By Caitlyn Ewers
American universities have long been considered platforms of civic engagement, places where like-minded and passionate people band together to challenge perceived injustices and to promote the causes they deem worthiest. In this tradition of political and social activism, many graduate students in this country are shifting the focus of their passions inward and are becoming ever more vocal in their desire to change universities’ treatment of students in higher education.
The nation’s first official labor union for graduate students, New York University’s Graduate Student Organizing Committee (GSOC), is partnered with the United Auto Workers and was certified in 2000 with the goal of increasing its members’ salaries and benefits; because while a graduate student’s principle university focus is obtaining an advanced degree, he or she is also very often employed by the same institution.
Graduate students may be engaged by their institutions in a variety of capacities, from teaching associate to research assistant, and they are typically compensated with a stipend or tuition relief; they are not recognized as official employees according to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), and consequently their institutions are not required to compensate them at rates in accordance with standard labor laws.
Despite the NLRB’s classification of graduate students, the IRS does regard graduate teaching and research assistants as employees, and the resultant discrepancy has led to frustration on the part of both students and their universities.
A recent and particularly impassioned response to an issue created by this inconsistency occurred at the University of Missouri, which unexpectedly eliminated its health insurance subsidies for graduate students. Previously, these stipends were paid to those students who both opted in for insurance and were engaged in a qualifying fellowship or assistantship.
The university cited the imposition of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) as the cause for the sudden and unpleasant announcement, which was delivered via university email less than two weeks before the beginning of the fall term; simply put, because the IRS considers graduate students to be employees of the university, the University of Missouri cannot provide them with funds explicitly for the purpose of purchasing health insurance on the individual market.
This rule was implemented by the IRS to prevent employers from offering health reimbursement or flexible spending accounts to employees rather than providing the employer-sponsored health insurance required under the ACA. The University of Missouri does indeed offer an insurance plan to its staff and faculty, but graduate students are not eligible for the same.
Graduate students reacted rapidly to the news that their health care stipends had vanished, organizing a rally in an effort to catalyze change and to create the Forum on Graduate Health Insurance to facilitate negotiation with university administration.
Before the beginning of classes, the University of Missouri announced that it would distribute one-time fellowships to graduate student employees in amounts corresponding to their status as domestic or international students and to the nature of their full-time equivalent appointments.
In order to avoid the very same issue that forced them to withdraw their original subsidies, the additional stipend is in no way connected to individual-market health insurance plans, although it certainly might be used for such. The fellowships are only intended to be offered for the 2015-2016 school year.
Negotiations will undoubtedly continue between the university and the Forum on Graduate Health Insurance, which has become the Forum on Graduate Rights and is considering going the way of the GSOC and forming an official graduate student workers union.
Both parties rely on each other in a literal symbiosis, and that relationship will be at its healthiest when the lines of communication are open and each considers the other’s limitations and needs.
Caitlyn Ewers is a senior at Creighton University majoring in Latin and art history. Creighton University is home to the Beta of Nebraska Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.