In this episode, Emily interviews Mary Bugbee, a fourth-year PhD student in anthropology at the University of Connecticut. Mary tells the story of the grad student union at UConn, from its inception in 2013 to through the start of the second and current contract. Mary served on the bargaining committee for the second contract and gives her insights from the bargaining table into how the university views graduate student labor. She tells graduate students what they can do to support higher pay and better benefits at unionized and nonunionized universities. Mary also shares how her personal finances have benefitted from the strong union contract and her excellent financial advice for other early-career PhDs.
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00:00 Mary: The economic model of universities is exploitative. We’re cheap labor. A lot of us aren’t going to get tenure-track jobs. It’s designed this way for a reason. The problem is structural. Sometimes it’s not individual.
00:19 Emily: Welcome to the Personal Finance for PhDs podcast, a higher education in personal finance. I’m your host, Dr. Emily Roberts. This is season five, episode nine, and today my guest is Mary Bugbee, a fourth-year PhD student in Anthropology at the University of Connecticut. Mary tells the story of the grad student union at UConn, from its inception in 2013 through the start of the second and current contract for which she served on the bargaining committee. She gives her insights from the bargaining table into how the university views graduate student labor and what graduate students at unionized and non-unionized universities can do to support higher pay and better benefits. Mary also shares how her personal finances have benefited from the strong union contract and her excellent financial advice for other early-career PhDs. Without further ado, here’s my interview with Mary Bugbee.
Will You Please Introduce Yourself Further?
01:13 Emily: I have joining me on the podcast today, Mary Bugbee. She is a graduate student at the University of Connecticut, and she has been very active within their graduate student union. So, we’re going to hear a lot more about how that works from Mary. So, please, Mary, take a moment to introduce yourself to us.
01:29 Mary: Hi, and thanks for having me on this podcast. I am very passionate about unionization and that’s what I’ll be talking about. So, my name is Mary Bugbee. I’m a fourth-year PhD student at the University of Connecticut in Anthropology. I’ve also served as the vice president for the graduate employee union, UAW Local 6950, and then served as the president. And during that time, I also served on our bargaining committee for our second contract.
UConn Grad Student Union: First Contract
01:59 Emily: Yeah. So, when you started graduate school, which it sounds like that was during the first contract, what was the status at that point? What was in your offer letter for your stipend and the benefits? What was that first contract including?
02:13 Mary: Okay, so I was really lucky. I came into a university that had a unionized workforce of graduate employees. So, my benefits were really good starting off. I started in the fall of 2016, which was the second year of the first contract that they ever had. I was funded fully, which means for 20 hours a week, split between research assistantship and teaching assistantship. And that was $22,000 about for my nine-month academic year stipend. So, the University of Connecticut, in the Storrs campus, it’s not typical to have 12-month funding. People are usually funded at nine months, and then some people get additional funding. I also had a really good health insurance package. I pay $200 a year, I have no deductible, and my copays are $15, $20, depending on where I go. And it’s awesome.
03:14 Emily: That does sound really good. And you came in as a master’s student, is that right?
03:18 Mary: Yeah, so I got my master’s on my way to the PhD, and the way our stipends are set up is there’s a beginner’s level, a master’s level, and then the PhD candidate level. So, if I had come in with a master’s degree, I would have been making more than $22K.
03:34 Emily: Okay. And was that all part of the contract as well? That sort of graduated stipend level?
03:38 Mary: I believe the graduated stipend level was something in place before the contract, but it was maintained with what they negotiated. Instead of just having the same amounts for like many years in a row, we got raises from year to year. So, that was where the improvement was. So, not just a raise when you get to the next level, but also just a raise each year to help keep up with the cost of living.
Summer Research Fellowship
04:03 Emily: Yeah. So, one more question kind of about what was going on when you came in. You mentioned that your offer didn’t include summer funding. So, for you in particular, did you end up getting summer funding some of the years? Or how has that worked out in the years you’ve been there?
04:16 Mary: Yeah, so my department, the Anthropology Department, has something called a summer research fellowship. It’s basically guaranteed for first and second-year students to do exploratory fieldwork or language training during the summer. So, I had that my first summer and my second summer, which helped a lot. It still only covered my costs in the field, so I had to have savings to pay certain bills when I left for the summer. And since I was in Mexico, I couldn’t work. I didn’t really have any income. So, it was really important that I was able to save during the year. I did have side gigs.
