Cover Story

Health care, a stipend she can live on, limited class sizes and someone to represent her interests so she can concentrate on her studies is how Melita Vaz describes the benefits of belonging to a graduate student union.

A fourth-year student working toward a doctorate in a joint program of psychology and social work at the University of Michigan, Vaz joined the Graduate Employees' Organization (GEO) more than three years ago.

Belonging to a union means someone else does for her the haggling about her compensation as a graduate student instructor, she says. For one, the union negotiated with the university a maximum class size of 30 students for the two Introduction to Psychopathology courses she teaches each semester. If those classes were larger, she'd have more papers to grade and more e-mails to answer, all while trying to pursue her own studies.

The health plan covering graduate instructors also makes Vaz happy. She does not pay a monthly premium, and co-pays for prescriptions are between $7 and $21.

"Having a good health plan allows you to sleep at night," Vaz says.

And thanks to her union-negotiated contract with the university, Vaz will complete her program loan-free: In return for devoting 20 hours a week for teaching duties, her teaching deal covers her tuition and includes a monthly stipend of $1,791 for living expenses.

Without a union membership, Vaz thinks she'd spend more time worrying about her compensation and health-care plan, and whether the university could change the agreement unilaterally. With the union, someone else worries about that for her, she says.

"It freed me up, to some extent, to focus on what I'm here to do," she says.

And as an international student, Vaz also appreciates that her union is looking into how international students are affected by U.S. immigration policies. Originally from India, she worked as a social worker in her native country for nine years before coming to the United States for school.

The GEO is one of 27 recognized bargaining units at different universities representing graduate students in the United States, says Mike Bader, president of GEO, which is part of the American Federation of Teachers and affiliated with the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations. During the spring semester, the union represented 1,625 employees in its bargaining unit. The majority of members pay about $98 per semester in union dues, Bader says.

Along with other measures last year during negotiations with the university, GEO won compensated time off for international students who need to attend immigration proceedings, either for themselves or for a family member. Moreover, graduate students' child-care subsidy, a concession the union won in 2002 that helps cover the cost of licensed day care, was increased by $50 to $1,750 per semester for a parent's first child, says Bader, with a similar increase bumping the subsidy to $900 per semester for a parent's second and third child.

-C. Munsey