August 15, 2023
From Fight Back News

Tallahassee, FL – On August 9, Florida State University (FSU) and Graduate Assistants United (FSU-GAU), the labor union of graduate assistants (GAs) at FSU, reached an agreement on several articles in the collective bargaining agreement after several months of bargaining. The articles will now have to be ratified by the bargaining unit through an election that will be conducted in the coming weeks.

The wins include: $250 per semester in fee relief for GAs on a 0.5 full time equivalent (FTE) or above appointment; $125 per semester in fee relief for GAs on a 0.25-0.49 FTE appointment; an increase to the minimum stipend from $16,250 to $18,000 effective fall 2023; a 5% across-the-board raise effective fall 2023; an increase to the minimum stipend from $18,000 to $18,700 effective fall 2024; and a 4% across-the-board raise effective Fall 2024.

This agreement contains historic gains for GAs, headlined by the implementation of student fee relief. Despite being workers at the university, GAs are required to pay student fees their entire tenure at the university. These fees can reach over $1000 a semester which is a large percentage of most GAs’ stipends.

Furthermore, international GAs are especially burdened by student fees because they cannot establish Florida residency, meaning they have to pay out-of-state fees which are arbitrarily higher than in-state fees. What this amount to is widespread discrimination on the part of FSU (among other Florida public universities) against its international workforce. For these reasons, achieving fee relief and elimination has been one of GAU’s main bargaining objectives since its inception in 2008. The foot is in the door now with fee relief being a permanent fixture of the contract.

The percent raises are the highest GAU has ever been able to bargain for and the minimum stipend will increase more over the course of the contract than it has in the last five years. This was a direct result of a constant back-and-forth with FSU on whether to agree to a two-year contract versus a one-year, culminating in a last minute push by GAU’s bargaining team. The current contract was set to expire in 2024; thus, another bargaining season was scheduled this spring. FSU offered instead to extend the current contract by one more year and essentially forgo the spring full-book bargaining.

It is important to understand the hostile environment in Florida that has been brought upon by one of the most reactionary state legislative sessions in recent memory. Bills such as SB 256 are direct attacks on labor organizing. Florida has been a right-to-work state since 1943, and the Florida state government criminalized public sector unions organizing strikes or work-slowdowns in the 1960s. On top of that, the state has now banned union deductions from being taken directly out of paychecks and requires public sector unions to have at least 60% membership in order to recertify each year. This law went into effect on July 1, and GAU needs to reach the 60% threshold by March 21, 2024, which would be in the middle of the bargaining season. GAU currently sits around 20% membership density, so decertification is a likely possibility.

This deal was badly needed as GAs are facing high inflation, increasing housing costs and stagnant wages. While these wins will give relief to many GAs, the simple fact is that the fundamental issues GAs face have not been sufficiently addressed. While great gains have been made with the minimum stipend, it is still about half of a living wage. Furthermore, FSU did not give any concessions in other articles such as health insurance despite the fact that most GAs are under-insured and still have to pay a significant percent of premiums that do not include dental, vision, or dependent coverage.

GAU’s job is far from over and its presence is needed now more than ever. At a time where Ron DeSantis and the Republican Party are carrying out constant racist, sexist and anti-LGBTQ attacks, organized labor is key to fighting back. GAU’s full resources and attention will be put towards recruiting dedicated organizers and getting to that 60% membership threshold. While the situation is difficult, there is confidence that GAU can ride the momentum of this historic agreement into a large-scale organizing effort that has yet to be seen at FSU.