Graduate employees voice need for child care support

Erin Kirkland/Daily
Rackham student Grant Mandarino (left) and other members of the Graduate Employees’ Organization congregate on the Diag on Thursday, Feb. 24 to advocate for changes they want to the union’s contract, which will be revised next month. Buy this photo

BY KAITLIN WILLIAMS
Daily Staff Reporter
Published February 24, 2011

A 4-year-old girl ran around the Cube yesterday as about 80 graduate students employed by the University held up signs and the chant, “We are the union. The mighty, mighty union,” echoed through a megaphone.

The girl was the daughter of Federico Pous, a graduate student instructor in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, and the students were gathered to express concerns about child care services for University employees and other changes to the Graduate Employees' Organization's contract, which expires next month.

“The priority for us is to provide access to child care to all the parents that are working,” Pous said, adding that he also has another child on the way.

Christian Kroll, also a graduate student instructor in the Department of Languages and Literatures, held his 17-month-old daughter as he participated in the rally.

Marching from the Diag to the Cube, GEO members passed out copies of a letter addressed to University President Mary Sue Coleman for rally attendees to sign, which they later presented to her. The letter asked for Coleman’s support of GEO’s efforts to improve parental accommodations at the University, including the union’s push for increased child care and parental leave options.

The letter states that union members want the University to better accommodate employees’ rights when it comes to child care and continue to support initiatives like making breastfeeding easier in appropriate places on campus.

Pous — who, like Kroll, has been involved in the parent caucus of GEO — said the University’s requirement that a spouse must work or study more than 20 hours a week to have access to child care benefits should be eliminated.

GEO President Rob Gillezeau, a graduate student instructor in the Department of Economics and a graduate staff research assistant for the Center for Afroamerican and African Studies, said one of the most important efforts of GEO is obtaining access to child care subsidies for international students. He said a current work restriction keeps international students from getting child care subsidies because they have a limit on work hours as foreigners that prevents them from qualifying for some benefits under University rules.

In an interview at the rally, Gillezeau said he and other GEO members feel the contract bargaining process is moving too slowly. He added that the current contract is supposed to expire March 1, but GEO plans to ask to extend the deadline until March 18 at a meeting to be held today.

“We will be coming back strong after the break to ensure that we don’t let this momentum fall,” Gillezeau said to the crowd.

GEO has been bargaining with the administration since December. Gillezeau said he anticipates the union will be granted an extension, which usually happens during years when the contract is being negotiated. The contract is negotiated every three years.

Patrick O’Mahen, former communications chair of GEO and a former Michigan Daily columnist, told the crowd that several University administrators promised on Wednesday that they would be getting back to GEO today with package proposals. O’Mahen urged those at the rally to go to the meeting today to bargain with the administration.

“Please come out and support your local bargaining team, support yourselves, support your union,” O’Mahen said.

Sam Montgomery, chair of GEO’s organizing committee, said in addition to GEO’s effort for increased parental rights, the union is lobbying for disability accommodations, increased salaries and more rights for GSRAs.

In recent weeks, members of GEO have been contacting the University administration — including through the delivery of an oversized letter to Coleman's office — hoping to gain approval to allow GSRAs collective bargaining rights in the union.

Lauren Reed and Alix Gould-Werth, GSRAs in the School of Social Work, said they attended the rally to express support for the campaign to have GSRAs included in GEO’s contract.

“The University has been slow to return proposals, and I think it’s been frustrating for us that they’re unwilling to recognize that we, as (GSRAs), are workers and that we have the right to organize,” Gould-Werth said.

Jeff Frumkin, the University’s associate vice provost and senior director of the Department of Academic Human Resources, said in an interview last week that the University " is not interested in voluntarily recognizing GSRAs as having the ability to organize.”

Reed said she thinks GSRAs and GSIs should be included under the same collective bargaining contract because many graduate students either hold both positions at the same time or switch between the two from semester to semester.

Gould-Werth said she also attended the rally to express her solidarity with GSIs on issues like child care. She and Reed said they think many GSRAs in the School of Social Work are supportive of being included under GEO’s contract.

Members of the Lecturers’ Employee Organization attended the rally as well. Ian Robinson, LEO member and a lecturer in the Department of Sociology and the Residential College, said he thinks all LEO members would agree that GSRAs should have the right to unionize.

“There shouldn’t be any impediments put in the way of people signing up and joining a union if that’s what they want to do,” Robinson said.

At a meeting on Tuesday, GSRAs from the Department of Aerospace Engineering and other attendees expressed hesitation about joining GEO to Gillezeau and other union officers. Some of the meeting’s attendees said they felt there wasn’t a need for GSRAs to unionize and wouldn’t join in the efforts until they saw statistics expressing that need.