Binghamton University Leadership: Pay Graduate Workers a Living Wage

A large group of people standing outside a campus building, wearing red shirts and holding signs reading, for example, "SUNY works because we do"

The SUNY Binghamton chapter of our union of teaching and graduate assistants is running a campaign to fight for a living wage.

According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Living Wage Calculator, a living wage is “a minimum subsistence wage.” The MIT calculator estimates the current living wage for Broome County as $31,896 for a single-person household, and The Economic Policy Institute estimates the Binghamton metropolitan area living wage at $36,261.

When we started this campaign in fall 2022, Binghamton University teaching assistants made between $10,788 and $26,824 with an average yearly salary of $19,428—only 56 percent of the cost of living.

Thanks to surging participation from membership in letter writing campaigns, rallies, a petition that garnered over 1,500 signatures, and meetings with university administrators, we have since won a promising concession from the University: some of our members will receive a small raise this fall. However, this pay increase comes up far short of a living wage. In fact, after years of wage stagnation and steep inflation, it amounts to a cut—not an increase—in pay.

In a survey the committee conducted last fall, out of 179 respondents, over 40% reported difficulties affording housing, including an inability to pay rent consistently, having to live in unsafe areas to afford housing, or having to live without proper heat, hot water, or internet. Respondents also reported struggling to afford groceries, or relying on food stamps and food pantries. Multiple responses reported being one medical emergency away from homelessness. 15% of respondents were financially responsible for another household member. Multiple respondents reported putting off necessary medical procedures due to cost. Reports of being unable to buy or maintain a car were also common.

2016 was the last time the University raised the minimum pay for graduate workers in PhD programs; since then our wages have stagnated in the face of high annual inflation rates, peaking a few years ago at 7%.

Binghamton University is one of the biggest employers in the Greater Binghamton area. The graduate workers in our chapter make up a sizable population of well-educated, early-career professionals who are an untapped benefit to the community as consumers, volunteers, and educational workers. When we are forced to live paycheck to paycheck, the quality of our research suffers, the education we are able to provide undergraduates suffers, and, ultimately, the academic reputation of the University suffers.

Struggling graduate workers in the community become overly dependent on public transport and welfare programs. Instead of undemocratically imposing the costs of maintaining their workforce on other Greater Binghamton residents, the University should take responsibility for paying the workers they bring to the area enough to fully cover the cost of living there.

The current state of affairs runs counter to the New York State university system’s mission to “provide to the people of New York educational services of the highest quality, with the broadest possible access, fully representative of all segments of the population in a complete range of academic, professional and vocational postsecondary programs...” The de facto bar for entry into a SUNY Binghamton graduate program today is either significant personal wealth or willingness to suffer severe economic precarity for years on end. We are calling on the University to step up to the plate and pay all of its research and instructional staff the fair wages they deserve, and recover the damage that years of neglect has caused to undergraduate education outcomes and graduate programs that reward academic merit, not inherited wealth.

Now, we are also asking for the support of our neighbors in the wider community. We know that our employer is a precedent-setting goliath with a powerful influence over the local economy, and our fellow community members have a stake in raising the standards for fair pay. Please join with us in demanding better treatment from the University by sending this letter of support to University leadership!

Letter Campaign by
Camille Gagnier
Maplewood, United Kingdom
Sponsored by