raise stipends to $24,000-$25,000 over the next two years, would still put graduate student workers below the $30,500 extreme poverty level for Suffolk County. The petition calling for a living rather than average wage has gathered more than 500 signatures. 

November 2022 - Sit-in for a Living Wage, Not an Average Wage

GSEU members held a series of sit-ins in the Administration Building to continue to put pressure on administrators to acknowledge needs for a living, not average wage. Members chanted in the halls and held signs with slogans such as “Don’t Undervalue Me.” 

November 2022 - Meeting with Provost Lejuez 

GSEU and RAU leadership met again with Provost Lejuez to discuss raises to grad worker stipends. The Provost informed union leadership that the administration is considering raising stipends by $3,000-$4,000 over the next two years. These meager raises would not begin to take effect until the upcoming summer. Provost Lejuez’s calculation is based on the average wage of public AAU universities. By the time this proposed increase would take effect, the average stipends, as well as the cost of living, will increase rendering the raises null. 

December 2022 - Action at the University Senate Meeting 

GSEU members gathered before the December 5 University Senate meeting and marched to the Wang Center where the meeting took place, chanting messages and holding signs. The action continued right outside the meeting room location, and grad student workers handed out flyers to attendees and passers-by. GSEU had a spot on the meeting’s agenda and addressed administrators’ poverty wage plan to increase stipends to between $25,000 and $26,000 over the next two years. During the meeting, grad workers received support from Prof. Jonathan Sanders (School of Journalism) who called on President McInnis and the administration to do something for Stony Brook’s struggling grad students. GSEU Business Agent Doğa Öner asked the University Senate and meeting attendees how grad student workers should sustain themselves if they are not paid a living wage while also being restricted from taking up other sources of income, an issue that is particularly problematic for international grad student workers. Öner’s question was rejected with the remark that “speakers are not able to ask questions during the University Senate meeting.”

December 2022 -  Holiday Postcards to President McInnis 

During the holiday season, GSEU organized an action to send President McInnis holiday postcards encouraging her to pay graduate student workers a living wage and describing the financial hardships we face without one. 

Concluding Thoughts

Since the formation of our union, the GSEU has worked to improve the lives of graduate workers. Years of actions and united effort led to victories, like the elimination of broad-based fees. Graduate workers know they are underpaid, in each survey overwhelming majorities agree that we are not paid adequately for the work we do. The GSEU’s ongoing actions to advance our shared goal of obtaining a living wage will continue in 2023, leading us into our upcoming bargaining with the university.