Summer Side Hustling and Housing
04:54 Emily: Okay. Yeah, I was just about to say. So, the $22,000 in that first year that you received over a nine-month period–was that basically just paying for your living expenses during that nine-month period and then you had to side hustle to do the summer self-funding or how did that end up working out?
05:09 Mary: So, I’ve always had a side hustle or two. At one point I had technically four, but I’d say I just had one extra side hustle that first year. I got some per diem hours working as an administrative assistant at a local hospital. It was something I had before I started graduate school. So, I was lucky. I would say the stipend alone was enough to pay my living expenses. I lived with my partner at the time, a one-bedroom apartment. We split rent, although he paid a higher percentage of the rent. Had I lived with just a regular roommate and had a two-bedroom apartment. I think things would have been a lot tighter, because Connecticut is an expensive state. But, I never had a month where I was broke, and I was always able to put a little bit of money away. I’d say I earned maybe a hundred to 200 extra dollars a month with my side hustle.
Was Side Hustling Allowed Under the Union Contract?
06:04 Emily: Okay. I’m always very curious when people talk about side hustles. Is side hustling officially allowed under that first union contract? Or is it something that’s not really addressed?
06:14 Mary: So, the union contract has nothing about whether or not we can have outside employment. The graduate school at UConn actually governs that. And officially, you’re not allowed to work beyond the 20 hours a week in your offer letter. However, with advisor approval, you can. It really depends on your program and your advisor. I’m very fortunate to have a program and an advisor who has been completely okay with me having side hustles as long as I was meeting the academic criteria and progress goals. But some people at the University of Connecticut do not have the same luxury, and their advisors or their programs will give them crap about it if they find out. So, it’s really dependent on where you are in the university.
07:06 Emily: Yeah, that’s unfortunate. I definitely come down on the side of, if you’re doing what’s expected of you in your role as a graduate student, your advisor or whoever should not care what you’re doing outside of that, whether it’s a side hustle, whether it’s other stuff in your personal life. Especially when you’re being paid a stipend, like you were just saying, that’s like maybe adequate, sort of. Really, if you’re going to be making the choice between, “Okay I’m going to side hustle a little bit or I’m going to experience a bunch of financial stress,” and that can affect your work too. Thanks for adding that detail. So, how did you first get involved with the union and what was your role? I mean, you already mentioned a little bit what your roles were, but what were you actually doing?
Mary’s Role in the Grad Student Union
07:42 Mary: So, my research area is actually health policy. And I know a lot about health insurance. So, when I knew the contract was going to be reopened for bargaining–that was in 2017–I decided to get more involved. I wanted to be part of the bargaining committee and help with issues around health insurance. And then from there, I became super involved. I ended up becoming the vice president as well as a member of the bargaining committee. And from there, I’ve just been actively involved ever since. I did resign from the presidency this past May. So, I was the president for the past academic year, but I really need to focus on my research now. So, I’ve moved on and now I’m just a rank and file member and a volunteer. So, that feels good.
08:33 Emily: Yeah. But still doing outreach like this podcast.
08:36 Mary: Yes.
History of the UConn Grad Student Union
08:37 Emily: Okay. So, can you tell me a bit more about maybe the history of the union? When did it first come into place, and how did that work?
08:45 Mary: Yeah. So, from what I understand, there were multiple attempts at unionizing at the University of Connecticut over the years, but it culminated in 2013 when the university decided to just unilaterally change the health plan that the GAs were on to a higher deductible and just a more limited coverage network. So, not only was it more expensive, but it disrupted care for people. There were people who had to switch therapists or primary care physicians because they were no longer in-network. And that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. People realized that, without having a collective bargaining agreement, without having a union, the university could do that sort of thing at will, and they didn’t like being in that vulnerable situation. And on top of that, they were increasing student fees every semester. Wages were stagnant, the workload was becoming an issue. So, there were a lot of factors, but I’d say it was the health insurance. That was the last straw.
