Ahead of the 2023-2026 contract negotiation with the University of Michigan Human Resources, the Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO) held a rally on the Diag to raise awareness for their demands and gain support from community members. With over 100 people in attendance, the rally highlighted key demands the union hopes to address in their upcoming negotiations.

GEO’s bargaining campaign coincided with multiple labor protests across the country, including a labor strike in the University of California (UC) system involving more than 48,000 workers —  the largest work stoppage by University workers in the United States’ history. The GEO rally also occurred as thousands of Starbucks workers across the nation, including employees at the locations at Glencoe Crossing, Main and Liberty and Jackson and Zeeb in Ann Arbor, went on strike during “Red Cup Day.”

One of GEO’s key demands in their new contract campaign is an increase in the minimum full-time equivalent salary on the Ann Arbor campus from $24,053.32 to $38,537 — according to a press release. The organization arrived at the new salary demand using the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Living Wage Calculator’s estimation for a living wage in Ann Arbor. GEO’s other demands included eliminating copay for mental healthcare, establishing an “accommodations-first” model and establishing an unarmed emergency response team on campus. 

In an interview with The Michigan Daily prior to the rally, GEO President Jared Eno said this was the third time he has participated in the triennial bargaining. He hopes the perceived accessibility of Ono could help to improve the administration and labor relationship during the negotiation. Thursday’s protest was the first bargaining campaign hosted by GEO since University President Santa Ono took office.  

“The past couple of presidents were not particularly labor friendly and did not particularly seem to be interested in the working conditions of their workers,” Eno said. “Ono seems to really care about people on campus, so we’re excited to work with the administration to solve this crisis of affordability that grad workers are facing.”

The rally included multiple speakers who shared their experiences working for the University and expressed support for GEO’s demands.

Social Work student Arie Davey, one of the featured speakers, shared the financial challenges they faced while completing field work for their degree requirements. Earlier this year, students from the School of Social Work drafted a petition calling for compensation for their field work.

“As a high school therapist, as one of the lucky few who get paid, I make $1 an hour,” Davey said. “Meanwhile, my degree forces my community to take on debt that’s equal to our average starting salary. So you do the math. These debts are significantly higher for students of Color without generational wealth.”

The rally also highlighted the connection between GEO and University of California system workers. GEO member Garima Singh Panwar, who attended the rally, was formerly involved in UAW, the University of California’s academic student employees union. Panwar read a solidarity statement from Ally Cara, a former GEO member and current UAW worker at the University of California Los Angeles. The statement made connections between GEO’s demands and those of student workers in the University of California system.

“We are bargaining for employee wages to offset a huge burden most of us are facing living in the most expensive markets in the country,” Cara said. “We have no signs of slowing down.”

After the rally, GEO led a march from the Diag to the Ross School of Business, where Ono had delivered his State of the University address earlier that morning. The crowd chanted, “What do we want? Living wage! When do we want it? Now!” and “Ann Arbor is a union town! If we don’t get it, shut it down!” 

Once in front of the Business School, GEO members discussed how the University has overridden lecturers’ and GSI’s authorities in requiring masks in the classrooms and neglected the concerns from immunocompromised students.

Other union workers across the University joined GEO to show their support, including Ian Robinson, a Lecturers’ Employee Organization (LEO) member and president of Huron Valley Central Labor Council. Robinson told The Daily he was impressed by GEO’s advocacy for the broader University community and for going beyond demanding higher wages for its members.

“I’m excited by the level of energy and for the broader vision they’re bringing to (the bargaining process),” Robinson said. “They have a number of other (demands) that are also important, including trying to support community folks who are trying to change the role of the police. That’s not an issue that a lot of unions would say is really a union issue. They have more of a connection, more of an integrated stance on how to do that with the community leadership.”

After the rally and the march, GEO started their first negotiation session with Human Resources, which ended in the afternoon. GEO officer Amir Fleischmann told The Daily the meeting marked the first time that many GEO members could sit in the room and participate in the bargaining process.

“(Human Resources) don’t think that they can be frank with us when our members are in the room because they know members aren’t going to be happy,” Fleischmann said. “It took a significant amount of pressure from our own members to be able to get this and our aim is to continue putting the pressure on (Human Resources) to ensure that members are in the room every single time.”

In an email to The Daily, University spokesperson Kim Broekhuizen said the University would enter the bargaining process with good faith.

“The president has a deep respect for labor and the bargaining process,” Broekhuizen wrote. “We understand the bargaining teams begin negotiations soon, and we have every faith that the parties will come together to reach an agreement in due course.”

Daily Staff Reporter Chen Lyu can be reached at lyuch@umich.edu.

Correction 11/20: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Ally Cara attended the rally and made a statement. Cara is a former GEO member and is currently at UCLA as a member of the UAW.