News and Updates

Better wages for graduate assistants aren’t a zero-sum game

Folks don't like losing money, and graduate assistants are no exception.

We’ve worked hard to get to Penn State, and we work hard once we're here. So the thought of salaries going down does—as it would for any person—cause a bit of heartburn.

The risk of some salaries (usually those at the top) going down is a common talking point in union drives. Administrations say they can't predict what will happen, but that sure doesn't stop them from loudly speculating or suggesting worst case scenarios. To hear them tell it, a union would make Penn State a second rate university in short order.

But we can predict, with some level of certainty, what will happen. And we can do that because stipends are already changing. We’ve dug up data on stipends levels from 1996 onward. Since then we've seen yearly changes at every grade level. Some years have seen big raises—the single biggest was the year after health insurance was dramatically changed in 2014. Some years (like 2011) have seen near freezes, meaning the value of wages actually decreased when accounting for inflation.

Below we’ve plotted the real stipend levels from 1996 to 2017 (we were unable to find data for 2006-2007). This shows how stipends have changed over time while accounting for inflation. What we’ve seen is that, excluding the last few years, we haven’t seen any significant real changes in stipends for the last two decades. The only time stipends have substantially increased in real dollars was after the healthcare changes in the spring of 2014, which led to organizing among graduate assistants. (We’re working on another blog post on how that increase only modestly offset the increase in healthcare costs.)

Plot of stipend levels from 1996 to today showing relatively no change except in the most recent years.

Even more important, stipend changes have increased in similar directions and amounts across all stipend levels. To show this we’ve plotted the annual percentage of change in real stipend levels. We can see that this has fluctuated around 0 over the last 20 years. At times it has gone up, and at other times it has gone down, but in almost every case all stipend levels have moved in the same direction. The only time this wasn’t the case was at the end of the 1990s directly prior to the creation of Grade 20s.

Plot showing the annual change in stipends for all levels. They fluctuate back and forth around 0 and all move in the same direction.

Even in the most recent years, where stipends have increased above inflation, these increases have been consistent across all levels. So why would Penn State suggest that stipends are zero-sum?

In reality, what a union would do is give us a voice in an already existing process. It'd allow us to advocate for our needs—needs that we know best. It'd make sure that we could predict our raises, rather than waiting anxiously for an end of the year announcement. And it'd mean we get sustainable raises for the long term—not just in fits and starts as the result of student outcry.

This is the experience elsewhere. We've talked to graduate unions across the country, and none have experienced lowered stipends to pay for minimum stipend increases. New York University's union even ensured a “Maintenance of Benefits” clause in their contract, ensuring that no benefits could be reduced below the level they were at when the contract was bargained.

Contract language: "No provision of this Agreement shall be construed to lower the compensation rate of any graduate employee. Graduate employees receiving wages and conditions of employment higher or better than specifically provided for herein shall continue to receive same throughout the period of this Agreement."

It makes sense. After all, nobody has any interest in decreasing graduate assistant compensation—not us, and hopefully not the Graduate School.

So when we talk about what a union means, let's talk using the facts and evidence—not fear and uncertainty.