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UTK Graduate Workers Win Stipend Increases

Knoxville, TN - After a six-month campaign by the United Campus Workers, on Thursday, August 31, Chancellor Donde Plowman and Provost John Zomchick announced major increases to minimum stipends for graduate assistants across University of Tennessee, Knoxville, campus. This announcement marks a huge win for graduate workers in United Campus Workers, Tennessee’s higher education union, who started their campaign to raise graduate stipends in March 2023. 

Darla Bonagura, a graduate worker in the Department of Psychology, said, “Graduate stipends should have been increased a long time ago. The cost of living in Knoxville has skyrocketed in the last few years. I'm grateful for the grads who worked on this campaign, and I hope it inspires more folks to get involved with UCW and make this campus a better place to work for all of us.” 

Prior to this announcement, minimum graduate stipends remained at $14,400/year even as rent in Knoxville rose faster than anywhere else in the country. Average Knoxville rent costs about $1355/month, higher than the entire monthly salary of many graduate workers. Through interviews and surveys conducted across campus, United Campus Workers found graduate workers are forgoing medical care, working multiple jobs, skipping meals, and incurring significant debt to survive while working at the University of Tennessee. Many graduate workers were directed by university leaders to seek out food banks or to apply for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Actions throughout the campaign for fair pay at UTK included circulating a petition to increase graduate student stipends that gained over 1100 signatures, passing resolutions in Graduate Student Senate, speaking with administrators about the dire situation graduate workers faced, holding a rally on campus to demand fair pay, and marching with a large group of grads to deliver the petition to Chancellor Donde Plowman’s office. Thursday’s email said graduate stipends for 9-month and 12-month contracts will immediately rise to $19,401 and $25,868/year, respectively, representing a 35% and 44% raise from the previous minimum stipends of $14,400 and $18,000

Graduate workers in United Campus Workers will continue to campaign for a living wage for all grad workers as the cost of living in Knoxville continues to rise, while also calling for better graduate family and medical leave. Ryan Ackett, a graduate worker in Biosystems Engineering and Soil Science and the UCW Grad Committee Co-Chair, said, “This is one of the biggest victories for workers in this campus’s history. At the beginning of this campaign I could have never imagined the overwhelming response we would receive from my fellow grads. Hundreds showed up at events to rally for this, and over a thousand told the University we deserve better. It all goes to show that when we fight for each other, we win!” 

See news article and video covering the win here