Binghamton University runs on the labor of its graduate workers. They deserve to be paid enough to live comfortably — they are asking to be paid enough to live. The University has, so far, been resistant to that demand. As things stand, BU’s graduate assistants (GAs) and teaching assistants (TAs) make, on average, about $15,000 under the local living wage, with those making the least earning under $11,000 per year, which is below the national poverty line, and those making the most still not meeting the threshold for a living wage by several thousands of dollars.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Living Wage Calculator defines a living wage as “the minimum income standard that, if met, draws a very fine line between the financial independence of the working poor and the need to seek out public assistance or suffer consistent and severe housing and food insecurity. In light of this fact, the living wage is perhaps better defined as a minimum subsistence wage for persons living in the United States.” In Broome County, the Living Wage Calculator sets the living wage for a single-adult household at $31,896 per year.

It has long been widely accepted — if somewhat sheepishly — that overwork and bad pay are to be expected in graduate school, and that this unwritten rule is part of a deal that GA or TA workers have implicitly consented to in exchange for the privilege of leading a “life of the mind,” or at least landing a potentially well-compensated job sometime in the future. While this process was never particularly fair, the changing job market, rapidly rising prices of basic necessities and growing diversity of graduate-student workers over recent years has made it especially condemnable.

I have spent most of my life in jobs that society has expected me to perform out of my passion for the work or for its beneficiaries. So, I’ve heard all the classic counterarguments to decent pay — “You’re here to study — if you consider the cost of tuition, you actually make quite a lot more than what appears on your paychecks” or “you must not care about the education you provide your students if all you can think about is the money you want to be making.” It’s a bit of a double bind — am I a student being lavished with the benefits of a great education and the time and resources to perform my own research? Or am I an education worker whose primary obligation is to my undergraduate students?

Ultimately, these counterarguments distract from two essential facts. My working conditions are my students’ learning conditions, and my research is part of my work. Living paycheck to paycheck is an immense drain on my time, energy and self-esteem, and despite my best efforts, this has consequences for the quality of attention I can give my students or my research.

This school year, the BU chapter of the Graduate Student Employees Union (GSEU) has launched a campaign for a living wage in an effort to improve this untenable situation for both graduate and undergraduate students. In a petition that has garnered over 1,400 signatures, BU GSEU members have pointed out the inextricability of graduate-student workers’ own studies and their teaching or other paid work at the University, in addition to reminding the campus community of the incalculable value of grad student labor to the University.

While it should come as no surprise to anyone who sees the discrepancy between the Broome County living wage and the range of incomes provided to BU graduate workers, GSEU also confirmed in a fall 2022 survey that over 40 percent of BU grad workers are unable to afford adequate housing.

Graduate-student workers at multiple SUNYs, or State Universities of New York — The University at Buffalo, Stony Brook University, College of Environmental Science and Forestry and Upstate Medical University — have recently won major wage hikes after similar campaigns. BU is fully capable of following suit. If the administration refuses or claims to be unable to do so, all members of the campus community should be asking serious questions about who this institution is meant to serve and how. A good education for all BU students depends on the material security of graduate workers.

To support GSEU workers in their fight for a living wage, sign our petition and join us for a Vestal Campus rally as we deliver our signed petition to the office of the president on Wednesday, Feb. 15 on the Peace Quad.

Camille Gagnier is a graduate student in the Translation Research and Instruction Program.