Students walking past the Peace Quad witnessed “over 50 people” gather in a protest last Wednesday afternoon.
The protest was a part of the latest campaign by Binghamton University’s chapter of the Graduate Students Employee Union (GSEU). The “GSEU Binghamton Living Wage Campaign” officially began in late November last year, with a series of informational Instagram posts. The campaign’s goal is to increase graduate students’ wages to match the minimum wage for Broome County as a means of reaching “financial independence,” according to GSEU.
Emily Blakley, president of GSEU and a sixth-year graduate student pursuing a Ph.D. in cognitive and brain studies, said the current campaign is an evolution of a prior GSEU campaign against broad-based fees. According to Blakley, the topic of living wages was decided upon after discussions with members.
“In the beginning of the fall semester we talked to membership and found that there was a lot of interest in our wages,” Blakley said. “This is particularly a concern because, as we all know, inflation is going up like crazy and things like housing are also going up disproportionately. Our wages aren’t keeping up, and so that’s when we really started thinking about campaigning for a living wage.”
After settling on a topic, members of the GSEU were sent a survey with several questions about their wages. According to GSEU, those surveyed reported wages ranging from $10,788 to $26,874, with an average of around $19,428 per year. This is in comparison to Broome County’s minimum living wage of $34,574, calculated by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Living Wage Calculator.
Maggie Logan, chief steward of GSEU and a fourth-year graduate student pursuing a Ph.D. in anthropology, described the financial difficulties most graduate students may face.
“So, some of us are struggling and some of us are really struggling,” Logan said. “But none of us are making enough to live in this area, and oftentimes are contractually prohibited from getting second jobs. So, we are kind of stuck in this position where whatever the University is giving us has to be enough.”
The “GSEU Binghamton Living Wage Campaign” has featured multiple stages so far, with one of the prominent being “Petition for a Living Wage.” The petition has amassed over 450 signatures since its inception, with a stated end goal of 1,000 total signatures by its drop date in February.
According to Blakley, the petition is currently seeking endorsements and support from various other groups and graduate student unions outside of the BU community. Blakley described GSEU’s end goal of delivering the petition directly to BU administration to start a conversation.
“Hopefully we will be able to either directly speak to [BU President Harvey Stenger] or our provost, and say to them here are the amount of people who support us,” Blakley said. “Our next steps after that really depend on the response of the University itself, so if we get a really positive response we will likely start working with the administration to see what we can do and to see if we have an agreement that is agreeable on both sides.”
In response to the campaign, Ryan Yarosh, BU’s senior director of media and public relations, said the New York state budget will play a role in deciding further graduate student funding.
“Graduate students are a vital part of the research, scholarship and teaching missions of the University, and we understand the challenges and financial burdens they face,” Yarosh wrote in an email. “Currently, we are working on plans to raise stipends for a significant number of graduate students, but much will depend upon the state budget for the University. We urge everyone to support the governor’s proposals to increase revenue for the SUNY system, especially the University centers, which have graduate programs and fund graduate stipends.”
Alongside the petition and the protest, the GSEU also underwent a postcard campaign to help set their campaign into motion. During this, members wrote postcards to BU’s Board of Trustees with descriptions of things they cannot afford on their current salaries.
Logan emphasized that regardless of the success of these initial events, graduate students will continue to advocate for higher wages.
“It might not happen immediately, but we are not going away,” Logan said. “I am still going to need money. We are all still going to need money, and it is just going to get more and more expensive to live, so the urgency is going to only just increase as we do this.”