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Lining the halls of the University of Michigan Union, over 250 Graduate Employees’ Organization members and allies staged their third sit-in of the semester to promote the inclusion of paid Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Graduate Student Staff Assistants and Graduate Student Instructors in their current efforts to renegotiate their contract with the University of Michigan.
The sit-in was staged during the first meeting of a graduate DEI labor task force created by Robert Sellers, vice provost for equity and inclusion and chief diversity officer. The purpose of said task force is to research how GSIs and GSSAs can work to implement DEI policies.
Last month, an op-ed was published in the Daily calling for the University to pay GSSAs and GSIs for their work in implementing DEI initiatives. Up until today’s meeting, their requests had been denied by the University on multiple occasions. Earlier this month, University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald wrote in an email interview with the Daily DEI GSI and GSSA considerations could not take place while GEO bargaining sessions are occurring.
GEO Staff Organizer Denise Bailey, a Rackham student, said GEO’s GSSA and GSI proposal should be considered by the task force as a way to push DEI initiatives and see even larger outcomes.
“We think that we have a really good idea about how to make (DEI) work sustainable within the University’s structure,” she said. “We would like for the task force to really consider that particular idea which is to make sure that the positions are adequately paid … but also given benefits and the other sort of protections that come with unionization.”
Information graduate student Vidhya Aravind, GEO DEI Committee member and organizer of the sit-in, works on DEI initiatives through the Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library without financial assistance from the University. She said not being able to do the diversity work she wants to do on campus leads to a lack of sustainable growth in inclusion. She also said the DEI work GSIs and GSSAs could be doing is typically done by faculty who have some spare time and can work without pay.
“It can include teach-ins, it can include organizing curricula or reviewing curricula, it can include looking at climate and ways to improve climate in a specific unit,” she said. “With the amount of work there is, what the qualification and expertise that marginalized grad students have in making campus better for marginalized students, it’s super important that they get involved in all the work that they can possibly be doing and there’s kind of a lot of it.”
As Sellers walked down the hall toward the task force meeting, he was faced with signs of GEO sit-in members reading “Task Force Please Help Us,” “Why Won’t UM Talk to Us?” and other slogans.
The possibility of a walkout occurring later in the week slowly became a reality for the graduate student protestors as their needs were increasingly not met. Last week, GEO sent out a ballot to its members considering the option of staging a walkout this coming Wednesday and Thursday. In a text conversation, GEO President John Ware, a Rackham student, said the ballot closed late last night and the votes came back in favor of a walkout demonstration to put pressure on the University. However, an agreement between GEO and the University could be reached before the walkout.
“The ballot passed, so the walkout is authorized — but that doesn’t necessarily mean it will have to happen,” he said. “We are at the bargaining table today, making progress, and there’s still time for an acceptable settlement to be reached.”
A letter from the Lecturers’ Employee Organization sent to the Daily said the decision to stage a walkout was made by a substantial majority of GEO members. If an agreement is not reached between GEO and the University, the walkout will take place on Wednesday and may continue to Thursday if the organizations deem necessary.
Fitzgerald said since GEO and the University are still in talks today, he hopes an agreement can be reached between the two parties.
“Contract talks are continuing today so generally, I think we remain hopeful that we’ll be able to come to terms on a new contract here shortly,” he said.
GEO member Rachel Miller, a Rackham student, said equity plans at the University usually follow student activist movements. She cited the movements from Students4Justice and #BBUM influencing the drafting of the DEI plan and the Michigan Mandate in the 1980s resulting from the Black Action Movement’s efforts in the 1960s and 1970s. She said she hopes the University will see GEO’s physical actions as a sign that GEO wants change.
“I think whatever movement you see the administration making right now is in response to student activism and I think the numbers that are here today make it very clear that graduate student workers are really committed to that,” Miller said.
GEO member Padma Chirumamilla said the walkout will show the University GEO’s commitment to the bargaining process and its willingness to push for equitable treatment in a new contract.
“I think (the walkout) will put visible and obvious pressure on (the University) to try and strike a fair deal for graduate students,” Chirumamilla said. “This walkout is really just kind of a demonstration that we’re not going away and we’re not dropping our demands … The point of the walkout isn’t causing trouble just for the sake of trouble but rather it’s just a way to call attention to the fact that we’re here and we’re committed to holding the University accountable.”