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Graduate students and faculty gathered Tuesday to listen to speakers discuss the Graduate Employees’ Organization’s roots and current presence on campus as part of LSA’s bicentennial-themed semester.
The event — under the title, “U-M Works Because We Do,” which was borrowed from an old GEO slogan from the 1970s — featured two former GEO organizers, Sandra Silbertstein and Scott Schneider, as well as a member of the union's current bargaining team, Nora Krinitsky. The speakers discussed in detail the founding years of the GEO, and how it is important to have these discussions during the bicentennial.
“The name of the event really says it all,” Krinitsky said. “GSIs proved 23 percent of student contact hours at the University of Michigan, which is a significant portion of the teaching labor that happens here, so if you want to understand how we got here over the last 200 years, GEO is a critical part of that story.”
In 1970, the GEO was established at the University of Michigan, though it was not certified until 1974, and was among the first graduate student unions in the United States. Silbertstein discussed how the era’s political climate fueled the formation of the union.
“We could demonstrate because anything we got could be taken away, so we organized,” Silbertstein said. “I think it’s always true that there’s the question of ‘Are people moving?’ In order to get what you want, actions must be taken and you have to win hearts and minds.”
The GEO, as an organizing group, sought to make its voices and demands heard. According to Silbertstein, many TAs and GSIs who were organizing at the time had their roots in the civil rights movement and Vietnam War protests. Their tactics were grounded in leaflets with satirical tones and picketing.
It was not until 1975 that the GEO movement held a month-long strike and secured its first contract. The GEO was demanding fair wages, improved working conditions and nondiscrimination. The strike had a lasting implication and, according to Schneider, carried both symbolic and instrumental victories.
“We talk about the strike and the importance of the solidarity,” Schneider said. “To me, one of the main reasons we won that one is because we have picket lines up and other unions refused to cross those lines. In particular, the Teamster Union stopped the Biology Department from picking up its trash, (and it) lost a lot of federal money too. This teamwork with the Teamsters Union was a critical element in winning the strike.”
Krinitsky brought the conversation to the present by placing the current situation of the GEO in the broader labor movement and discussed the future of campus labor organizing.
“When graduate students are mounting a contract campaign, they’re not just asking for wages,” Krinitsky said. “Often that’s an argument that we get at the bargaining table. Our members are really motivated by questions of equity. They care about the marginalized population among our membership and care about ensuring their protections.”
This year, the GEO aims to secure another contract, the first of which to be under the right-to-work laws, laws which prohibit people from being compelled to join a labor union. Krinitsky said during the event that the current platform is ambitious and focuses heavily on diversity, equity and inclusion, paralleling the University’s initiative.
“We are focused on diversity, equity and inclusion, words that are really affiliated with U of M, you can’t really go anywhere without hearing them,” he said. “Well, when we were forming our campaign we wanted to have the University put its money where its mouth is when it comes to these topics.”
School of Information student Vidhya Aravind said in an earlier interview that she currently works part time on the University Library’s implementation team for the DEI initiative. Aravind said these positions are demanding, justifying demands for compensation on par with other graduate positions.
“I think it’s important to recognize that diversity labor is labor,” she said.” It takes a lot of effort, a lot of time, a lot of energy and a lot of expertise.”