Letter from a Graduate Instructor: Why We Need a Union @ Marquette University

by Steven Vickers

Twenty visits to a doctor, thirty-two tests or screenings, six doctors, and countless pills: this is my new reality. In the summer of 2018, I began feeling flushed and nauseated. I would wake at 3am and run to the toilet to empty the contents of my stomach. I would go purchase diapers for my newborn daughter and get so overwhelmed by the urge to vomit that I could barely stand. The worst part: I had no insurance. I am a graduate student and teaching assistant at Marquette University, and I do not have healthcare through my employer. We did once, but in the three years since I began working as a teaching assistant, I have witnessed the cost of insurance skyrocket, only to be taken away entirely. I can barely get by on the $16k a year stipend; I certainly cannot afford to pay hundreds a month out of pocket for insurance. So, I have gone without. Imagine how thrilled I became when my uncontrollable bouts of nausea and vomiting was joined by intense abdominal pain.

It took a few months after symptoms appeared for me to finally be approved for Medicaid, my only option since my employer denies me access to healthcare. Of course, I only qualified for Medicaid because my employer’s “discounted” child care rates are more than $1,000 a month, which meant that my wife stopped working to take care of our daughter. I’m lucky she made that decision, because once I had my Medicaid card in hand, I visited my doctor. It turns out that my spleen, normally around four inches, is nearly nine inches long, and after six months of tests and scans, the reason why it is enlarged remains a mystery. Both of my hematologists believe I could have an incredibly rare form of cancer that does not show up in bone marrow biopsies, which I have endured. So, I now await the results of the most recent blood tests, hoping they tell me why I am sick but also hoping I don’t have cancer. If they come back negative, the next step is a trip to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, which may or may not accept my government insurance. If the Mayo Clinic does not accept my insurance, I may be forced to turn to GoFundMe to help end my torment. Without insurance and without addressing the underlying issues, the cost of removing my spleen alone is more than $67k.

In all the months since summer 2018 that I have sat through the fatigue of the tests, the visits, the continued symptoms, and the stress over financing it all, I never failed to complete my duties as a teaching assistant. I lead discussions. I grade papers and exams. I cover lectures when the professor is out of town or ill. I meet with students inside and outside of office hours to help them understand difficult material. I complete all reading assignments given to the students and take extensive notes so that I know the material well enough to teach or clarify. I hold review sessions after normal school hours to give students one last chance to ask a question or have material explained before the final exam. Despite my work as a teaching assistant, I continue to rely on government assistance for basic access to healthcare, something my employer should provide. I, like my fellow graduate workers, put our hearts and souls into our jobs to ensure the success of our students or the research projects to which we are assigned. Yet the administration refuses to acknowledge us as workers.

As universities increasingly rely on part-time contingent employees to keep personnel costs down, they also deny them basic rights they are owed as employees. Non-tenure track faculty and graduate assistants teach classes or conduct research, being paid a fraction of the cost fulltime faculty with the same teaching or research load. They are denied standard benefits like healthcare and childcare. Perhaps most importantly, they lack a voice in the administrative processes that oversee their employment, and they have no security that their jobs or stipends will remain from one year to the next. This is where a union is necessary. United, we have an equal voice in determining our contracts and work conditions. We can work together with the administration to create a better working environment for all employees. Marquette NTT and graduate workers do not want to stand in opposition to the administration but to work in partnership with them. That is what a union does. It will grant employees an equal responsibility to guide the success of the university as both an institution of learning and a fair and respectful workplace for all employees. I, for one, hope the administration will give us a fair process to win our union and will meet us at the bargaining table in good faith.