A group of graduate student employees at Carnegie Mellon University delivered a petition to the provost Thursday morning, calling on the university to provide all its workers with a $1,500 payment that eligible faculty and staff received in June to offset inflation. 

The petition, which had collected more than 1,000 signatures as of Thursday afternoon, is likely the group’s first step in calls for higher pay and other workplace provisions. Amzi Jeffs, a postdoctoral fellow in mathematics, said in an interview that the organizers want to host a meeting in the coming weeks for students to discuss “what it would look like to organize more broadly.”

Of the signatories, 552 were graduate students, 391 were undergraduates, 76 were faculty and staff and 28 were alumni. 

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Some graduate students at CMU, like others across the country, earn stipends from their university to help conduct research, teach classes and mentor their undergraduate peers. As universities nationwide increasingly rely on their labor, calls for improved conditions – often in the form of union campaigns – have also grown. 

Jeffs said the group is not a union campaign, but organizers support such an effort on campus. 

“A lot of people here especially don’t seem to realize how possible unionization is and the specific material gains that are received from that,” said Alex Tabor, a doctoral student in history. He referenced graduate students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who reached a tentative union contract in September that raised their pay by more than 10%.

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Amzi Jeffs, second from left in the left image, talks to James H. Garrett, Jr., the university provost, as the group delivers a petition on Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023. (Photos by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource).

Amzi Jeffs, second from left in the left image, talks to James H. Garrett, Jr., the university provost, as the group delivers a petition on Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023. (Photos by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource).

CMU President Farnam Jahanian announced the $1,500 payment to faculty and staff in June, stating that the university understands “the additional burden of cost increases on our households, including food prices, energy and transportation expenses.” The university excluded graduate student employees and unionized workers from the relief, organizers said. 

“These workers make the campus run, right?” Jeffs said in a speech this morning before delivering the petition. “They do the work here. They help make this university what it is. We think it’s shameful that the administration didn’t include them in this payment. Do they think that graduate students and union workers are somehow immune to the rising cost of living?” 

Alex Tabor, left, a doctoral student in history at Carnegie Mellon University, walks into Hunt Library with fellow CMU academic workers before delivering the petition to the provost on Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

CMU offered a similar inflation relief payment last year to about 85% of its faculty and staff, according to The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Part-time adjuncts and employees that were covered by collective bargaining agreements were among those excluded from the payments, as well as those on long-term disability or unpaid leave. 

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That summer, two graduate students crafted a petition demanding, among other things, that they and other doctoral students in the Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy receive the relief. Heinz College, one of seven schools and colleges on campus, announced that it would distribute a one-time payment of $2,000 to doctoral students in September 2022.

The 15 or so students leading the charge today delivered the petition to Provost James Garrett, Jr., in Hunt Library, where he was hosting office hours. The provost stood in front of the students as they read testimonials from their peers.

“Thank God food stamps … are around to pick up CMU’s slack in not paying a living wage,” one said. 

Jeffs handed Garrett the petition and said the group hoped for a positive response in a couple of weeks. After the students left the library, Garrett told PublicSource that he’d have to review it, noting that “there are many other dimensions that we have, in fact, provided for the graduate students that aren’t being talked about.”

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James H. Garrett, Jr., the provost at Carnegie Mellon University, holds a petition delivered by grad- and doctoral-level working academics relating to graduate student labor on Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023, at the school’s Hunt Library in Oakland. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

“They’re focusing on this $1,500 that was given to the faculty and staff at the end of June, but we’ve also agreed to fully fund [doctoral students’] health care, which wasn’t the case in the past,” he said. “We have also made it possible for students to have parental leave, and we’ve increased the amount of time it’s available.”

The organizers of Thursday’s petition coalesced around springtime after several CMU graduate students attended a meeting from Workers Strike Back on unionizing a workplace. A PublicSource article that covered how CMU’s pay impacted some graduate students also connected students across departments, Tabor said.  

Organizers said they’ve held at least two dozen tabling events on campus over the last two months to gather the signatures and connect with other graduate students. Students have expressed a desire for higher pay, cost-of-living adjustments and protections from workplace harassment, among other needs.

In October, Garrett and another official announced that the university was raising the minimum stipend for doctoral students to $2,500 a month, or $30,000 for a yearlong appointment. Last fall, CMU issued a monthly minimum stipend for doctoral students that amounted to $27,000 a year.

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An annual living wage in Pittsburgh for a single adult without children is $33,387 before taxes, factoring in expenses such as housing, transportation and groceries, according to an estimate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A more conservative estimate would be $30,209 per year before taxes, excluding the budgeted medical expenses. 

Alex Tabor, left, a doctoral student in history at Carnegie Mellon University, and Amzi Jeffs, a postdoctoral fellow in mathematics, talk to PublicSource before delivering the petition to the provost on Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023, on campus. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Garrett told PublicSource that he believed the university’s decision-making around stipends was determined by department and fluctuates like faculty wages do on campus. He said the $30,000 minimum reflects the expenses that students are highlighting and added that CMU in the spring committed to the Graduate Student Assembly that it would review stipends on an annual basis.

Graduate students have taken issue with their pay for some time. The CMU Better coalition, a separate group of graduate students advocating for improved pay and working conditions, launched a poster campaign in April 2022 to highlight disparities in stipends across academic departments. That summer, students in the English department and Heinz College separately called for stipend increases. 

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The English department created an emergency fund for students to request additional money, and those working as teaching and research assistants saw their minimum hourly rate increased to $17. Heinz College implemented a 5% base stipend increase, bringing the base year-one stipend to $28,500, among other changes in response to the petition. 

Amzi Jeffs, center, a postdoctoral fellow at Carnegie Mellon University, talks to fellow CMU working academics after delivering a petition to the provost on Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

CMU graduate students are not yet officially pursuing unionization, unlike their counterparts at the nearby University of Pittsburgh. But this month, one student wrote an opinion piece in the campus newspaper advocating for a union for Dietrich College, writing that graduate students are “systematically exploited.” The newspaper, The Tartan, later issued an editorial supporting the cause. 

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Tabor said that the organizers of Thursday’s petition believe that a union is necessary at CMU but they don’t want to “twist people’s arms into that view.” 

“It’s also something where people have questions,” Jeffs said. “Actually moving in that direction is going to take a lot of one-on-one conversations.”

Emma Folts covers higher education at PublicSource, in partnership with Open Campus. She can be reached at emma@publicsource.org.

Higher education reporter for PublicSource in partnership with Open Campus.