Despite the value of our work as graduate assistants, the University of Connecticut has blocked our efforts to negotiate health benefits on par with other state employees. Having cut and mismanaged our healthcare, they now refuse to sit down with us to look for a better solution.
A huge majority of graduate assistants (GAs) formed a union last spring. Since then, our elected bargaining committee has spent nearly a year negotiating our first contract. Dramatic, unilateral healthcare cuts in recent years ranked high among the factors driving more than 70 percent of us to sign up as members of Graduate Employee Union-UAW (GEU-UAW).
In 2003, GAs were removed from the state employee health plan, with an understanding that UConn would provide a separate plan — likely at lower costs due to our young demographic — which would match the benefit design of the state plan. This system worked adequately, until a couple of years ago.
In 2013, University administrators made major cuts to our coverage. As we are making $18,000 per year on average, significant out-of-pocket increases, rising deductibles, and reduced coverage make health care prohibitively expensive for many of us. New co-insurance alone is now costing us as much as 25 percent of our annual salaries.
Since November, our bargaining committee has proposed a collaborative process where the union’s and university’s technical experts would work together to find the best benefits at the most affordable rates — something that would benefit not just us as GAs, but also the university and the overall state budget. As our committee bargaining updates record, the university has ignored this proposal for months.
While attempting to negotiate our health benefits, we have learned some staggering facts about how badly UConn has mismanaged our plan. In addition to cutting our benefits significantly, for example, the university overspent on premiums by more than $3 million with the current provider!
One would hope that this kind of mismanagement would lead UConn to work closely with us to do better. Instead of collaborating with us, however, the university now spends precious resources to pay three different consultants to advise its decisions on our health benefits. The first is Bailey Agencies, the broker who purchases student health plans for UConn; their CEO has attempted to pass controversial legislation that would prevent students from accessing HUSKY care. The second is Littler Mendelson, the outside, private law firm UConn hired to bargain with us in addition to their existing labor relations staff. Third is a new outside consultant, Lockton.
We have therefore been forced to take matters into our own hands, with the help of our allies in state government who recognize the value we provide as employees. In particular, the comptroller’s office has helped us identify affordable alternatives that could restore our benefit levels to match those of other state employees. Yet, the University still refuses to engage in a simple joint subcommittee with our bargaining committee to discuss these options with the state. Instead, they meet with their consultants behind closed doors and continue to reject our proposals.
The 2,200 GAs at UConn provide affordable, quality education to thousands of our state’s young people and perform innovative research that helps attract roughly $150 million to the university. These revenues not only help UConn, but also lead to greater stimulation of our state economy. We deserve health benefits on par with those of our fellow state employees.
We are rapidly approaching the one-year anniversary of recognition of GEU-UAW as our union. On behalf of my 2,200 co-workers, I urge the University of Connecticut to reach agreement on a fair, improved healthcare plan as part of an overall agreement that makes a better UConn.
Morgan Thomas is a Graduate Assistant at UConn’s Department of Philosophy and a member of Graduate Employee Union-UAW Local 6950.
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