Compensation among students from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and the Graduate School of Engineering varies greatly from department to department, with those in STEM departments often earning significantly more than students in other departments. Teaching assistants and research assistants in STEM fields can make roughly $30,000 over the 9 month academic year, while students working for the SMFA as teaching assistants are paid a very low flat rate per semester ($500 per semester for 3 hours a week, $1000 for 6 hours a week), and often have to work a greater number of hours than they're paid for. As a result, it's not uncommon for SMFA students to make what's effectively below minimum wage.
We are NOT looking to bring compensation among all students to a single "union rate", and this is completely counter to what unions stand for in general. It should also be noted that current levels of benefits for all graduate students are not contractually protected the way they would be under a union-negotiated contract. Union-negotiated contracts for graduate student employees do not, in any way, force all departments to compensate students equally. A near-universal practice in contract negotiation is to "protect the floor while raising the ceiling". The idea is to establish a minimum level of compensation - a "living wage", while offering modest increases across the board. It's standard practice for those being compensated the most generously to, at the minimum, receive a raise large enough to cover union dues. This is in addition to other benefits unrelated to stipends, such as expanded health coverage. It's also to important to point out that nobody will have to pay any union dues until our first contract is signed.
Many of us on the organizing committee are compensated quite well relative to the graduate student body as a whole, and we've spent considerable time looking into this issue for our own sake. We've explored this issue in depth, and have not found anything to suggest that students who are currently well-compensated are at risk of having their levels of compensation reduced. With so many graduate students in STEM-related fields, a lot of us are already receiving moderate to high levels of compensation, and it's therefore reasonable to assert that our bargaining unit, at the least, would be quite protective of current stipend levels. It's typical for contracts to have what's known as a "maintenance of benefits clause" such as:
"Except as provided below the stipends, tuition, fee schedules and other benefits currently in effect shall remain in full force and effect for the duration of this Agreement."
-Umass Lowell contract.
"The University shall not reduce the monthly salary rate of bargaining unit employees reappointed in a subsequent year within the same employing department."
-Oregon State University contract.
In addition, across the board raises are specified, with a minimum typically equal to the percentage of union dues. Furthermore, with housing and general cost-of-living rapidly increasing in Medford and Somerville, we have a good foundation to negotiate for more moderate raises across all departments. Those of us receiving moderate to higher stipends should not expect massive increases, as we can't expect the university to pay more than it's able to, however it's fair to expect that forming a union will ensure that we all receive reasonable compensation and benefits across all departments both for now and in the future.
Another approach is a multi-tiered system, where several different stipend rates are defined, and departments towards the higher end of the range in compensation are assigned to higher "tiers". This allows different tiers to be set to current-or-greater levels of compensation across different departments in order to at least maintain pre-contract levels of compensation.
Here is a link to a database of graduate student employee contracts. Unfortunately, many of the hyperlinks are broken, however in most cases you can find the contract by going to the provided website for that university's union.
All of the above is true for students on grants as well. Remember that public universities have had graduate student unions for a long time, and there's significant precedent for levels of compensation increasing throughout the course of research grants that span multiple years. The technical details for how grant money is allocated, and how labs are funded, is complex and not especially transparent. Please rest assured that it's not in the interest of the graduate student body to tighten research funds, nor is it in the interest of the university administration to agree to a contract that would have a negative impact on the ability of of it's faculty and students to perform research. As stated in our FAQ, Tufts University has net assets of over $2.1 billion, unrestricted operating revenues of $854 million, and an $18 million operating surplus for FY 2016. The details regarding how finances are handled at private universities are opaque at best, and as a result, it's common to hear many concerns regarding these matters without much specific information provided about hard numbers. In addition, many universities try to exploit these concerns when fighting the formation of graduate student unions. While the university may have to shuffle some resources to provide graduate employees with living wages and common-sense benefits, please rest assured that neither the graduate student body nor the university administration wants to enter a contract that would result in financial difficulties for the university. Forming a collective bargaining unit is not inherently accompanied by any sort of significant financial demands on the employer, and its only purpose is to provide a platform for employees to collectively bargain reasonable contracts, and to do so in a legally protected manner.