Amanda Gavin is one of the lead organizers of the University of Maine Graduate Workers Union-UAW. She is shown outside Payson Smith Hall on the Portland campus of the University of Southern Maine. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Graduate students who work for the University of Maine System and have been trying to unionize for over two months appear to be getting close to their goal.

The University of Maine Graduate Workers Union went public with a campaign on March 24 to address what it says are poor pay and benefits. Around 150 core organizers and 470 student workers initially signed petition cards seeking a union. Since then the group has collected additional signatures, organizer Amanda Gavin said, though she wouldn’t specify how many.

Organizers also have been talking recently with UMS administrators, including Chancellor Dannel Malloy, and hope the system will voluntarily recognize the union, said Gavin, a UMaine research assistant and second-year ecology and environmental sciences doctoral student.

If the organizing attempt is successful, the UMS students would be part of the United Auto Workers, which already includes more than 40,000 graduate student workers nationwide. The UMaine System has roughly 4,500 graduate students overall. The Maine local would represent some 1,000 students earning master’s or Ph.D. degrees and who are paid as research, teaching or graduate assistants across the eight-school public university system.

“There can be a misconception that graduate students are not workers, that we’re the same as undergrad (students),” Gavin said. “We do research, we teach classes, we run labs and we provide a lot of the services that make the university run. But we’re not compensated for it.”

Their union campaign is part of a larger, nationwide movement to form and join unions. Over 14.3 million people were dues-paying members of a labor union in 2022, an increase of 273,000 people from 2021, according to data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. A CNN analysis of National Labor Relations Board data also found that unions won elections at 995 businesses last year, which was double the count in 2021.


Graduate student workers, in particular, are having a union moment. Graduate student workers at Clark, Fordham, Boston and Yale universities all voted to unionize in 2022.

Those in the UMaine System are some of the lowest-paid at New England’s land-grant universities, according to organizers. Workers earning a master’s degree have a minimum $17,000 stipend for a nine-month employment period, while the minimum for doctoral student workers is $20,000.

The UMaine System also pays 50% of the workers’ yearly health insurance premiums. According to data collected by the union, most New England universities contribute 95% of health insurance costs. In addition to health coverage and stipends, some UMS grad students receive tuition waivers for portions of their coursework.

It was already difficult for graduate workers to support themselves, Gavin said. But in the last few years, as the cost of living continues to rise, the wages and workloads became unmanageable.

“I was putting everything I had into my research, really being proud to be a graduate worker at University of Maine,” Gavin said. “And at the same time, I’m watching my peers and myself go to the food bank, not be able to pay health insurance bills or just not go to the doctor, take out loans, max out their credit cards – watching the conditions get more challenging and feeling like we deserved a living wage.”

State legislators and other state unions have backed the student workers and called for good-faith bargaining.


Seventy-three current state senators and representatives recently wrote a letter to Malloy and the UMS board of trustees encouraging them “to voluntarily recognize the union and come to the table and negotiate a fair contract.”

“The University of Maine System, which includes an R1 research university, is a tremendous institution that benefits our state. Graduate workers are a huge part of this success,” the legislators wrote. “Graduate workers have a great love for their research, teaching and community at the university. By forming a union, they believe they can better use their collective voice to help improve their livelihoods, working conditions and more.”

If the UMaine System does not voluntarily recognize the union, the union would have to conduct an election through the National Labor Relations Board. The organizers would need to win 30% of the vote in order to form a collective bargaining unit.

A UMaine System spokesperson said the administration is in discussions with union organizers.

“At this point, we are in active discussions with the United Auto Workers Union (UAW) which represents the graduate students during their organizing efforts,” Tory Ryden said in a statement. “We are working together to outline the process surrounding union card count and voluntary recognition.”

Gavin said the student workers would like to avoid going to an election.

“We want to be focusing on what we’re at the university to do, which is to do our research and to teach our classes,” she said. “We want to be bargaining and not going through a next step to demonstrate that we have a majority.”

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