Talks stall between 'U,' GSIs

BY JACOB SMILOVITZ
Daily Staff Reporter
Published February 7, 2008

With less than a month before the union's current contract expires, contract negotiations between the Graduate Employees' Organization and the University's bargaining team have stalled.

Over the course of negotiations, which began Dec. 6, GEO has most notably asked for salary increases and expanded health care for GSIs. The University's bargaining team, which includes four members of the academic human resources department and three faculty members, has rejected each of GEO's pay and health care proposals.

Rackham student Colleen Woods, the lead negotiator for GEO, said the group has asked for a 9-percent salary increase each of the next three years. The University responded with a counterproposal calling for a 2-percent increase per year in salary for GSIs.

"It's a matter of negotiations," said University spokeswoman Kelly Cunningham about the salary increases. "It is also an indication of how much the university can appropriately adjust in making another offer."

Doctoral student Patrick O'Mahen, a spokesman for GEO, said the union asked for this salary increase in order to better align GSI salaries with the cost of living in Ann Arbor. For a graduate student with no dependents, the University's Office of Financial Aid website estimates the cost of living in Ann Arbor at $15,980, not including tuition and fees.

Under their existing contract, GSIs currently make $15,199 per eight-month academic year, O'Mahen said.

According to data provided by GEO, GSI salaries cost the University $24 million -- or a little less than 2 percent of the University's $1.35 billion general fund budget.

GEO has also asked for expanded dental, vision, mental health and physical therapy coverage for its members.

The union is asking for 100 percent of health care premium costs for low-fraction GSIs - who officially teach less than 20 hours a week - to be covered by the University.

Cunningham said the University's bargaining team wouldn't address GEO's health care proposals until an agreement has been reached with the union regarding salary increases.

"A number of the proposals from GEO involve increased costs," Cunningham said. "Until the University negotiation team is closer with respect to the salary proposals, we can't make any commitments about where any additional resources, if there are any, would go or can go."

But Woods said the University's counterproposals so far have treated GEO's proposals "like they weren't real needs."

"It's about time to get the University to realize that we aren't asking for too much," Woods said. "All we're asking for is what graduate students need to be the healthy, productive students and employees and teachers that we are."

Although both sides said they hope to reach a compromise before the current contract expires on March 1, Woods said there's a possibility that GEO could extend its contract into March in order to continue negotiations without the GSIs going on strike.

"It's up to our members if we want to decide to extend our contract into March," she said. "We want to settle a contract as soon as possible."

Cunningham said it's not unprecedented for contract negotiations between the University and GEO to extend beyond the existing contract's expiration date.

"It's true that in the last three or four negotiations, it went over by a week or two so that we could get all the matters resolved," she said. "It's not unusual for it to go over a little bit. But it's definitely in everyone's interest to get the new contract in place as quickly as possible."

The University's graduate union is comprised of approximately 1,700 members and was founded in 1970, making it one of the oldest graduate student unions in the United States.