Health Insurance as a Common Catalyst for Unionization
09:46 Emily: That’s actually a little bit similar to the story that I heard out of the University of Missouri where–I think this was as a result of the passage of the Affordable Care Act–the university decided to stop offering health insurance or stop making it an included benefit. And so that again, as you were just saying was–and they did this like the day before the start of the coverage period. So, people literally we’re going to be without insurance the next day and finding out–I mean, that’s an extreme scenario. And so that again, as you were just saying, that was the catalyst there for a unionization movement. And I don’t know how quickly they got that into place, but yeah, please continue on with what was happening at UConn.
10:27 Mary: Yeah. So, from there there was a lot of organizing and these were mostly volunteers–or all volunteers at that stage–of people, graduate students who just decided that they needed a union. So, they got buy-in from other groups on campus, including faculty, the Graduate Student Senate. By November, December, 2013, they had selected United Auto Workers for their parent union. I think they had talked with a few others, but they decided UAW was probably their best bet. They have a really good track record in higher education.
11:00 Emily: As I understand, UAW does most, or virtually all, of the grad student unions, is that right?
UConn Breaks Higher Ed Record for Fastest Card Drive
11:07 Mary: I think there are a few AFL grad employee unions, but yeah, UAW I’d say might have the monopoly in higher education graduate employees and postdocs. So, from there, we had the card drive in February 2014 and we actually broke a record at UConn for fastest card drive in higher education organizing history. By early March, over 50% of graduate assistants had said, “Yes, we want a union. And yes, we want to be a member of this union.” By April it was recognized by the university and certified with the state labor board. Bargaining kind of got off on a bad foot. That June, the university decided they didn’t want to do summer bargaining. But they ended up bargaining from August, 2014 to April, 2015, and the first contract was in place by July 1st, 2015. And it was a three-year contract.
12:07 Emily: I see. So, really the initial phase of, “We want to get this in place, let’s get the buy-in.” That happened relatively quickly. But then the bargaining–I’m learning about this for the first time–the bargaining took quite a bit of time.
Bargaining: A Long, Arduous Process
12:19 Mary: Yeah. So, the process of bargaining can be very frustrating. The first contract is always going to take longer because you have to write everything from scratch. So, I was on the bargaining committee for the second contract. So, if you’re a member of the executive board you’re automatically on the bargaining committee. But there are also elections for district representatives so that there’s representation across the graduate assistant community. And then usually there’s a survey that’s done prior to bargaining, or there always is in our case, to elicit what people’s priorities are–to see what matters most to them. And then that’s used to define the bargaining goals. And the membership ratifies that and then bargaining can begin with the university. So, we started the second contract October, 2017 and we bargained until April, 2018. And it was a long, arduous process.
13:18 Emily: So, can you give me some examples of points that people brought up to you during the survey process that they wanted to have on the table for bargaining? Maybe some that ended up in the final contract and some that didn’t.
Issues: Health/Vision Insurance, Parking, Student Fees
13:29 Mary: Yeah, so everyone has always wanted vision insurance. We haven’t gotten that in either of our contracts, unfortunately. But you know, a lot of us wear glasses and contacts, so that gets brought up a lot. Health insurance–people want to keep the health insurance we had. People want wages. Parking is a big issue at UConn. It’s very frustrating. You have to pay to park and then you might pay for a permit and you still won’t be able to find a spot at certain times of day. I understand this is probably a problem at a lot of universities, but it always comes up with our members. But yeah, the student fees are another issue because each semester before we start, before we’ve gotten our first paycheck, we have to pay fees. And my understanding is that before the union was in place, fees were close to a thousand dollars a semester. Now they’re like $600, $700, and that’s with the university increasing fees during that time. So, we’ve kept it pretty low. So, the financial stuff is always big, but there’s other stuff too. And sexual harassment and discrimination protections, those are very important to our members as well.
Active Membership is the Key to a Bargaining Committee
14:41 Emily: I see. So, can you tell me a little bit more about how the bargaining committee works? You just said it was a six-month process. It’s arduous. What are some details there?
