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The Graduate Employees’ Organization — the union representing more than 2,000 graduate student instructors and graduate student staff assistants at the University of Michigan — will be voting Thursday to authorize a strike ballot among GSIs and GSSAs. The vote comes after the final contract bargaining session with the University’s human resources department Wednesday evening ended unresolved.
At the heart of the contentious negotiation process, which began in November, are aggressive bargaining practices on the part of the University administration, and GEO’s ambitious platform of increased benefits and wages. The bargaining has taken on heightened significance in Michigan’s precarious labor environment, as this is the first contract GEO has negotiated under right-to-work laws. GEO president John Ware, a Rackham student, said Wednesday night's session came "down to the wire."
"It was the most productive session in a long time, and we got a lot done," he said. "We don't have an agreement tonight, though … and everyone at GEO is working really hard to get the contract done."
Ware said both parties might schedule an additional bargaining session on Friday —the University was prepared to offer more provisions including equitable health benefits for GSIs in Flint and remediate some grading conflicts.
As early as February, GEO members expressed dissatisfaction with the University’s response to their proposals aimed at making graduate school and employment at the University more accessible, equitable and diverse. Such plans include unionized positions for GSSAs doing diversity work on behalf of the University’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion plan; caps on work hours required of graduate employees in order to protect international students who could be in violation of their visa; and wage raises keeping in pace with a rising cost of living in Ann Arbor.
GEO alerted their members earlier in the day in a Facebook post that an agreement on the contract was unlikely.
“Prob (sic) this goes without saying but we're likely to be voting on a Walkout Platform tomorrow night,” the post read.
GEO organizer Denise Bailey, a Rackham student, explained in a press release that a walkout authorization will be put to a vote Thursday in GEO’s general membership meeting, following the failed negotiations. The vote will authorize union leadership to send a ballot to all members, recommending voting for a walkout — a walkout, as opposed to a strike, would have a defined end date. University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald wrote in an email Tuesday afternoon he could not comment on the possibility of a walkout.
“There is no point in speculating about the future,” he wrote.
A Rackham student and GSI who asked to stay anonymous echoed the sentiment that a walkout felt inevitable earlier in the day, but felt hopeful about what it could achieve.
“Everyone is pretty resigned that (a walkout) is going to happen, and that it’s going to work well, but at the same time if the University wants to make it worse, they can do that,” he said. “This is kind of a point where the union has to stake out its ground, because if we let ourselves be denied certain things right now it will only get worse in the next four years.”
Along with the existence of “right to work” laws in Michigan, GEO representatives see the University’s increasingly aggressive negotiation tactics as a reason for increased solidarity and resistance. Shortly after a graduate student rally in March, GEO claimed that the University had brought in a “state-appointed mediator to negotiations” in a Facebook post.
University spokesperson Kim Broekhuizen confirmed in an email that “the University asked for third-party perspective to assist with the negotiating process.”
“It’s known that they hired her because she is known for basically hardballing in negotiations,” the Rackham student said, referring to a new representative of the human resources department. “I think that because this is her first negotiation round with the union, that she’s essentially just pushing us to see how far we’ll go.”
The administration’s refusal to negotiate over the proposal for unionized GSSAs is also of particular importance to GEO members.
Information graduate student Vidhya Aravind, who is on the DEI Committee of GEO, described the University’s treatment of this proposal as “dissonant” with the University’s rhetoric about diversity.
“For the University not to hear the concerns of marginalized students doesn’t demonstrate a push towards inclusion that matches their words,” Aravind said. “I understand that, legally, it’s a permissive issue, so they don’t have to talk about it in bargaining, but they refuse to talk about it anywhere else and say that bargaining is the only place for it and then also refuse to talk about in bargaining. It’s extremely frustrating and extremely disappointing.”
In March, Fitzgerald wrote in an email:“We are happy to discuss these types of positions, but it would need to be outside of the GEO contract talks."
Currently, Aravind works part-time for the Hatcher Graduate Library DEI plan implementation team, without the tuition assistance, salary or health benefits that are guaranteed to GSIs under the current contract, which GEO negotiated in 2011.
“I’m currently going into lots of debt to get health care,” Aravind, who had been dropped from Medicaid for a month because of a clerical error, said. “I’m in a position where I can at least take on debt and feel certain that I’ll be able to pay back that debt after school with a degree, I know not everyone is as lucky. Gradcare would help me with that; tuition assistance would help me with that.”