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Amid the usual bustling activity in Mason Hall, more than 200 University of Michigan graduate student instructors lined the walls on Tuesday afternoon to display the labor of graduate student workers. The demonstration comes on the heels of the University’s multiple rejections to contract proposals from the Graduate Employees’ Organization.
GEO began contract negotiations with the University administration last November. The organization met with University Human Resources twice a week for a few hours to introduce proposals and language crucial to the bargaining process.
GEO’s initial bargaining with HR resulted in productive developments on expanding trans health care access and building union security, according to GEO’s press release. However, GEO’s frustration with the University’s administration is due to HR’s rejections — with no counteroffers — of proposals related to climate, housing and food justice, a demilitarized workplace, disability and mental health accommodations and protections against sexual assault. Both GEO and HR have agreed to reach a tentative agreement by Mar. 1, 2020.
GEO President Emily Gauld, a Rackham student, spoke to The Daily before the grade-in and described GEO’s disappointment with the University’s rejection of proposals for promoting equitable and accessible working conditions.
“We spent many hours answering questions about the language and trying to start problem-solving,” Gauld said. “They were really trying to understand the root of the problem we were getting at, we were trying to articulate that as clearly as possible. We were hoping their counters would provide us with some sense of how they saw we could address the problem or where they could meet us in the middle. And to get rejections on everything felt like all of those conversations were essentially wasted.”
In an interview with The Daily in Dec. 2019, University President Mark Schlissel said he values unions and believes in negotiating to find reasonable solutions all parties are satisfied with.
“What unions do with employers is they negotiate,” Schlissel said. “So demands aren’t negotiation — they say ’you must do this.’ The idea is to spend time understanding each others’ goals and figuring out which ones are the most important, since no one ever gets everything they want in a negotiation, and then you sit down and work. And it’s hard work. And they’ll meet a couple of times a week for many months trying to figure out what’s a win-win. There are some things GEO is going to want that they just aren’t going to get. There are other things they want that are reasonable and they will get them.”
In 2017, the University and GEO reached a contract agreement addressing pay caps on mental health services, formation of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Graduate Student Student Assistant positions and greater protections for international graduate students. This contract was the result of 27 bargaining sessions, multiple sit-ins and threats of a walk-out.
Gauld said the purpose of the grade-in was both a response to HR’s proposal rejections and its impact on the future of graduate student workers.
“We see it really as an opportunity to make the labor that graduate students do visible,” Gauld said. “We’ve been asked more than once at the table what does the University get in return for the asks that we’re making, which is a bit of a trick question because they’re already getting our labor. So we want to make sure that it’s clear what exactly that labor is, how much we put into this University, and that our asks do not outweigh the work that we do.”
Rackham student Sumeet Patwardhan, co-chair of the GEO Bargaining Committee, attended the grade-in and spoke to The Daily about how GEO’s purpose and values impacted him.
“When I first became a graduate student here, I didn’t even know what a union was, that’s where I was sort of coming from into this process,” Patwardhan said. “I just felt it was very empowering to know that I wouldn’t have to fight for my rights and protections as a graduate student worker all by myself but that there is this union that would be collectively fighting for us.”
Rackham student Angela Sun, a GSI, attended the grade-in for the entire three hours to show support for the members of GEO working towards a fair employment contract for the upcoming three years.
“I’m here to show my support for people who are sitting at the bargaining table and fighting for the rights of graduate students,” Sun said. “And the grade-in is important because we want to make visible the labor that graduate students do for the benefit of undergraduates.”
LSA sophomore Natalie Suh was walking through Mason Hall and was interested in hearing more about the GEO grade-in. She discussed the importance of GSIs in her undergraduate classes and recognized the value of their contributions.
“I’ve heard of GEO before, and I’ve heard of some of the work that they’re doing,” Suh said. “I think it’s really awesome that they’re being visible because I think a lot of the work that grad students do is invisibilized (sic). We go do discussion or lab, and we only see them for an hour. But then they do so much behind the scenes, they prepare whatever we do that day, they grade our papers, and they do so much work. Honestly, from what I’ve heard the conditions aren’t great for them. I think the University should treat them a lot better.”
Reporter Kristina Zheng can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org