14:49 Mary: So you have the team–the negotiating team–and for us, our lead negotiator was an international rep from the UAW because none of us really have experience in bargaining. So, that’s one of the reasons you go with a parent union, because they have all those resources for you. So, he was the lead negotiator. We would try to meet as often as we could. The university wasn’t great about giving us a lot of time. We even met over breaks. Sessions could be from like two hours to four hours, and by the end, like all day sessions. We signed the tentative agreement at two in the morning. So, that’s the actual, active bargaining at the table. What’s most important for people to know about the bargaining process is that you need an active membership. You need to have collective power behind the bargaining team. So, our organizing committee all year long was organizing direct actions, was doing member outreach to educate them about the bargaining process and the trials and tribulations at the table. People would write op-eds for the campus newspaper or other news outlets. So, we were constantly putting pressure on the university from behind the scenes of the actual bargaining table. And that is the reason why we’ve gotten strong contracts both times. It’s because we have really active members who put so much time and energy into securing really good contracts.
Ways to Be an Active Member (Beyond Striking)
16:22 Emily: What does it mean to be an active member? You just mentioned writing op-eds. Did it come to really visible action, like strikes, or anything like that? Or maybe there are some intermediate steps.
16:32 Mary: Yeah, so, we never had a strike. Connecticut is a no-strike state, which doesn’t necessarily mean people wouldn’t strike, but we’ve never had to do that. I’d say being an active member is doing what you can with the time you have. And for graduate students, even the smallest thing can be a big ask. So, it was very inspiring to see people turn out for our big direct action at the end. We had a sit-in at the student union. We had three simultaneous sit-ins. We had some people at the student union chanting, then we had people in the Office of Institutional Equity because sexual harassment was a major theme in bargaining, and then we had people who went to the president’s office. Prior to that, we’d had a big sit-in in her office building a day she was offering office hours. So, like big, public, noisy, direct actions that called attention–not just to people at the university but people outside the university–to what was happening. And some of those people I had never seen at a membership meeting before. They weren’t regularly involved, but they turned out that day, and that was awesome.
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Sit-ins Demonstrate Collective Power
18:51 Emily: So, how does something big and visible like a sit-in translate to the bargaining table? Are the people from the opposite side coming in, they’re saying, “Okay, okay, we see, we see”? What’s actually happening?
Mary (19:03): They see the collective power that we have. They see, “Wow, this group of GAs, they do really important work at this university. And if they were to ever not do that work, that would be a big deal.” So, even though we haven’t had a strike, I think that’s always on the back of the mind of the employer, because we do the day-to-day research, the day-to-day teaching. There are 2,200 of us at the university. The university wouldn’t be able to do what they had to do without us, so they have to listen to us. And when they see how much we care and how we’re able to band together in those crucial moments, then they take us seriously.
Changes from the 1st to the 2nd Contract
19:47 Emily: What were some of the changes from the first contract to the second contract that you worked on? Or, was it more about, like, maintaining the really good health insurance that was in place initially?
19:57 Mary: So, I can’t think of anything that we had to give away. But yeah, we wanted to maintain the health plan, and we also wanted raises. So, Connecticut is in a huge budget crisis right now, but we were still able to secure 2% raises year to year. The first contract, it was 3% raises.
20:18 Emily: So, that 2%, it’s basically the cost of living raise. Every year, you get another 2%. Is that right?
20:23 Mary: Yes.
20:23 Emily: During the length of that contract?
Hold On to Your Fundamental Rights
20:25 Mary: Mhm. And we fought tooth and nail to maintain a grievance procedure for sexual harassment and discrimination. The university tried to take that away from us. They tried to use it as a bargaining chip for economic items, which was to me just like completely despicable because that is a problem at UConn, as it is anywhere in higher education.
20:50 Mary: So, we fought tooth and nail to make sure that we still had an avenue of recourse in our collective bargaining agreement in cases of sexual harassment and discrimination. I think that might’ve been our biggest fight at the table. We also tried to get a full fee waiver. That’s what we try every time. We didn’t get that, but we did get an increase in our fee waiver. So, that was helpful. And we secured a relief payment for a new fee that went into place this year for a very beautiful multimillion-dollar student recreation facility they just built, and it’s $200 a semester. So, we get that money back in our first paycheck of the semester.
21:31 Emily: Okay. So, it’s still a fee that you pay, but then you get the money back. And that’s for the length of this contract.
21:37 Mary: Yeah. And the reason it was structured that way was because of how it was financed in bonds. They couldn’t legally give us a waiver. So, that was our work-around.
