Union leaders at the University of Michigan say they won’t sacrifice the safety of their members for the sanctity of the hybrid, in-residence fall semester starting later this month.

The Graduate Employees’ Organization, which represents more than 2,000 graduate student instructors and staff assistants, has begun bargaining with University leadership over their members’ rights during a school year that will be largely shaped by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

GEO began impact bargaining with the University on July 30 as a step beyond previous avenues of communication. Before bargaining began, GEO had weekly meetings with the Academic Human Resources department that were considered “somewhat productive but far too slow,” according to GEO Vice President Erin Markiewitz.

“We’re willing to collaborate with the University on a lot of items,” Markiewitz said. “But to be very clear, the University’s management rights do not supersede our right as workers to a safe workplace. And that is not a point we’re willing to back down from.”

GEO’s proposals include the unconditional right to work remotely for all graduate students until a vaccine is available and the ability to transition to remote instruction. The union has also asked for protection from hiring discrimination for graduate students who request to work remotely.

For students who do not adhere to health and safety protocols, GEO has asked for graduate student instructors and staff assistants to have the right to require that students leave or not enter the classroom.

Markiewitz said there may be more items passed by GEO members and brought to the University as they come up. 

One positive outcome from conversations thus far is that parents are now  allowed to use University-issued child care funds out of state, Markiewitz said. But the University still does not allow these funds to be used on non-licensed child care, according to GEO.

University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald wrote in an email that the University is “working with GEO” and “discussions continue,” but said there was nothing to share beyond that.

In April, GEO and the University reached an agreement on a new three-year contract which took effect May 1, when the previous contract expired. The contract included raises between 3 and 3.7 percent for lecturers on the University’s three campuses.

Impact bargaining for GEO, which is different than bargaining for a new contract, focuses on how COVID-19 and the University’s fall reopening plan will affect this contract, Markiewitz said. She said impact bargaining provides a more formal structure for bringing up concerns of members, which doesn’t always happen in less official modes of communication.

The University committed to a mixture of in-person and online education for the upcoming semester in late June, with an abridged calendar ending in-person instruction after Thanksgiving break. This decision has remained unchanged while colleges across the country have walked back hybrid reopening plans to primarily online instruction.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which opened Aug. 10, has been the subject of national attention after clusters of the coronavirus began springing up around campus. By Monday, 177 students had been isolated after testing positive for the virus, and another 349 had begun quarantining due to possible exposure, according to UNC officials. The school announced it would shut down in-person instruction entirely for undergraduates beginning Wednesday.

In Ann Arbor, University officials have noted how this year will look different from previous ones. Masks are required on all school grounds. The Big Ten has postponed fall sports competitions, meaning there will not be Michigan Stadium football games with 100,000-person crowds. Nearly two-thirds of courses in LSA, the University’s largest school, will be held online, according to an analysis by The Daily.

University President Mark Schlissel has said he remains optimistic about the success of the hybrid model, saying in an interview last week that “It’s more likely than not that we will make it through the semester.”

For the Lecturers’ Employee Organization, a union representing all non-tenure track faculty at the three University campuses, impact bargaining was deemed unsuccessful. LEO was asked to forgo annual raises built into their contract in return for a health care extension that would apply only to a handful of members, Vice President Kirsten Herold said.

Herold, who is a lecturer in the School of Public Health, said the union expects the health and safety clause of the LEO contract will protect members from having to work in conditions they find unsafe.

Faculty, according to Herold, are preparing for a school year like no other and are concerned about things like access to technology and child care. Part of the challenge, she said, has stemmed from the uncertainty felt around the fall semester and not knowing what will happen when classes begin at the end of the month.

“I don’t think anyone really knows what it’s going to be like come August 31,” Herold said. “It’s just difficult to imagine.”

Daily News Editor Alex Harring can be reached at harring@umich.edu.

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