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Working Grad Students Ask California State University For Higher Pay

By Megan Burks

Lydia Wood sits in the student union at San Diego State University, July 13, 2016.

Graduate students who teach classes at San Diego State, Cal State San Marcos and other California State University campuses make as little as $500 a month.

Graduate students who teach classes at San Diego State, Cal State San Marcos and other California State University campuses are calling for higher pay. They began negotiating a new union contract last month and will take on the sticky subject in the coming weeks.

Most graduate assistants earning their master's degrees take home about $500 a month after taxes, according to UAW Local 4123 representatives. Teaching assistants who are typically earning their doctoral degrees see about $1,200 each month after taxes.

"That has to cover rent, that has to cover food, all of the costs of living in a city like San Diego," said Lydia Wood, a doctoral candidate in San Diego State University's geography department and a member of the bargaining committee negotiating with CSU administrators this summer.

Graduate and teaching assistants typically lead large introductory courses and breakout labs and seminars. They grade papers for professors in addition to their own. Doctoral students also often work on research projects.

Wood said the salaried employees are often contracted to work 10 hours a week but end up putting in extra hours.

"I think there needs to be a system where we're better supported and our wages actually equate to the work that we do for the university," Wood said.

Toni Molle, director of public affairs for the CSU chancellor's office, said the system values its employees and will put in a good-faith effort at the bargaining table.

"The State’s final budget agreement for fiscal year 2016-17 gave the CSU 60 percent of the funding requested," Molle said in an email. "CSU is doing the best it can to improve compensation with limited resources."

The state added $154 million to the CSU budget this year after slashing nearly $1 billion during the recession. It has steadily increased spending on higher education since voters approved Proposition 30 to increase taxes.

This month the CSU system gave members of the California Faculty Association a 7 percent raise. Their salaries were frozen during the recession.

Wood said it's time for the CSU system to show the same support for its academic student employees.

"This is a system that's supposed to be about establishing affordable, equitable, accessible education to really lift students out of poverty," Wood said. "But instead you're seeing tremendous, huge amounts of debt."

Graduate student workers are discouraged — many even prohibited — from taking second jobs, so they take out loans for living expenses. Student workers earning their master's degrees typically pay full tuition, though university presidents have the discretion to offer tuition waivers. Doctoral students do not pay tuition but have to pay student fees.

A CSU study released in February found nearly 1 in 4 of its students struggle to afford food and about 1 in 10 experiences "housing displacement" such as homelessness.

Wood said in addition to securing living wages, her colleagues want training in teaching strategies and expanded access to gender-neutral restrooms on campus.

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