BY THERESA KENNELLY
Published March 6, 2008
When members of the Writers Guild of America hit the streets on Nov. 5 during strike negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, their purpose was more than just to fight for a more profitable and updated contract. Sure, they wanted their contract to include fair compensation for DVD sales and new media. But WGA members also seemed to want to show their grubby bosses that they deserved respect, especially when they brought the entire movie and television business to a grinding halt by refusing to write all-important scripts. The WGA fought what Los Angeles Times writer Patrick Goldstein, and many others called "the good fight."
On a smaller and less glamorous scale, some University employees are engaged in their own contract negotiations that seem to be about more than just creating a fairer contract with more appropriate pay. GEO's demands are becoming more about power and respect than the organization would like to admit.
In case you have ignored your graduate student instructors talking about it, bypassed the fliers or missed the "grade-in for visibility" in Angell Hall last month, the Graduate Employees' Organization needs to form a new contract with the University. The group determines employment terms for those graduate student who seem to do most of the teaching here. What has become a triennial event, new contract negotiations have kicked off a series of bargaining sessions and could lead to a GSI walkout, like they did for one day in 2005.
While GEO would likely reject any similarity to the WGA and its contract negotiations, because GEO's demands are more about getting basic employee benefits than esteem or clout at the University, it's hard to say that GEO's negotiations don't have a self-righteous quality. I have heard the way many GEO members talk about their position at the University and their pomposity is unmistakable.
The self-righteous attitude is somewhat justified. They are right to want compensation for the hard work they put into the University, especially when you buy their argument that University administrators undervalue them.
But then again, WGA argued that its writers were being overworked and underappreciated, too. This then begs the question of the GEO's negotiations with the University: Is GEO really fighting a needed fight for academics?
Looking at GEO's strike platform, it appears like the group is fighting for a noble cause. It wants a pay increase that aligns its members' salaries with the minimal livable income for Ann Arbor residents, which means a 9 percent increase in the next year and 3 percent increases for the two years after that. The group also wants better benefits for graduate student parents, including extended leave time and increased child care subsidies. GEO is also asking that the GSI health care plan cover mental health care.
I would really like to support GEO and its new contract platforms. I have listened to GSIs plead their case to the Daily's editorial board multiple times. I paid attention when GSIs and lecturers discussed contract problems in March 2005. I didn't cross picket lines when classes were cancelled. Heck, I even helped coordinate a student protest freshman year when a certain LSA department was mistreating some GSIs. I have listened, and I have acted.
But I don't think I can anymore. I think it's time that GSIs value all of the benefits they do get from the University and how much better off they are than millions of graduate students and teacher assistants around the country. Few of them seem to realize it.
They are, first and foremost, students, and many of them aren't even that good at instructing. And as far as I can infer from my exponentially increasing tuition payments, money doesn't grow on Ann Arbor trees for the University to pick.
I know it shouldn't be about me or the University's money constraints. It should be about the University owning up to its own standards and giving back to the people it makes do most of the dirty work. It should be about academics getting the credit they deserve for their research and instructing.
It's just hard to ignore how GEO magically comes up with so many demands every three years. How many more needy requests can they argue for and be willing to strike over?
It would be undemocratic and irresponsible to say that GEO should just accept the University's contract terms and offers. It would be equally irresponsible to deny GEO's demands saying its members ought to accept poverty when they choose to be an academic and wait to start a family until after they get out of graduate school. By no means should GEO give up the fight completely.
But GEO needs to take a lesson from its own playbook and start appreciating how much GSIs are already appreciated as employees. GEO is really only losing respectability every time it demands more of it at the contract bargaining table because it is displaying its own greediness. And this is why GEO is no longer fighting the good fight.
Theresa Kennelly is an associate editorial page editor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.