After student employees were asked to volunteer at the Student Employee Appreciation event, the Graduate Student Employees Union (GSEU) gathered outside the Mandela Room to protest.

The GSEU expressed their belief that the two-hour student appreciation event is “only lip service,” meant to project an appreciative image in the face of the many issues facing graduate student employees — including low wages, insufficient mental health resources and a lack of funding. Gathering at 3 p.m. with signs reading “Exploitation is not Appreciation‘’ and “Living Wage or Worker’s Rage,” some participants wore red t-shirts saying “SUNY Works Because We Do.” In response to the protest, Ryan Yarosh ‘02, MPA ‘09, the University’s senior director of media and public relations stated that the email meant to be sent out to supervisors asking them to volunteer was mistakenly sent to student supervisors. Many students were skeptical of his explanation.

“The minimum annual stipend that full-time [graduate assistants] and [teaching assistants] receive is $21,000, though Master’s students are often paid as low as $10,000,” Matt Midgett, a chief steward for GSEU and a second-year Ph.D. candidate studying English, wrote. “[Binghamton University] restricts graduate student employees from working outside of the University. You must request permission from the [University] to seek outside employment and [BU] prohibits international students from working outside the University.”

As attendees lined up and checked into the event, they were handed pamphlets outlining their demands to the University and encouraging student workers to get involved in the union. The pamphlets also included a QR Code allowing them to email Gov. Kathy Hochul to share community members’ support for the GSEU’s demands. The Wednesday protest comes after more than a year of petitioning for graduate student workers to receive a living wage.

“An email sent to supervisors asking them to volunteer for the event was inadvertently sent to student supervisors,” Yarosh wrote. “After being made aware of the error, the University clarified that the email was only intended for staff supervisors. The event is specifically designed as a celebration supported by professional staff, and faculty to highlight and honor the hard work our student employees perform and their dedication to the offices and departments they support. The University does not negotiate the GSEU contract — that is done by the state of New York.”

Midgett wrote that graduate students are paid well below the living wage standard which, in Binghamton, is $36,261. The University also covers 15 therapy sessions every year for graduate students, an amount that Midgett said was insufficient for those requiring consistent appointments for their mental health.

Student Appreciation Day was beach-themed, giving away branded volleyballs to attendees and offering free catered food. There were bowling pins made out of plastic water bottles and cups filled with sand, as well as other beach-themed decorations.

Lucas Williams, a rank-and-file member of GSEU and a fourth-year Ph.D. student studying mathematics, said he felt the University’s response to the protest was not sufficient.

“I think it’s wildly inappropriate to ask student workers to volunteer at Student Appreciation Day when we’ve been out of contract for nine months, and we get paid poverty wages anyway,” Williams said. “The idea that it’s an email mishap sounds like bullshit to me. And I mean, I think the most generous reading of that reply is that the University administration can’t work their email which is pretty embarrassing.”

The GSEU has been trying to bargain with the state of New York to update their contracts after they expired nine months ago. The additions they are requesting include a new article prohibiting NDAs in cases of sexual harassment along with revisions to some existing articles. Without their contracts, graduate students cannot access the Professional Development Fund which provides a budget for teaching materials and conferences. Graduate students are also not guaranteed a pay raise until their contracts become effective.

Kaushik Venkata, the GSEU’s community organizer and a fourth-year Ph.D. student studying English, said their demand has always been for University administration to help them win a better contract, as it will not just benefit graduate students but also the University, undergraduates and the greater Binghamton community.

“So it’s really unprofessional and disappointing that the University has just tried to brush this very important responsibility off by saying, ‘We’re not the ones doing it. The state is doing it,’” Venkata said. “I think the University [administration] has a lot of voice and power that they should be using responsibly in getting this state to do what’s good not only for its [graduate] workers, but for the whole community.”