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USF graduate students roll out a new kind of protest outside president’s house

Barred from protesting on foot, the University of South Florida's graduate student union protested in their cars as they seek a new contract and a living wage.

TAMPA — The caravan bore signs such as “Living Wages” and “USF works because we do” on their windows as the vehicles drove in a continuous loop Saturday outside the Lifsey House, honking and chanting in front of the official residence of the president of the University of South Florida.

The protest calling for the end of the “disrespect and neglect” of graduate assistants was organized by the USF Graduate Assistant United, a union representing about 2,000 masters and doctoral students at the university.

It also called attention to their contract, which expired June 30. The union is in the process of collective bargaining and is calling for improvements such as better health insurance, a living wage and paid parental leave.

But they believe the university is dragging its hooves. After their first collective bargaining meeting in January, the organization said USF administration spent months ignoring its emails and canceled March’s bargaining session. The two sides met in June, but no financial commitments were made.

“The less time at the bargaining table, the less we can get,” said Samantha Shepard, a fourth-year doctoral student and teaching assistant in psychology who led the chants through a megaphone Saturday.

Related: USF community joins outcry against new U.S. rules targeting international students

USF spokesman Adam Freeman said in a statement to the Tampa Bay Times that the university is committed to the process.

“We have been diligent in addressing concerns raised by (USF Graduate Assistant United), which is demonstrated in a recently agreed upon Memorandum of Understanding,” the statement said. “The primary unresolved items pertain to budgetary commitment sought by (the union.) Given the continuing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, it would not be financially responsible for the university to make long-term fiscal commitments at this time.”

Shepard said the university’s priorities are misplaced, and pointed to the recent $1 million it spent last year to design and adopt a new logo (which it later disavowed because critics said it looked too much like the logo of Wall Street’s Merrill Lynch) and the $700,000 it recently spent to install a fence around the Tampa campus.

She said USF should not sacrifice its graduate students as it deals with the pandemic’s effect on its budget.

“If there are going to be budget cuts,” she said, “they should cut from the top, not the bottom.”

Matt Eckel, a doctoral student in philosophy, said graduate students are among the most vulnerable workers and that situation will only worsen when the university re-opens in the fall. Graduate students will be required to partake in many in-person operations, such as teaching.

“USF is doing a lot to keep everyone safe, their plan is very detailed,” he said. “But there’s a kind of disparity that graduate students are expected to return the same way faculty are. Our lives could be upended if we get sick ... It is scary.”

They don’t have the health insurance that faculty do, he said, nor do they have dental or vision insurance. Under the old contract, he said his old out of pocket maximum was $7,000.

Badger also talked about the importance of paid parental leave. He said he took unpaid leave when his wife gave birth, and they struggled financially.

The union said the minimum annual stipend for doctoral and graduate students is $17,800 and $12,500 under the old contract. The federal poverty level for a single adult is $12,140, while the living wage is $27,768 when housing, food and transportation are factored in.

Related: USF president launches inquiry after allegations of sexual violence on campus

The protest was originally scheduled to take place on foot, but they said the dean of students sent them an email saying that hosting an in-person event would violate USF’s pandemic regulations and they could risk being referred to the conduct board.

The union’s vice president, Sam Badger, chanted at the cars: “Do you want to die to teach freshmen?”

At one point he turned the bullhorn on Lifesy House and called out to USF President Steve Currall.

“Hi,” Badger said. “Are you in there?”

The president did not come out.

The next session is July 17.

• • •

Coverage of local and national protests from the Tampa Bay Times

HOW TO SUPPORT: Whether you’re protesting or staying inside, here are ways to educate yourself and support black-owned businesses.

WHAT PROTESTERS WANT: Protesters explain what changes would make them feel like the movement is successful.

WHAT ARE NON-LETHAL AND LESS-LETHAL WEAPONS? A guide to what’s used in local and national protests.

WHAT ARE ARRESTED PROTESTERS CHARGED WITH? About half the charges filed have included unlawful assembly.

CAN YOU BE FIRED FOR PROTESTING? In Florida, you can. Learn more.

HEADING TO A PROTEST? How to protect eyes from teargas, pepper spray and rubber bullets.

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