UF Union defends tuition waivers and fights for health care
November/December 2001

The UF Graduate Assistants United, the union representing all 3,300 of the teaching and research assistants at the University of Florida, held a Health Care rally with a Halloween theme as part of their demonstration on the Plaza of the Americas on October 31st.

Over one hundred graduate assistants, undergraduates, staff and faculty came out in support. "It's scary and creepy that we, the people who teach over 40% of the undergraduates here at UF, don't have health care" said Frank Goeddeke, GAU Co-President. "Our action this week is designed to further our demand for health care, as well as to highlight the threat to our fee waivers. Without the graduate assistants, the teaching mission of this university will crumble" Goeddeke said.

The state was threatening to take away graduate employee tuition waivers, something the union won in the 1980s and has had to constantly defend. "In one fell swoop, the Legislature was threatening to destroy years of hard work to improve the quality and status of Florida's premier university. It's more frightening than any costume we could wear, but we will try to convey that to the campus community" Goeddeke said, adding that "We hope to get undergraduates involved, since it is the quality of their education here at UF that is directly threatened by these cuts, and by UF's continued refusal to offer us health care." Without Fee Waivers many of UF's graduate students would have to leave the program. "Who will teach the classes this spring is anybody's guess" Goeddeke said, adding that university officials have made it quite clear how central the graduate students are to both the teaching and research mission of UF.

The state legislator is now backing down on tuition waiver cuts as part of the "budget crisis." (As union leaders like Tom Summers of the Central Labor Council pointed out, there would not be any "crisis" if the governor and legislator stopped giving money to the very wealthy in tax cuts). The state would have to break their contract with GAU to take away waivers, which would mean a lawsuit and a lot of protest. UF President Young and now the legislators are claiming they refuse to cut fee waivers out of their commitment to graduate education, but the truth is that because of the union movement across Florida campuses-they can't.

The threat of cuts have, however, already cost graduate employees jobs across the state. The Sociology Department-which is the most popular major and teaches the most undergraduate courses but doesn't bring in the corporate money other departments bring in-was told to cut 6% of its budget. Over half the jobs for graduate assistants were cut, forcing some to leave the program and others to scramble for private loans and other jobs. GAU Secretary Candi Churchill, lost her position and says "they basically forced me out after I pinch-hit for the department on several occasions and received very high teaching evaluations. With no income or waiver, I have to try to finish my thesis in a month and just try to graduate early." Students are meeting regularly to demand yearly contracts and more secure funding.

The demonstration featured a costume contest with prizes for best costume, scariest costume, and costume with the best health care theme. A union member in the English department won the free semester of health insurance GAU gave away. "The university won't give it to us, but, thanks to this contest, at least one graduate assistant will get some coverage" Goeddeke said.

GAU has been negotiating with the university for health care for over ten years and this action kicked off a renewed campaign. Unlike the vast majority of UF's peer-institutions, UF offers no health care to its graduate teaching assistants and research assistants. The University of Michigan and University of Wisconsin (who have health benefits) are fighting for dental and vision care, domestic partner benefits, child care for employees, and better pay. GAU sees health benefits as a basic right for everyone, not all TAs and encourages students and community members to complain to President Young.

For more information about the Graduate Assistants United, contact:
GAU at (352) 392-0274. Their office is at 238 Norman Hall,
University of Florida.

Craig Rinne, GAU Grievance Officer, talks to a fellow graduate student employee at an October 31 rally held by the union. Members came in costume to demonstrate their need for health insurance coverage.

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