Graduate student worker strike averted

USC and the GSWOC-UAW agreed on all outstanding issues Sunday evening.

Wage increases and a nondiscrimination clause were chief issues at the center of negotiations by the Graduate Student Worker Organizing Committee and USC. (Emma Silverstein / Daily Trojan)

Graduate student workers averted a strike Sunday evening when the Graduate Student Worker Organizing Committee and USC reached a tentative agreement on all of the union’s demands, notably on wage increases and a nondiscrimination clause.

The agreement comes after seven months of negotiation. Meanwhile, the University faced pressure to finalize a deal with a Nov. 28 strike date if a deal had not been reached.

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Andrew McConnell Stott, vice provost for academic programs and dean of the Graduate School, said the Sunday meeting was a culmination of good faith bargaining from the University that put the finishing touches on the agreement.

“I knew for a fact that the USC team was coming to the meetings highly motivated to bring this to a conclusion and resolve the contract,” Stott said. “I think this has been a respectful, professional and productive process throughout. I’m glad we were able to get it done.”

The deal addresses many contentious issues between the two parties, including wages and the nondiscrimination clause, which remained outstanding going into Sunday’s negotiations.

In the tentative agreement on wages, all graduate student workers will receive a wage supplement of $400 this year and a base pay salary of $40,000 next academic year –– a 12% increase. In the two subsequent years, the contract raises will increase by 3%.

Stepp Mayes, a member of the union’s bargaining team and a doctoral candidate studying environmental engineering, said a meeting of union membership took place at 4 p.m. Sunday afternoon to gauge priorities and discuss what type of deal the bargaining team would take to avoid a strike.

“The feedback we got [from members of the union] was the most important factor is raising that year one minimum, getting it to 40k,” Mayes said in an interview with the Daily Trojan. “We had to work hard to get there because USC administration did not want to give that to us. So getting to that 40k sooner was seen as the priority and obviously getting higher initial numbers, both of those percentages later have more impact.”

The first proposal of the day from the union on wages Sunday differed significantly from the eventual outcome. On Sunday morning, GSWs proposed a 14.8% raise for next academic year and then subsequent raises of 5.5% for the following two years.

Another priority issue for graduate student workers was the nondiscrimination article, and specifically the grievance process within that article.

Mayes said the gap on Sunday between the union and USC was surrounding the timeline of an Equity, Equal Opportunity, and Title IX investigation. Initially, USC was opposed to making issues surrounding harassment and discrimination grievable and arbitrable under the contract.

In this final deal, harassment and discrimination is grievable under the contract. GSWs were still concerned over having to wait to move to arbitration until after the EEO-TIX investigation was over.

“During that EEO-TIX internal process, we also have the ability to file our grievance, we have the ability to implement interim measures, and that is done with union representation,” Mayes said. “So that’s a big difference between where we were at a few days ago.”

The nondiscrimination clause now “includes access to independent arbitration in the case of work-related disputes, agreement to meet within 90 days of a complaint filed to discuss both interim measures and grievance resolution and establishing peer-led anti-discrimination training,” reads a statement on the USC Graduate School website.

The contract also provides graduate student workers guaranteed parental leave and health leave for one semester each, as well as five days a year for sick leave and five days a year for bereavement leave.

Additionally, the contract creates two new funds that all graduate student workers will be able to access. The first is a childcare fund with a cap of $1,800 made available for graduate students’ children under the age of 6 by applying to receive a portion of a limited yearly fund worth $400,000. The second is a $250,000 annual fund for short term hardship that caps at $2,500 per student per semester.

This contract is the first ever negotiated for graduate students at USC and came after graduate student workers first unionized in February. The union’s membership voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike in late October, and held a “last chance picket” Nov. 9 to show the USC administration their readiness to strike.

USC had been preparing contingency plans to final assessments in the scenario a strike would occur.

After the agreement, Stott said there should be no disruption to final exams.

The 15-member bargaining team unanimously endorsed the contract in a Nov. 27 statement, but, for the agreement to be ratified, the union’s membership must now vote in favor of the tentative agreement. The date and details of the ratification vote have yet to be announced.

“I would say that we are all really excited about this contract because in the private sector we have an industry leading contract that sets us up for bargaining in years to come,” said Jackie Johnson, a member of the bargaining team and fifth-year doctoral candidate studying cinema and media studies, “that I think sends a real message about the strength of the graduate student workers at USC, as we see a wave of unionization across higher education.”

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