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Despite a spate of cancellations across campus amid an outbreak of coronavirus, the Graduate Employees’ Organization continued their campaign for a new contract with the University of Michigan. On Tuesday afternoon, more than 80 people gathered virtually for a digital sit-in after the graduate student union and the University failed to reach a tentative agreement by March 1.
The union’s platform includes proposals related to sexual misconduct policy, climate change, housing and food security and disability and mental health accommodations.
When GEO began contract negotiations with the University’s administration last November, they called for expanded mental health and transgender health coverage and increasing pay equity. In February, GEO held a “grade-in” in Mason Hall to continue raising awareness about issues facing graduate student workers, including disability and mental health accommodations and housing equity, among others.
In a February interview with The Daily, University President Mark Schlissel said the University recognizes the important contributions of graduate student employees on campus and expressed his support for their work at the University.
“The graduate students are the lifeblood of the University, and we’re the biggest public research university in the country, if not the world,” Schlissel said. “Most of that research is done by our graduate students. They’re our partners in scholarship, they’re our successors very often in the academy; they’ll be tomorrow’s professors and leaders in society. So, we’re invested in their success.”
In a written statement to The Daily when bargaining began in November, Sascha Matish, associate vice provost for academic affairs and senior director of academic human resources, said the University is committed to working with the GEO to develop a contract both parties can agree upon.
“We recognize the importance of Graduate Student Instructors and graduate student staff assistants to the academic mission of the university and to the academic success of our students,” Matish wrote. “We are committed to bargaining in good faith with GEO to reach a fair agreement that serves the interest of all parties.”
GEO members told The Daily they held the sit-in so that their frustrations would be taken more seriously by the University administration.
Participants used the hashtag #DistancedButUnited to share their reasons for choosing to be a part of this sit-in.
Rackham student Amanda Kubic tweeted her support for the movement and why she believes GEO’s new contract will be important.
“GEO Virtual Sit-In!,” Kubric wrote. “With UM’s move to teaching all courses remotely for the rest of the semester, I am glad to have the support of GEO and the job security and health care protections our contract provides. #UMGEO #DistancedButUnited.”
In addition, Rackham student Robert Ramaswamy shared his gratitude that he will still receive a salary even with canceled courses.
“GEO VIRTUAL SIT-IN!! Tuning into our first ever virtual GMM with @RadSocialWrkr, still fighting for a #ContractThatWorks,” Ramaswamy wrote. “Today, grateful that I will still be paid and receive benefits next term, even if my course is cancelled! Thanks @geo3550 !! #UMGEO #DistancedButUnited.”
Since GEO members could not meet face-to-face given restrictions against large gatherings and social distancing protocols, they took the opportunity to make their voices heard using various social media platforms, including Facebook and Twitter.
Rackham student Luis Flores Jr., a member of GEO, said he was impressed by the turnout of both the virtual sit-in as well as the virtual membership meeting that took place later on Tuesday, where there were about 220 members in attendance.
After the University moved classes online, Flores said there was some difficulty in deciding what adjustments to make to their planned sit-in.
“At first, we tried to at least think about this on the phone or turn this into an outdoor sit-in, but by Thursday we realized that that would be irresponsible,” Flores said. “And so, we canceled it and very quickly had sort of an emergency officer meeting and tried to rethink what it would look like for us to continue to show that community and apply pressure on the University. At the same time that we’re also trying to be empathetic of where everyone is and trying to support our members as we're also trying to win this contract campaign.”
GEO member Adam Benjamin Smith tweeted in support of the union.
“I am committed to winning a #ContractThatWorks (#FromHome) because folks with disabilities should not have to jump through hoops to receive accommodations, and all workers deserve to feel safe from sexual misconduct in the workplace #UMGEO #DistancedButUnited,” Smith wrote.
Reporter Brayden Hirsch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.