Fresno State graduate students belonging to an academic student employment union hope efforts to increase membership numbers will pave the way to full or partial tuition fee waivers for graduate assistants.
The students, represented by the United Automobile, Aerospace, Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW), met last week in the Henry Madden Library.
“It’s about alleviating student debt,” said Carleigh Takemoto, an English graduate student in the Master of Fine Arts program and the campus coordinator for UAW local 4123 at Fresno State.
The UAW represents more than 8,000 student employees in the California State University system — including teaching assistants, instructional student assistants and graduate assistants.
For graduate students, working as a teaching associate is an integral part of receiving a degree, said Takemoto.
“You need teaching experience,” she said. “You absolutely need the experience if you want to be working at a university in the future. It’s essential to the rest of our lives.”
The union is able to represent all who are employed by Fresno State, but not everyone is a member. The UAW has a contract between the campus and employees for certain rights and protections the university does not provide. This summer, the union successfully fought for a pay raise for UAW local 4123 members, with a 2 percent increase for all teaching assistants, bumping their pay to $12.50 an hour.
Teaching assistants in the English MFA program, for example, teach introductory English courses — work that equates to that of an adjunct or full-time professor — but receive no benefits and have minimal pay in comparison with other instructors, such as adjuncts, Takemoto said.
“We all have packed classes. Last year I had 50 freshmen, and in peak times like midterms or finals, you’re working like 60 hours a week,” Takemoto said.
Emily Beals, head steward of UAW Local 4123 for Fresno State, ensures that contract agreements are met within the university.
“[They are] courses our tenured faculty would be unable to teach due to the sheer volume of the courses that are represented. They devote countless hours to class preparation, teaching and grading/assessing, all while they too are full-time students and get paid poverty wages to do this job,” said Beals, a full-time graduate student and teaching assistant.
For Takemoto and many other grad students, student debt is unavoidable. The nationwide student debt is more than $1 trillion, with 40 percent of the debt coming from graduate and professional degrees, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
“The amount of debt students accrue is incredible. We are going to be in debt for decades,” Takemoto said. “And doing what? We are contributing to higher education, and in doing so we are accruing this insane amount of debt. There is an inherent contradiction in the architecture of the CSU system.”
Many CSU campuses have approved pay increases, fee waivers and health benefits that have helped alleviate financial strains among graduate students. San Diego State provides its teaching assistants with full tuition fee waivers, she said.
Takemoto believes Fresno State should do the same.
Dr. Lynnette Zelezny, provost and vice president for academic affairs, said she welcomes a discussion with the union.
“Although graduate fee waivers are not currently offered at Fresno State, it is something that I would like to review in the near future,” Zelezny said in an email statement.
Takemoto said the biggest problem the local union faces is awareness and membership numbers. If numbers were high enough, a fee waiver petition would be formed for university President Joseph Castro’s consideration. But Takemoto says that an organization that has the word “union” in it carries a stigma.
“It scares the hell out of people. I’ve had people run away from me,” Takemoto said in regards to reaching out to students and faculty.
The goal this year is to increase membership numbers and engage in discussions with campus administration, but Takemoto said that it isn’t just about fee waivers for TAs, but the issue of student debt as a whole.
“It has huge implications for the future of student debt,” she said. “This isn’t just about Fresno State and a couple hundred TAs. This is a looming crisis in the future that is going to dictate our generation. We are going to be a generation ruled by debt that we got because we wanted to be educated. I am in debt because I want to be an educator.”