Starting this September, graduate students will be paid to help the University of Michigan implement various units’ Diversity, Equity and Inclusion strategic plans. They will be compensated in a way that’s never been done before: with full-tuition waivers, stipends that cover the cost of living and health insurance. This marks the first time that any university has provided union-level pay and benefits to students who do diversity work on campus, and it happened thanks to a campaign led by a multi-ethnic coalition of labor and racial justice activists.

A proposal for fair compensation

The Graduate Employees’ Organization, the labor union representing graduate student instructors and staff assistants, and the Multicultural Leadership Council, a coalition of graduate student organizations representing diverse campus communities, campaigned aggressively for the creation of formal positions that would offer fair compensation for students doing DEI work. The need to improve the campus climate was a central priority for both groups because of ongoing issues regarding race and the lack of diversity on campus. Their concerns came in the aftermath of the grassroots #BBUM campaign, a student-driven effort that highlighted racial injustice at the University, and eventually pressured the University to respond with its campus-wide DEI Initiative.

In fall 2015, the DEI initiative called on school units to draft their own strategic plans on aggressive deadlines. Units struggled with limited resources and staff capacity, and often failed to fully integrate the voices of students. Two graduate students who would eventually help lead GEO’s DEI campaign, Jamie Tam and Velma Lopez, published an op-ed about how the DEI initiative would fail if it continued to rely on unpaid minority labor. There was rising frustration with the lack of student agency and compensation in the University’s DEI rollout. By March 2016, leaders from the MLC were meeting with and calling on administrators for greater transparency and accountability in developing strategic plans that engage meaningfully with students — calls they would continue to make throughout DEI implementation.

At the same time, GEO was making plans to advocate for racial justice through its upcoming contract bargaining with the University later that year. Starting in fall 2016, the union would be negotiating the terms of its agreement with the University regarding graduate student workers’ pay and benefits. Members, recognizing the link between workers’ rights and racial justice, were vocal about the need to get involved. Many students from marginalized communities, including GEO and MLC members themselves, often do diversity work for little or no pay. By expecting free or cheap labor from vulnerable groups, the DEI initiative was unwittingly exacerbating social disparities. To address the lack of capacity and student agency in DEI strategic planning, the GEO DEI committee developed a proposal to create 23 DEI graduate student staff assistant positions, with at least one DEI GSSA per school unit. These positions would ensure that graduate students engaged in high-level DEI work would be compensated with the same pay, benefits and union protections as graduate student instructors. It was consistently voted and ranked within the top three bargaining priorities for GEO members.

The university ignores the proposal

The proposal was presented to the University that December, only to be rejected and ignored thereafter. GEO’s DEI committee mounted a pressure campaign in partnership with community leaders. More than 1,200 faculty, students and staff signed a petition in response to the University’s decision, and 42 campus organizations co-signed the MLC’s “Pay Students for Diversity Labor” statement. GEO reached out to key administrators, answering questions about the proposal and emphasizing its urgency given the rise in hate crimes on campus. Despite widespread support, the University’s unwavering stance throughout contract negotiations was to refuse to acknowledge it.

With only a few weeks left in the term and still no movement on the proposal, the University threatened to stall negotiations on other key issues (e.g., increasing wages, health care coverage) unless DEI was removed from GEO’s contract platform. This “divide and conquer” strategy sought to pit graduate students against one another by threatening to risk progress in other areas if the union continued to press on DEI. GEO’s bargaining team worried that the University would offer it a deal on everything except the DEI proposal, jeopardizing the union’s commitment to racial justice solidarity.

GEO’s bargaining team and DEI committee reluctantly recommended dropping DEI from contract negotiations as a contingency plan if the University continued to ignore the proposal. Union members very narrowly voted to support this recommendation. Afterward, emotions ran high as GEO members expressed regret and frustration about this discussion and vote as well as the union’s failure to fully include marginalized voices in the decision-making process. This pushed GEO leaders to re-examine their own complicity in the current campus climate and reflect on how to hold the union more accountable to its members of color.

