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Ahead of the start of contract negotiations between the Graduate Employees’ Organization and the University of Michigan, approximately 200 GEO members and supporters convened on the Diag for a rally Wednesday morning. Demonstrators marched to the Michigan League, where contract negotiations began.

GEO president Emily Gauld, a Rackham student, said GEO is taking part in a nationwide campaign to improve the accessibility of graduate education, explaining this starts with a strong union contract.

“This is the first day of what will be a months-long process, where there will inevitably be a compromise made on every side,” Gauld said to the crowd. “If we, the graduate employees and the GEO members at the University of Michigan, continue to show up every step of the way to show support for our team, for our platform and for our union, the University will hear us. We get what we are organized to take.”

At the end of the winter 2017 semester, the University and GEO reached a contract agreement that included pay caps on mental health services, the formation of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Graduate Student Student Assistant positions and increased protections for international graduate students. This contract — which expires on May 1, 2020 — came after 27 bargaining sessions, multiple sit-ins and threats of a walk-out.

GEO bargaining committee co-chair Sumeet Patwardhan, a Rackham student, said some of this year’s proposals include improved mental health and transgender health coverage, mitigating pay inequity among graduate students on the three University campuses and having gender-inclusive restrooms available across campus. He said the platform is the most ambitious GEO has ever created.

“If you’re out there feeling like other people are better equipped to win this platform than you, remember the strength of a democratic union is not in its leadership, but in its membership,” Patwardhan said to the crowd. “Let’s let the vision of our platform motivate us. Let’s let our solidarity immunize us to the divide and conquer tactics, and let’s win the platform we deserve.”  

Patwardhan said 20 working groups within GEO have built the platform over the last seven months. He noted the importance of showing up to membership meetings and bargaining-related events over the months ahead.

State Rep. Yousef Rabhi, D-Ann Arbor, shared his support for GEO at the rally. He said GEO is an example of what graduate students elsewhere can accomplish if they unionize. 

“You’re fighting for an issue that is about the future of our state and that is about making sure that everyone has access to a good-quality education,” Rabhi said. “On behalf of the people of the 53rd District, I want to thank you for your work in furthering the issue of social justice and furthering the issues of economic justice in our state. What you’re doing here in Ann Arbor is setting the stage for what can happen in other parts of the state, too, when graduate employees organize, stick together and fight for their rights.”

After the rally, the group marched to the Michigan League, reciting chants encouraging the University to listen to their demands. Before the bargaining team went inside to begin negotiations, Devlin Mallory, a Rackham student and member of the team, addressed the crowd.

Mallory said the likelihood of their demands being met is tied to GEO’s organizing. He encouraged members and supporters to continue showing up for events and thanked the hundreds of union members who contributed to the building of their platform.

“Our strength at the bargaining table doesn’t come from rhetorical skills or the logical soundness of our arguments, it comes from the power of our membership,” Mallory said. “As the bargaining team, we’re excited to continue the progress you’ve started and win an equitable and just contract.”

University spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald wrote in an email to The Daily negotiations between the University and GEO will happen twice every week going forward. He characterized Wednesday’s initial session as “productive.”

In a written statement to The Daily, 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.”

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