Open Letter From SBU GSEU on Graduate Student Wages

24.02.2022 Addendum:

We started our living wage campaign last year to achieve a living wage for all graduate workers. Our campaign brought together all the labor unions on our campus, numerous campus organizations from graduate and undergraduate communities, and a total of more than 700 supporters for our petition. Collective organizing got us a raise of around 10% for the base stipend at the end of last semester.

While we appreciate President McInnis for hearing graduate workers' voices, we maintain that our base stipend is still a starvation wage, not a living wage. The extreme poverty level for Suffolk County according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development is $27,300. Our new base stipend, $22,500, is still significantly below what is already considered an "extremely low" wage. Moreover, the current inflation rate in the US, which is already above 7%, means that the majority of our raises do not have much of a meaningful impact on our standard of living.

We started our campaign to earn a living wage that would allow us to live a humane life, and we will not stop until we reach this goal. The undeniable truth is that our stipends are still significantly below a level that is required to provide us a dignified life. What we want is neither luxury, nor excess, nor anything more than we need. We are asking for what we need to live a normal life that anybody would consider a life deserving of a human being.

We know from our recent wins that when we are united, we can increase our standards of living. Therefore, we are continuing our living wage campaign with increased vigor and conviction, and we call on President McInnis to use her position to give graduate workers the living wage that we deserve.

What is it like to be a graduate student in Stony Brook University? This is what we tried to find out in our recent survey on financial evaluation of the lives of graduate students, which so far has received 266 responses. We already knew that out of 63 AAU universities, Stony Brook ranks 6th from the bottom in terms of the ratio of our net stipend to cost of living. Our findings portray with indubitable clarity the dismal life of graduate students filled with anxiety and stress resulting from our financial struggles.

The numbers speak for themselves. We asked graduate workers if their stipend is enough to sustain themselves, 85% answered no. We asked them if their stipend is enough to “live comfortably, and to focus on your research, without financial worry and stress,” 99% said no. When we asked workers if they have encountered financial problems during their time at Stony Brook, 79% of graduate workers answered yes and 12% answered maybe, leaving only 9% who have not encountered financial problems during their time at Stony Brook. When we asked graduate workers if their financial problems impacted their research or teaching, 68% said yes and 18% said maybe, which leaves only 14% whose research and teaching has not been impacted by their finances. Another question we asked was if graduate workers’ mental health has been impacted by financial problems. 71% answered yes, 17% answered maybe, which means only 12% of Stony Brook graduate workers did not have mental health problems resulting from financial causes. Finally, we asked how Stony Brook graduate workers thought Stony Brook’s base stipend compared to what they think of as a living wage. 99.6% said our base stipend is below a living wage, with 90% of the respondents saying our base stipend is “very low” compared to a living wage.

As striking as these numbers are, they also carry with them a world of stories that express the tragic situations Stony Brook graduate workers live in. Many graduate students live paycheck to paycheck, leaving us with great anxiety over bills, rent, groceries, and possible emergency expenses that could bankrupt us. This anxiety pushes graduate workers to get second or third jobs, damaging our research and ability to teach. Graduate students live in unsafe or abusive homes because they cannot afford to move and get apartments by themselves. Some of us cannot afford to see our families, while others cannot afford to start one. Getting by with wages below living wage hurts our bodies by forcing us to choose unhealthy food because eating healthy means not being able to pay rent. Our wages leave us to choose between basic car maintenance or groceries, which endangers our lives. Our financial struggles turn the disciplines that we love into an exploitative reality, a source of so much financial misery and unhappiness that some of us consider leaving. We cannot afford a healthy diet, safe and comfortable accommodations, the ability to engage in normal social activities, or to live without mental health problems. In short, we cannot afford to live in a way deserving of a human being.

To our fellow graduate workers we say: you are not alone in financial and mental health struggles. You deserve to live a comfortable and happy life where you can follow your passions in research and teaching. Your financial struggles are not your fault and the life that your stipend confines you to certainly does not express your value, ability, or merit as a graduate worker or a human being.

To faculty and staff, we ask: do you want to see a university where all our programs flourish, where graduate workers produce the best research they can and our students receive the best quality of education possible? Do you want to see all graduate students live a happy and fulfilled life where they can realize their utmost potential? If so, we invite you to support our efforts for a living wage. Anxious, hungry, worried and financially struggling graduate workers do not make good researchers or educators. The advancement of all our programs lie in improving the conditions of graduate workers.

Lastly, we call on to President McInnis: you have professional, moral and personal responsibilities to ensure a living wage for graduate workers.

We say professional responsibility because the current conditions of graduate workers betray the mission statement of Stony Brook University. The mission statement of the university includes providing the highest quality education and research. We make the necessary repetition: anxious, hungry, worried and financially struggling graduate workers do not make good researchers or educators.

We say moral responsibility, because as the president of our university, you have the power to end human suffering, relieve immense stress, worry and anxiety, and give comfort and happiness to thousands of graduate workers. We call on you to alleviate the issues graduate workers face, only a minuscule part of which we described above.

We say personal responsibility because you have conveyed in various statements your care for graduate students’ lives and financial issues. In the announcement of the new Presidential Dissertation Completion & Extension Awards, you said that “[a]t Stony Brook, we value supporting our doctoral students.” We appreciate this sentiment. However, the overwhelming majority of graduate workers think the support they have received from the administration is insufficient. We asked in our survey whether the respondents think the new presidential awards are enough to solve graduate student financial hardship. 97.4% answered no. When we asked graduate workers if they support our living wage campaign, 100% answered yes. Graduate workers have spoken and they have shown you the way they want their life to be improved: we want and we need a living wage.

What is the living wage we are demanding? This was another question we asked graduate workers in our survey. We provided different options with 5k ranges that started from 15k and went up to 70k. The weighted average of all the answers we got was an annual amount of $47,157.00. This is what graduate workers collectively think a living wage is. We call on the Stony Brook administration to come to an agreement on a living wage with the GSEU.

You can access the signatory list here.