Union holds rally on UK campus, demands wage and healthcare reform

This article was originally published on the Kentucky Kernel on Apr 20, 2022; Updated Apr 21, 2022

United Campus Workers of Kentucky (UCW) rallied across UK’s campus in support of graduate student workers Wednesday afternoon. The march ended in a petition with over 600 signatures being delivered to university president Eli Capilouto.

“Hey, hey, ho, ho, poverty wages have got to go,” was one of many chants protesters shouted for eligibility to earn living wages, gain access to affordable healthcare and be treated fairly at UK as members of the employed community.

“As a teaching assistant myself, I know this university would not function without us,” UCW member and graduate teaching assistant in UK’s history department, Abigail Stephens, said.

At noon on Wednesday, a group of around 100 people gathered at the Gatton Student Center, chanting and sharing similar stories of struggle to make ends meet with their current salaries and benefits.

“I personally had a medical crisis about a year ago. I ended up with about $10,000 of medical debt that the University of Kentucky’s health insurance plan did not cover,” Stephens said. “They covered other things, but they didn’t cover enough to make it so that I could afford food or rent.”

The rally moved locations, stopping at the Gatton Student Center, Patterson Office Tower, the Main Building and Memorial Hall.

Though the rally was centered around the goals of graduate student workers, they were not the only ones who recognized a cause for intervention.

Francis Bailey, the director of UK’s Teaching English as a Second Language program within the College of Arts and Sciences, showed his support for the rally as he marched alongside the students.

“For me, the graduate students have been a really important part of the United Campus Worker movement, so I wanted to come out and support them,” Bailey said. “I think they should have the same healthcare as faculty, and I’m here today to help make that happen.”

Undergraduate members of UK’s College Democrats student organization, as well as members of the recently formed Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA) group marched also.

“So, it’s outrageous. It’s immoral for them. Standing with people when they’re fighting for just, livable wages is common sense to me,” YGSA member and senior political science student, Thomas Priest, said.

Aidan O’Brien, president of the College Democrats and senior biology major, expressed his support of UCW on their stance of inequality and unfair treatment amongst the pay grade.

“I know that it’s tough for graduate students everywhere, and this union has done so much work to try to fight for the rights of graduate students and improve their quality of living here, especially knowing how much they put into their jobs here and how little they get in return,” he said.

The announcement of Capilouto’s salary increase at the end of 2021 made headlines and was a major driving force for students to hold the rally.

“It’s clear that Capilouto has raised his income by a substantial degree, and yet you have people that work for this university that are working for poverty wages,” Priest said.

According to Priest, there is someone who has been working at UK for 40-plus years and doesn’t make above $16 an hour.

After gaining more than 600 signatures of fellow students, faculty and staff along the way, the “University of Kentucky Graduate Worker Petition for Living Wages, Affordable Healthcare, and Fair Treatment,” was ultimately delivered to Capilouto’s office at the end of the rally.