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Nearly 160 graduate student employees rallied Monday afternoon in support of proposals to improve their contracts with the University of Michigan, which have hitherto been declined. Protesters began in the Diag before marching to Palmer Commons for the Graduate Employees’ Organization’s biweekly bargaining session with the University.
The GEO — the union that represents graduate student instructors and graduate student staff assistants at the University — has been in the midst of contract negotiations since November. Their proposals were declined or not addressed sufficiently, according to GEO members.
GEO President John Ware, a physics Ph.D. student and research assistant, said the rally was organized in an effort to make visible the continued struggles graduate employees face.
“We’ve been at the table for four months now and we’ve just seen very little progress,” he said. “We’re still a long way from where we need to be, especially on some of the core issues that we really need to get us to equitable and inclusive employment for graduate employees. We think that’s really an integral component of an equitable and inclusive University.”
Ware noted the small bargaining team represents universal concerns.
“The point we’re trying to make out here is that it’s not just the six dedicated volunteers that sit at the bargaining table, that these are issues that come from the University community,” Ware said. “They are widely felt and people care about them and we’re all watching.”
One of the central proposals is to increase graduate employee pay, because the cost of living in Ann Arbor is higher than most other Michigan cities and the housing market for students is very competitive.
“Two percent won’t pay the rent,” rally-goers chanted, in reference to the insufficient 2 percent wage increase the University offered.
Ware explained graduate student employees are paid approximately 18 percent below the living wage in Ann Arbor, according to the MIT Living Wage Calculator.
GEO Communications Co-chair Sara Chadwick, a psychology and women’s studies Ph.D. student, said the rally allows graduate students to stand in solidarity despite the inadequate response from the University.
“The fact that the University has the rejected all of (the) proposals, we view as problematic and disappointing and so we want to have a big sign of solidarity amongst all of us in order to show the University that we are paying attention to these things,” she said.
Chadwick said there is an ongoing Facebook feed where graduate student employees are expressing their appreciation for the health care they receive. She said among other topics of interest, they want to make sure their premiums stay free and that families can afford health care for their dependents. The GEO is also concerned with obtaining more adequate parental leave and childcare benefits.
Chadwick said another area of interest addressed in the proposals concerns mental health services for graduate students, seeing as this population experiences high rates of depression and anxiety.
Jimmy Brancho, a chemistry Ph.D. student, gets mental health benefits through the contracted negotiated by GEO. He said he goes to a therapist for general counseling and it costs him 25 to 50 dollars each week out of pocket. He said in times he requires more services, it costs more and changes how he has to plan for the month.
“I would like to work in a place where I don’t have to make choices between if I’m going to stock my fridge with food or if I’m going to be able to talk to my therapist,” he said.
He said the current health insurance plan is insufficient.
“The way the current health insurance is set up is you’re given a maximum of, it might be six sessions, before your therapist has to ask the health care people to give you more sessions,” he said. “They normally do that, but if they didn’t we would be screwed and we’d have to pay fifty dollars per session out of pocket. There is no language to protect us from that sort of thing, as I understand it.”
The proposals are asking for monetary benefits with regard to this service.
Also among the proposals is one to protect graduate student working hours. Certain visas do not allow international students to work more than 20 hours per week. However, the University’s current contract holds that GSIs can be required to work more than 20 hours.
The issue became particularly relevant when President Donald Trump released the executive order to restrict immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries in late January. The most recent immigration legislation from Trump, however, has made changes to the initial order: Iraq has been removed from the initial list, refugees who have already been granted asylum are allowed and current visa holders are no longer affected by the ban.
In a February interview with the Daily, Sheira Cohen, a Rackham student and GSI who helped construct the proposal, said given the political climate, it is crucial to protect students on visas. Specifically, she said the discrepancy in the contract makes international students vulnerable at borders; they may be asked how many hours they work per week.
Another proposal is one to create paid positions for graduate students working on programs that are part of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion plan.
Ware emphasized the need to fix this discrepancy in his opening remarks.
“We need work, need fully compensated and union-represented positions in every school and college to implement the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion strategic plans so that those plans — which will only succeed with the irreplaceable labor of students— and that that labor doesn’t become a burden on the very people on the very people those plans are designed to help,” he said.
Surrounding a GEO grade-in in early February, Chadwick said usually people of color do diversity work. She said this proposal would ensure such diversity labor doesn’t fall onto people of color who are not getting paid.
Vidhya Aravind, a transgender woman and Master of Science Information student, works on the diversity committee and, specifically, on the demands to create 23 graduate student staff assistant positions to do diversity work.
“I asked to get involved specifically with this because I want to do institutional DEI labor, I am a brown transwoman, so ideally DEI labor is supposed to be accountable to me and help me, but it’s not,” she said. “As a way of getting involved, I saw these people were making demands that kind of aligned to my interest.”