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Office hours were held in the hallways of Haven Hall on Thursday as the Graduate Employees’ Organization — the labor union representing graduate student instructors and graduate student staff assistants employed by the University of Michigan — held a “grade-in” to promote awareness of the contract-bargaining process they have been undertaking with the University since November and to increase visibility of graduate student labor.
About 100 GSIs and GSSAs crowded the ledges and the floor along the hall from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. for the grade-in, in an effort to make the work graduate students do for undergraduate students and the University visible.
Some of the GEO’s proposals, intended to improve diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility for graduate student employees, were declined or not satisfactorily met by the University’s most recent offer.
“We hope that this (grade-in) indicates to the University that we’re paying attention and that we expect more,” said Rackham student Denise Bailey, a member of the GEO.
“The University, in our opinion, can afford to support us more than they do,” Bailey added, citing that 23 percent of undergraduate contact with faculty is with GSIs, but 1 percent of the University’s budget is reserved for graduate student staff, a statistic included in the GEO’s press releases.
When reached for comment, University spokeswoman Kim Broekhuizen wrote in an email, “Negotiations are underway, so it would be premature to get into specifics. We believe we will reach a successful resolution.”
Among the proposals that GEO representatives say have not been met by the University is the creation of paid staff positions for graduate students working on diversity programs as part of the Diversity, Equity & Inclusion plan launched by University President Mark Schlissel in October of last year. The plan established programs across several departments, which include research, event planning and designing course materials. There is currently no paid staffing attached to these programs.
“Usually the people who are doing diversity work are people of color,” said Rackham student Sara Chadwick, co-chair of communications for the GEO. “So the purpose of asking the University to create some paid positions for that kind of diversity labor is to ensure that that labor doesn’t unfairly fall onto the shoulders of people of color, who are not getting paid for it.”
Rackham student Rachel Miller added not having these positions means the burden of implementing the University’s initiative is disproportionately falling on the people it is meant to serve.
Many graduate student staff were also concerned about protections for international students. According to GEO President John Ware, a Rackham student, more than 30 percent of GSIs are international.
“Most of those people have visas that prohibit them from working more than 20 hours a week, but under our current contract, their supervisors can require them to work more than 20 hours a week,” Ware said. “We proposed a change to the work hours rules that would protect people from being required to violate their visas.”
Ware argued the University has offered insufficient solutions or outright declined to take on the problems that the GEO’s proposals aim to solve. In the case of international students, Ware said the University declined to change the work hours rules and proposed a change in the language of offer letters instead.
Rackham student Drew Johnson emphasized the importance of this proposal.
“One thing that’s really important to me, especially at this political moment, is that we look out for graduate employees who are international students," Johnson said. "And that we make sure that they’re receiving whatever protections we can put in place for them.”
Improved protections for international students have been demanded of the University at large following executive orders made by President Donald Trump, and committees and initiatives have been formed to work to that end.
Other important issues for graduate students impacted by the bargaining process are affordability and accessibility.
“We really need (a pay increase) that would bring us up to a living wage in Ann Arbor, which we really need if graduate education is going to be accessible to people without family wealth to rely on, people who may have debt from undergrad,” Ware said, adding the University’s offer of pay increases over the next three years was not sufficient. Contracts are renegotiated every three years.
The cost of living in Ann Arbor is higher than in the majority of other cities in Michigan, and the housing market for students is highly competitive.
“A lot of the time (the work GSIs do) becomes kind of invisible for undergrads and for the day to day life at the University,” Johnson said. “We want to make sure people can see the work that GSIs do and how committed we are to making Michigan a great place to be a graduate student and a great place to be a student, period.”
Rackham student Mary Hennessy also advocated for the grade-in to spread awareness about the work of the GEO.
“We’re a democratically run organization, and this is a way for us to show our commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion and democracy on a local level — where we work and learn,” Hennessy said during the event.
She added this was especially important given the environment created by the Trump administration, which seems to be undermining these principles. This statement elicited nods and snaps from the circle of graduate students seated on the floor with her, laptops and books surrounding them.