Union Fees Are Minimal and Worth It
21:46 Emily: Yeah. Interesting. Yeah, it’s good, I guess, to hear about all the different little levers that can be put in different ways. Although, as you said, some levers you don’t want to allow. I’m wondering, what is the fee for the union members? And then, are you totally confident that, based on, for instance, just the lowering of fees or not increase of fees, has that paid back immediately?
22:12 Mary: Oh, definitely. So, people pay 1.095% in dues, and it’s just taken out in paychecks. So, when I was at 75% funding one year, it came out to be like, I think around $10 a paycheck for me. I think for people making the highest amount you can make, it’s around $15 a paycheck. But you get that all back in your fee waiver, and your raises make up for it as well. So, for me, it’s a no-brainer. The union has been instrumental in making sure that I have a decent living wage. So, the least I can do is pay my union dues.
22:52 Emily: Gotcha.
22:52 Mary: And it takes resources to run a union, so that money is needed. You might have to go to arbitration, which costs money. We pay dues to the international UAW who provides us with resources like our lead negotiator during bargaining. And yeah, we also have to pay staff to handle grievances. So, it does take resources to have a strong union.
Remaining Insights About the Bargaining Table
23:18 Emily: Mhm. And are there any other insights that you want to share with the audience about what it’s like to be at the bargaining table? Or, what they might want to know if they are union members but maybe not active in the leadership at the union in their university, or maybe their university doesn’t have a union? Anything else you’d like to share from your unique position?
23:36 Mary: Yeah, so it can be a bleak place at the bargaining table because you come to learn that the university really only cares about its bottom line. And it was very upsetting for me to see them try to use, like, our right to have a grievance procedure for a sexual harassment case as a bargaining chip for economic items. It was very disillusioning, but it was also so inspiring to see what we were able to do as a collective. So, for people who don’t have time to contribute, like signing a card, that’s enough. That’s all what some people can manage. Like sign a card, pay your dues. Whatever little thing you can do helps your union. So, the bargaining is nothing without a strong membership.
What About Postdocs and Non-Employees?
24:24 Emily: Yeah, that’s good to hear that this work is not done by a few individuals who decide to volunteer a great deal of their time, but rather it’s those people, yes, plus they need to have the backing of at least a little bit of effort from a great number of the other workers. What I always wonder about with unions is, like they cover employees of the university–graduate assistants, TAs, RAs. What about the students and the postdocs who are fellowship recipients, who are not technically employees–or, at least for a period of time, they aren’t employees? Are they still benefiting from the negotiation that happens with the union?
25:01 Mary: Yes, absolutely. So, even though they can’t be classified as employees–some postdocs can, which I’ll get into in a second–they can’t be covered by collective bargaining agreement. But some of the things we’ve gained at the table, like our health insurance, that health insurance package is now available to those postdocs and to graduate students on fellowships.
Health Insurance, Not Fee Waivers, Benefit Non-Unionized
25:25 Mary: It’s subsidized a little differently, but it’s still pretty affordable. And I think there are a lot of studies that show when you have unionized employees at a workplace, the non-unionized employees can benefit as well. So, I’d say the health insurance is the big way that it’s benefited those folks.
25:44 Emily: I would imagine fees too? Or, is there a different fee structure for fellows versus employees?
25:50 Mary: So, they don’t get the fee waivers we get because they’re not employees.
25:55 Emily: So, it’s not like the fees have been lowered. It’s just, the fees are high, but you get a waiver for a certain amount of it. Is that how that works?
26:02 Mary: Yeah, exactly. And we always stand in solidarity with grad students when fees are being raised overall because we are in principle against any of that for anyone at UConn. But currently, unfortunately, they still have high student fees.
26:19 Emily: I see. But yeah, the health insurance seems like a big one. Especially what you described earlier, it seems amazing not having a deductible.
26:25 Mary: Yeah.
Unionization Effects on Personal Finance
26:25 Emily: That sort of leads into our second to last question here, which is how has being at a place that has a strong union affected your finances personally?
26:34 Mary: So far, I’ve accrued no debt in grad school. I’ve been able to live on what I’ve made, plus my side hustles, in addition to my TA work. So, I wouldn’t say I’m ever truly comfortable financially, but I do not feel financially vulnerable. I save. That’s why I have side hustles, so I can keep saving, and I don’t have to worry about a medical emergency. For me, that’s a really big thing because I have a chronic illness that’s in remission. It’s been in remission for a long time, but it can rear its ugly head at any moment.
