In the month before May Day—a holiday celebrating the historical gains of workers and the labor movement—workers have achieved major wins. Amazon and Starbucks workers in New York unionized. Even the South has seen important labor victories. On Tuesday, Apr. 12, the Board of Regents voted to eliminate the $450 per semester Special Institutional Fee for students of the University System of Georgia. The SIF was created in response to budgetary deficits caused by the 2009 economic recession. This budgetary decision effectively placed more of the financial burden of higher education on students. For the past three years, graduate students of the United Campus Workers of Georgia have fought to eliminate this fee. Not only is it by far the largest fee for students, but for graduate students, it was also the most egregious. At UGA, the SIF reportedly funded graduate student stipends and subsidized graduate insurance. This meant that graduate students were paying to work and subsidizing their own subsidy.
The campaign to eliminate the SIF was not easy, and it met resistance from both UGA and the BOR. The UGA administration failed to respond to not only the UCWGA graduate committee’s emails, but also to the Graduate Student Association’s Student Advocacy and Campus Issues committee after it overwhelmingly passed a resolution calling for the elimination of the SIF. When a similar resolution was presented before the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences’ Faculty Senate, the graduate school dean unsuccessfully attempted to undermine its passage. In October 2019, graduate committee members requested to speak at the BOR’s monthly meeting to share stories about our financial precarity, which the SIF was exacerbating, and present a petition against the SIF with over 1,000 signatures. The BOR denied the request because the meeting was supposedly about other issues. However, for the next two years, similar requests by union members and representatives of the Student Advocacy committee to speak at the BOR’s April meeting on fees were denied, often without justification. The message was clear: UGA administration and the BOR, who are responsible for promoting the interest of higher education students in Georgia, were not interested in hearing from their students.
As dedicated hard workers, graduate students persevered. With the help of faculty and staff from around the state, we continued to hold rallies, write op-eds and speak with state legislators about the SIF. The effort paid off. In spring 2021, UGA announced a 4-5% stipend increase for graduate students to specifically offset the SIF. And on Apr. 12, the SIF was finally eliminated.
Looking back, I remember being constantly dismissed by the UGA administration, who stated that eliminating the SIF was simply not possible. The United Campus of Workers of Georgia—the union for all public higher education employees of Georgia—made the impossible possible. Together, and only together, university workers can win a more just work environment that we all deserve. It is time for UGA and the state to recognize the value that all of its employees contribute to the University System of Georgia by paying them a living wage.
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