Union wants new contract

The Florida A&M University chapter of the Graduate Assistants Union is negotiating with a bargaining committee from the Board of Trustees to renew the graduate assistants contract.

FAMU-GAU Co-President Johnique Billups said negotiations began in March.

“Please understand that although there is not an officially approved GAU collective bargaining agreement, the graduate school via the university is operating on good faith with the agreement that existed prior to devolution,” said Chanta Haywood, dean of the School of Graduate Studies and Research and member of the Board of Trustees bargaining committee.

Last spring, graduate students and adjunct instructors were not paid for two months because no contracts were issued. Billups said the graduate assistants contract expired in 2005 and it has not been renewed.

The contract is supposed to be negotiated every three years.

The GAU falls under a larger statewide labor union called the United Faculty of Florida. James Muchovej, professor of ornamental horticulture in the College of Engineering Sciences, Technology and Agriculture, serves as president of the FAMU-UFF and the vice president for grievances.

“UFF is the arm on campus that negotiates contracts between the faculty and the Board of Trustees,” Muchovej said.

Ed Mitchell, executive director of UFF, said there would be no union without its members.

“Graduate assistant members report and consult constantly with staff and other union members,” Mitchell said. “We work together to make higher education funding and academic excellence a high priority in state government and in our communities.”

When the payroll problems were resolved in early March, Candi Churchill, the UFF service unit director for FAMU-GAU formally revived the FAMU chapter, said Billups.

“If it weren’t for graduate assistants, most professors wouldn’t do anything,” said Mushovej. “The university could not function without the labor graduate assistants provide as researchers and instructors, and the citizens of the state of Florida benefit from the advanced study that comes back to their communities through direct service and projects as well as indirect education and mentorship of undergraduates.” Muchovej said graduate assistants deserve respectable treatment and a sufficient wage.

“They should have tuition waivers and a lot more employee-type benefits like health care,” he said.

Despite all the support from the other unions, faculty and the statewide chapter of the UFF, the FAMU-GAU has not been able to reach a resolution with the BOT bargaining committee on a new contract.

Billups said the BOT submitted a proposal for a new contract that included health care in the spring.

The other rights the union would like for the graduate assistants are: the right to a working space, a mailbox, academic freedom to teach classes as they see fit once they fall under the department guidelines, the right to grieve and the right to have clear distinctions made between research assistants and teaching assistants.

“We have met with the union and agreed to everything but the insurance and the increase in pay,” Haywood said. “The fiscal ramifications of this request are enormous. We can’t make these decisions on our own; they have to be approved by the provost and the president.”

Haywood also indicated that the recent changes in university leadership and budget cuts have brought negotiations about stipend increases to a standstill.

The GAU is fighting to have all of its requests included in the new contract. FAMU has been using a statewide contract for graduate students for the past decade.

“This contract is an historic opportunity, since it will be the first local GAU contract,” Churchill said. “The graduate assistants at FAMU are as valuable as those at UF or at USF.”

The GAU is still waiting for the bargaining committee from the BOT to acknowledge their demands and make a counter-offer.

“We hope to settle and ratify the contract in the spring,” said Churchill.

Haywood said the Board of Trustees committee is doing its part. 

“They [BOT] really are waiting for us to provide them with informed recommendations, and we are working diligently on that,” Haywood said.

Billups said that if the union does not hear from the BOT bargaining committee, “we will have to mobilize and find an alternative way to have our demands met.”