27:12 Mary: And if I don’t have good health insurance, I could go into medical debt in like a week. Or medical bankruptcy, practically. So, I mean, the union is like the reason I went to the University of Connecticut, because I knew the health insurance would cover me in a worst-case scenario. So yeah, I’d say I haven’t been completely comfortable. I definitely took a pay cut from what I was doing before graduate school. But what I’m making allows me to live a decent lifestyle and to put money away.
Pro Tip: Look into Health Insurance Prior to Enrolling
27:45 Emily: I want to follow up on just that point about the health insurance, because I’m curious. So, when you were applying to graduate school and you received a few offer letters, how did you evaluate the health insurance that was being offered to you at that stage prior to actually enrolling?
27:58 Mary: So, I actually didn’t apply to that many graduate schools, and this was the only anthropology program I applied to. So, when I got the offer, I just took it. But I’m from Connecticut, so I knew about the unionization efforts, and I knew to look online and see about the health insurance. So, I don’t think it was mentioned in my offer letter, the health insurance, but the collective bargaining agreement was cited. So yeah, I didn’t really have to do a lot of comparison in the selection process.
28:29 Emily: That’s good to hear though that you were able to just find the information about the health insurance online. Because I know, not necessarily universities, but just in general with private health insurance, sometimes it’s really difficult to figure out what your benefits are, even once you’re actually enrolled in it. So, to do that as a step prior to actually being enrolled, it’s impressive. So, it’s good that they had that transparency that you were able to find the information that you needed right away. Yeah. So, that’s really good to hear. I mean, I’m happy for you, right? That you have a degree of stability and of course not having to take out debt at this stage is awesome.
Best Financial Advice for Early-Career PhDs
29:00 Emily: And so, final question, a standard one that I ask all my guests, is what is your best financial advice for another early-career PhD? And it could be related to something that we’ve talked about today or it could be something completely else.
29:13 Mary: So, individually speaking, this goes back to something you said earlier. I personally like to have side hustles and I think saving is really important. I prefer to have money in the bank and be a little bit more stressed out in terms of my schedule than to have more free time–well, “free time”–and no financial safety net whatsoever. So for me, I think that’s one of the reasons I haven’t had major issues financially in grad school. It’s because I do work on the side. And also, live within your means. But if you can’t–if you can’t balance a budget–don’t be so hard on yourself, because the economic model of universities is exploitative. We’re cheap labor. A lot of us aren’t going to get tenure-track jobs. It’s designed this way for a reason. The problem is structural. Sometimes it’s not individual, so don’t be so hard on yourself if you can’t make ends meet on your stipend. And also, that’s why you should be involved in your union if you have one. And if you don’t, definitely, definitely get involved in a unionization effort. Because even if it fails, it still lays the groundwork for future efforts. For me, it’s the most important thing for my finances in grad school–has been the union.
30:35 Emily: Well, there’s nothing I can add to that. Thank you so much for that statement and for this interview. It’s been wonderful talking with you.
30:41 Mary: Thank you for having me.
30:43 Emily: Listeners, thank you for joining me for this episode. Pfforphds.com/podcast is the hub for the Personal Finance for PhDs podcast. There, you can find links to all the episode show notes and a form to volunteer to be interviewed. I’d love for you to check it out and get more involved. If you’ve been enjoying the podcast, here are four ways you can help it grow. One, subscribe to the podcast and rate and review it on Apple podcast, Stitcher, or whatever platform you use. Two, share an episode you found particularly valuable on social media or with your PhD peers. Three, recommend me as a speaker to your university or association. My seminars cover the personal finance topics PhDs are most interested in, like investing, debt repayment, and taxes. Four, subscribe to my mailing list at pfforphds.com/subscribe. Through that list, you’ll keep up with all the new content and special opportunities for Personal Finance for PhDs. See you in the next episode! And remember, you don’t have to have a PhD to succeed with personal finance, but it helps. The music is Stages of Awakening by Podington Bear from the free music archive, and is shared under CC by NC. Podcast editing and shownotes creation by Meryem Ok.