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Campus Changemakers: Grad student workers organize for higher wages

On this final part of Campus Changemakers, a series highlighting students on campus working to make a difference, Kienna Rodriguez talks with two NMSU graduate students who share more about their efforts organizing to get a higher wage for NMSU graduate student workers.

Dan Vargo, Graduate student in Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Ecology Department shares with Kienna Rodriguez why he helped organize with other graduate students.

Dan Vargo.mp3

Kienna Rodriguez: What's your fondest memories while being a student at New Mexico State?

Dan Vargo: I'd say just working with people on union stuff, you know the people that are working on union related activity, you know, they're just all so passionate and committed and it's just it's so fun to work with a group of people that really cares about something that you know it's an issue that you know we all feel really good about and feels really important and you know I've made such good friends through it. So I think just hanging out, working on stuff like.

Kienna Rodriguez: Has being a part of the protest made you closer with people that you didn't initially know?

Dan Vargo: Oh yeah, definitely. I've met so many people. I mean, I I've probably met at least a quarter of the grad students on campus at least once or twice. So, it's been fantastic to get to know people and meet so many new people from all over the country.

Kienna Rodriguez: What inspired you to become a part of the grad student protest?

Dan Vargo: Conditions here aren't great for grad workers, and as I learned more about what goes on at other universities, the fact that most universities in the US are providing a lot of the funding and money that NMSU is failing to provide their workers. It just became kind of the obvious choice, and then once I started doing it, I just kept doing more and more.

Kienna Rodriguez: When you came to NMSU to start your masters, did you know about these conditions or was it kind of you learned about tham as you were here?

Dan Vargo: I learned about them as I was here. The position that I started with had a lot of the things that all grad degrees should have, like higher pay, year-round pay, health insurance coverage, and tuition coverage. So, It kind of had what I think the expectation of universities to provide at this point, especially I think it's something like not over 99% of R1 institutions in the US provide all of those things, and with an NMSU's goal to get back to R1, I think it's it's pretty clear what's going to have to happen there with who does the research here.

Kienna Rodriguez: How has lack of compensation affected your education?

Dan Vargo: Me personally, I think I'm really one of the lucky ones. You know, it's added a little bit of stress, but I did a lot of work in the interim and even though that work wasn't super highly paid, it almost always provided free housing. So, I was able to tuck away a decent amount of money, which I've cut into every year I've been here because there's no way to have any quality of life on the salary.

Kienna Rodriguez: What do you think needs to be improved for their quality of life to be better?

Dan Vargo: Yeah, the first thing first and foremost is pay and the best way to do that is to cover tuition, like every almost every other R1 institution in the US, covering tuition would bring them in line with those institutions that they want to be like. And it would effectively raise us slightly above the poverty line by reducing our expenses.

Also, we hear from Gauge Burnett, a graduate student in mathematical science who shares her experience working to organize for a higher wage for graduate student workers.

Gauge Burnett.mp3

Kienna Rodriguez: As a member of the organizing committee for the Graduate Student Union, how has this affected you?

Gauge Burnett: I think so. The Graduate Workers Organizing Committee is a really interesting place because it's all people who are super passionate about making this campus a better place for graduate workers and by extension, for everyone we come in contact with, so that's all the faculty, that's all the students, it's. That’s all the staff, but what I've learned is that even though we're all moving towards that common goal, we don't necessarily all have the same ideas about how to approach it. So there have been a couple of times where you know where I’ve been in the room and realized that the voice that the ideas that I was voicing were very much like in the minority, even though I thought I was speaking for what was right. So it's been challenging to sort of balance my own personal politics against the needs that the organization has more generally.

Kienna Rodriguez: So what personal politics are you struggling with?

Gauge Burnett: So, one thing that came up was whether or not we allow non dues paying members to vote on issues at the Union. So now that we have a contract, we need people to sign up on union cards a second time, and this time you will be paying dues into the Union. It's about 1.4% of your salary comes out of every paycheck, and it supports the work that we are doing to like continue to provide the services that the Union provides. So, things like support during the grievance process, things like flyers and information campaigns, things like lobbying at the state legislature. But the contract that we got did not automatically give every single graduate worker a raise, so there are certain people, in particular research assistants, who didn't necessarily get any financial benefit from this contract. There are also international students who are still paying nearly $1000 a semester for Healthcare and I found it really challenging to tell people, you know, we didn't get you anymore money, but you should still give us 1.4% of your paycheck, and otherwise we're going to cut you out of the of the democracy. And so there were a lot of discussions at the beginning of the semester about how do we support people who are in this position. Can we really like in good conscience ask people who to put themselves in a worse financial place in exchange for having a seat at the table, basically, and that conversation is still ongoing?

Kienna Rodriguez: So what inspired you to become a part of the protest?

Gauge Burnett: The Regents meeting last spring, so this was right after we had right before or right after we had been certified as a Union and hearing graduate workers because at that point I had been, I had signed a union card and not thought about it at all and then hearing graduate workers speak at that first Regents meeting and say things like, you know, I am couch surfing right now and I'm also teaching 300 students, like that was just unacceptable to me, especially because I had also been struggling with food security at that point and I just assumed that it was because of my own situation. So, seeing the solidarity hearing that other people were in the same position made me feel like crud because we shouldn't have to suffer like that, but it also made me realize that we can do better.

Kienna Rodriguez is a KRWG Public Media student employee. She has produced interviews that covered fair wages, poverty, higher education, and literacy.