Since it was first founded, the University of Michigan’s Graduate Employees’ Organization has persistently pushed boundaries and moved the University forward. With its fierce advocacy for graduate student rights, the union has played a critical role in shaping campus conversations and leading cultural change. Unfortunately, however, the past three years have seen this once illustrious organization devolve into chaos.
After the University made an extreme effort to reduce learning loss by bringing undergraduates back to campus in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, GEO launched a strike in favor of remote classes. Despite the University’s rigid safety measures and ready availability of testing, GEO made the decision to go on strike, putting them at odds with both U-M administration and concerned undergraduates hoping for an in-person classroom experience. Since then, GEO has continued to push unreasonable proposals that have damaged the credibility of the organization.
Most recently, GEO made headlines through its extreme demands during ongoing contract negotiations with the University. With the organization asking for a $14,500 raise to the minimum stipend for graduate student instructors and a cap on section sizes, and a caucus within it supporting the abolition of the Division of Public Safety and Security, GEO’s demands leave little room for compromise and risk starting another strike as the May 1 deadline for a new contract approaches.
Perhaps the most curious aspect of the current round of contract negotiations is GEO’s demand for a “living wage.” To date, this demand has been the focal point of the organization’s campaign, with GEO marketing that graduate students are paid only 62% Ann Arbor’s living wage of $38,537. This claim is misguided at best and deceitful at worst. With the typical graduate student working approximately 16-20 hours a week and being paid a median hourly wage of around $35 an hour, students are making almost double Ann Arbor’s living hourly wage of $18.67 an hour.
Furthermore, GSIs receive up to about $13,000 or $26,000 in tuition subsidies, depending on their in-state residency. These subsidies significantly lower the burden of student debt and combined with the typical GSI salary bring their total compensation from a part-time role above the full-time Ann Arbor living wage.
Despite their already high pay, GEO is demanding a $14,500 raise to their minimum stipend for 2,300 GSIs. This figure would cost the University over $30 million per year. This demand seems both irrational and unnecessary. Ultimately, while GSIs play a critical role on campus through their positions as instructors, they are first and foremost students. Like any other degree, pursuing a graduate degree is a long-term investment in future earning — not a path meant to immediately maximize salary.
When asked for comment on this matter, GEO President Jared Eno responded that while subsidies and other benefits help lighten the load financially, “Tuition waivers don’t pay the bills.” Citing that “8 in 10 grad workers are rent-burdened, 1in 6 aren’t confident they could handle an unexpected $500 expense, and 1 in 10 worry that they can’t afford enough food to eat,” Eno summarized many of the real struggles graduate students face. Yet, rather than arbitrarily increasing salary for all students, a more worthwhile approach would be to provide need-based rent and food assistance. By expanding these targeted programs, the University could address the most pressing concerns of GEO without inflating already high salaries. Such an approach would ensure that GEO members could live comfortably without financial strain, yet still compensate them fairly for their positions as part-time student workers.
In addition to their steep salary demands, GEO is also demanding that section sizes be capped at 18 students. Capping section sizes would mostly serve to add an additional strain on students navigating crowded majors. Enforcing a limit on the ratio of students to GSIs would create even more capacity constraints on popular classes during a period when the University is already struggling with the issue. The marginal improvements in GSI workload ultimately don’t seem to justify the immense consequences that a hard cap of 18 students would have on most U-M courses.
Though the academic demands of GEO are evidently far-fetched, some of the non-academic demands from caucuses inside the organization are even more extreme. In particular, GEO’s Abolition Caucus is calling for the abolition of DPSS. In a recent Op-Ed published by The Michigan Daily, the Abolition Caucus made the case for replacing DPSS with a community-based, unarmed non-police force. Though the abolition of DPSS has not been one of the contract demands presented to the University by GEO negotiators, the extreme positions being publicly espoused by some GEO members are making it harder for both sides to come to an agreement.
Though there is a valid argument for common-sense police reforms on campus, abolishing DPSS would fundamentally jeopardize students. While hiring more community officers to handle nonviolent situations is a worthwhile approach, existing guards should not be removed. With no armed security for dorms, hospitals or campus buildings, students would lose a key barrier protecting them from violent crime and ensuring the safety of young undergraduates. After the recent string of devastating attacks at other colleges including the University of Virginia, the University of Idaho and, most recently, Michigan State University, having officers available to protect students from harmful people is evidently an important safety measure. Even beyond the drastic nature of the proposal, making abolition a key component of negotiations demonstrates a clear lack of focus in talks. With no direct relevance to graduate student life, the proposal more closely resembles a broad wishlist item than a clear focal point.
Ultimately, if GEO hopes to avoid a strike and preserve its reputation on campus, it’s paramount that negotiators tone down the rhetoric and make more reasonable demands. While talks can still be salvaged, doing so requires compromise on pay raises and a narrowing of requests to more attainable areas such as healthcare and childcare subsidies. In doing so, graduate students can finally back down from their recent inflammatory actions and work toward forming a more cohesive U-M community.
Nikhil Sharma is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at email@example.com.
Editors’ note: An earlier version of this piece mischaracterized the number of GSIs available to staff competitive classes as fixed, which is not the case. Likewise, an earlier version of this piece could be interpreted as claiming that all negotiations ceased after the 2020 strike, which is not true. A sentence has been added to further clarify the distinction between GEO as an organization and its caucuses. An earlier version of this piece included a claim that 62% of GSIs make Ann Arbor’s Living Wage, as calculated by MIT’s Living Wage Calculator — this figure was based on a misinterpretation of a previous GEO release, and has been removed.