As the COVID-19 pandemic passes the two-year mark, many Kentucky workers are struggling. We struggle financially to pay rent, pay medical bills and buy food as prices rise. We strive to support our children and maintain a level of financial stability that allows us to rest easy at night. We are overworked and struggle emotionally and mentally with the continued precariousness of our situations. As we continue to struggle, the pay gap between the wealthiest Kentuckians and those at the bottom is widening – especially at our public institutions of higher learning, despite their mission to improve the lives of all Kentuckians.
Amid our continued struggles, it was announced in December 2021 that University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto would receive a 24% increase in his base salary. Without including hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional compensation, that increase bumped his base salary for 2022 to $1,035,646. Herald-Leader columnist Linda Blackford’s opinion piece at the time well articulated the shock and frustration that many UK employees and students felt at the news.
As University of Kentucky graduate workers who earn poverty wages and who the institution relies heavily on to teach students and do research, we have a unique perspective on how our university operates. We know how unethical and catastrophic it is to concentrate public resources at the executive level. Graduate student workers are essential to the success of the university, but the university has neglected to properly invest in the graduate student community for years and years.
The vast majority of us earn well under $20,000 a year. Many of us make less than $12,500. Some of us even earn as little as $8,000 a year. It was only after we organized as a union (United Campus Workers of Kentucky) that graduate assistants at the College of Arts & Sciences and the College of Education received a 10% raise last year, which has left most graduate assistants living in poverty. . We are the cheap labor that runs the UK.
We teach and design courses for undergraduate students to take. We run labs and support research that brings in millions of grant dollars. All of this work is done on top of our own scholarships and research despite our starvation wages and heavy workloads.
Recently, President Eli Capilouto announced payroll increases for University workers, but it’s unclear how this will affect us and other low-wage and marginalized workers on campus. In the past, for example, senior administrators have completely ignored graduate workers when improving salaries. Beyond the graduate assistants, we believe any pay raise goes to the struggling employees here on campus. In particular, we believe that any increase must prioritize the most marginalized faculty and staff. That means pay raises for facility staff who have been here for twenty years and earn $15.50 an hour, just 50 cents above the starting rate. This means raises for professors and adjunct professors who are grossly underpaid to do the same work as their tenured colleagues and more support for female and non-binary professors, international professors, black professors, Latinx professors and Asian teachers who are under supported, overworked and often disrespectful.
Fundamentally, we believe that public education should not be run like a big business driven by profits and built on the exploitation of workers from below while a small group of administrators earn exorbitant salaries. We care too much about the university to let it function as a society. British workers deserve fair pay and have a say in how our institution is run. It’s time we got it.
To highlight our concerns and demands and deliver our petition to President Capilouto, we are organizing a rally from the Student Center (on Champions Avenue) of the UK campus on Wednesday April 20 at noon. We welcome members of the community.
Jess Van Gilder is a certified teaching assistant in English. Annie McGraw is a former graduate research assistant in soil science and Sanjana Krishnan is a graduate teaching assistant in geography.