A special meeting was convened two days later to revisit the issue with students of color. After a long, thoughtful discussion, the DEI committee reversed its recommendation and recommitted to forwarding the GSSA proposal. GEO faced a choice to either contribute to the exclusion and exploitation of students of color at the University, or stand in solidarity with them. Ultimately the union chose not to play into the University’s strategy to divide its members. 

Progress at the final hour

With less than two weeks left of the semester and the DEI GSSA proposal reaffirmed as a top priority, GEO held an emergency meeting. GEO leaders implored members to stand together in solidarity for one another’s platform issues, recognizing that unless members cared for the material needs of marginalized students, the union would fail. Union members agreed to authorize a walk out, and more than 800 graduate students, including GSIs, signed up to strike for two days unless the University offered a deal on every part of the bargaining platform, including the DEI GSSA proposal.

During this time, administrators suggested that instead of paying for DEI GSSAs, the University could form a task force to assess the appropriateness of graduate students doing DEI labor in any capacity. Listening to its members’ voices state that convening a task force was not enough, GEO organized a sit-in in the hallways next to the first task force meeting. Three hundred and fifty graduate students showed up to the sit-in, carrying signs asking the University to stop ignoring the proposal.

With the threat of GSIs walking out days before final examinations and the outpouring of support for the DEI GSSA proposal at the sit-in, the University finally offered a deal of six contractually guaranteed DEI GSSA positions housed in the Rackham Graduate School. Although this was fewer than the 23 positions initially proposed, members felt it was enough movement for now. With a compromise that also included caps on mental health co-pays, extended parental leave and wage increases, GEO members voted overwhelmingly to ratify the proposed contract. Equally as important, 200 members signed a pledge to continue the fight for fair compensation and diversity, equity and inclusion on campus.

And the work continued. The DEI committee met throughout the summer to strategize next steps and expand the number of DEI GSSA positions on campus. The University’s task force also met weekly all summer, allegedly to produce recommendations on graduate student diversity labor. However, to date it has not issued any recommendations or taken public action to address concerns raised by the community.

Six DEI GSSA positions and counting

A shift in the campus mentality toward student diversity labor is taking place. While the contract only mandated the hire of six graduate students as DEI GSSAs, three more have been hired across the University. But graduate students at the University know that nine DEI GSSAs to serve the entire campus population is not enough. Members of the community want to see each school unit, including LSA and the College of Engineering, demonstrate leadership and commitment to fair compensation by funding its own DEI GSSAs.

These positions are particularly unique because they include health insurance benefits and union protections. Vidhya Aravind, another leader of the GEO DEI committee, describes how access to health care through these roles makes the difference: “As a brown, trans girl, I find myself constantly doing ‘DEI labor’ to make my academic environments survivable. At the same time, I struggle at home with the costs of transition and related health care. The pay and benefits of a DEI GSSA position would allow students like me to survive and still be able to do this work.” Students also shared anonymous stories about how they have faced retaliation from faculty and administrators when they have spoken up about DEI issues; leaders from across the MLC have expressed the importance of providing union protections to graduate students doing DEI work.

While many administrators continue to suggest hiring students as temporary hourly workers instead of offering DEI GSSA roles, the DEI committee is firm in its belief that hiring students exclusively as temps denies them real agency in strategic planning. To meaningfully incorporate students in the campus-wide DEI initiative, administrators must treat students like equal contributors, ensuring that students have much more agency in the process than if they were relegated to unpaid or low-paid positions. Furthermore, DEI GSSA roles would increase the level of accountability and transparency from upper-level University administration, by giving students an empowered voice in how their climate concerns and feedback are addressed. Students, especially those from marginalized communities, have important DEI leadership, experience and expertise that must be appropriately valued through fair compensation.

At a time when colleges are struggling to address hate crimes and racial tension on campus, the creation of highly paid student positions to do work that combats bias and discrimination is a novel solution. Now more than ever, we need to be paying attention to how we are valuing diversity labor. There are consequences to climate and safety when we don’t value it enough.

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