May Day: fair pay

GSEU and GSA to co-host UB May Day Rally for Workers’ Rights


“Labor” is often associated with blue-collar industrial workers toiling away in factories, not instructors and students on university campuses. 

But the work that faculty, staff and students perform every day is essential labor, without which UB could not function. 

On May 1, from 12-1 p.m., the Graduate Student Employees Union and Graduate Student Association will hold a rally for workers’ rights in the field between Clemens and The Commons. 

The message of the rally will be that our labor makes UB a top-tier public university. 

We deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. 

We deserve to be fairly compensated. 

Graduate assistants teach undergraduate courses, lead discussion sections, proctor and grade exams and conduct review sessions. They are the primary point of contact for students in their classes. 

For this valuable labor, the average graduate worker with a full TA appointment is paid roughly $16,500 for the academic year. Once they pay mandatory fees, that amount drops to just over $14,000 annually –– a full $10,000 less than what is considered a living wage for a single adult in the Buffalo area. 

International graduate students, who are federally barred from seeking employment outside the university, are forced to survive on this meager pittance. 

Across UB, many graduate students struggle to afford basic necessities –– rent, food, transportation, child care and so on. 

When a TA in the English department recently had a baby, his friends raised $1,000 in small donations from other TAs. 

But everyone knew it would be spent it on groceries as he struggled to stay afloat with a second job.

Adjunct faculty at UB often have it even worse than graduate employees. They are hired on a part-time basis and paid as little as $3,000 to teach a three-credit-hour course. This means in order to earn even a subsistence wage, they have to teach at least eight classes per academic year (a “4/4” teaching load). 

Ask any university instructor and they will tell you that this is an extremely heavy workload, often requiring more than 40 hours per week in course prep, instructional time, grading, office hours, email correspondence and the like. 

In short, adjunct faculty are grossly underpaid, overworked and lacking in meaningful job security. The percentage of UB’s instructional faculty who are part-time, non-tenure-track continues to increase as administrators seek to cut costs by shifting to a labor model based on precarity and low wages. 

The minimum wage for UB’s undergraduate campus employees is currently $11.40. This is a poverty wage, even for those working full-time who earn $23,712 annually. (A subsistence wage for a single adult living in Erie County is roughly $24,000, according to MIT’s Living Wage Calculator.) 

Some students depend on campus jobs for housing as they work toward their degree. UB needs to do a better job supporting such low-income students who are often first-generation citizens, people of color or come from other minority groups. A $15 minimum wage wouldn’t solve everything, but it would be a start.

As a 3rd year Ph.D. student in the English Department, I’ve become part of the Living Stipend Movement not only because of the poverty wages that TAs receive in my department, but because of the economic injustices faced by many others across the university. I see the May Day Rally as an important demonstration of worker unity.

May 1 is celebrated around the world as “International Workers’ Day.” Although May Day is more widely observed outside the U.S., it has its origins in the American labor movement of the late-19th century. May 1 was chosen to commemorate the Chicago “Haymarket massacre” of 1886, when several people were killed during a strike for an 8-hour workday. 

By the early 20th century, May 1 had become a day to celebrate the gains of the international labor movement and further demands for greater dignity, respect and prosperity for working people around the world. 

On Wednesday May 1, join with fellow members of the UB community as we rally for a living wage, job security and an institutional voice for all UB employees.

Willis McCumber is a contributing writer and can be reached at