Quote card by Opinion.

On Jan. 10, University of Michigan President Santa Ono held a talk to discuss the University’s record on and aspirations for the ideals of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Members of the Graduate Employees’ Organization were outside holding a picket to call attention to how the University has created a crisis of affordability and unsafe working conditions for graduate workers. This situation disproportionately affects graduate workers from marginalized backgrounds and is directly counter to the University’s crucial commitment to DEI. Graduate workers have been fighting for months for a contract that would hold the University accountable to that commitment and ensure affordability and dignity for all graduate workers.

Our bargaining platform is motivated by one transformative idea: Being a graduate student at the University should be possible for everyone, not just those who have access to generational wealth. That’s why dozens of graduate students spent hundreds of hours putting together a set of demands that would make life as a graduate student here in Ann Arbor both affordable and dignified for all of us. Our platform would guarantee a baseline living wage for graduate student workers while also providing additional support to certain groups of workers, such as parents and international students, whose cost of living can be much higher. We’re also calling for policies that would reduce vulnerability to harassment, including a transitional funding program for graduate students to escape abusive advisors (and other relationships) and funding for a community-based, non-police, unarmed response program. These are common-sense reforms that the University can implement by using a tiny fraction of its vast material resources.

The centerpiece of our platform — a living wage of $38,838 a year — would make life as a graduate student in Ann Arbor livable for those who are not independently wealthy. The gap between the cost of living in Ann Arbor and what graduate student instructors typically make in a year has been growing ever since the pandemic. While GSIs were “only” facing a deficit of $5,240 when our current contract came into force in 2020, now — at the end of our contract’s lifecycle — we’re facing a gap of $14,484, more than 60% of our total salary. 

For many graduate students, the $24,053 we currently get for teaching in the fall and winter semesters is all we have to live on for the entire year. The vast majority of us — fully 80% — pay more than 30% of our salaries in rent each month, meaning our rent burdens are unaffordable according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. A graduate student paying the average Ann Arbor rent of $1,912 a month would have only $1,109 left over for the entire year. For graduate students who can’t rely on family wealth for support — and especially for those graduate students who have to support their families themselves — the current salary is barely even enough to scrape by. The 2% annual raise proposed by the University in the most recent bargaining session — which represents an effective wage cut in real terms given current levels of inflation — does not even come close to addressing the serious financial shortfall grad students are facing.

For large sections of our membership, however, even that living wage is not enough. Equity means giving additional support to those whose cost of living is higher. Disabled graduate students shouldn’t have to risk going into overdraft to pay for treatment for chronic health conditions. Similarly, given the well-documented mental health crisis among graduate students, we should have access to vital mental health care without onerous copays. An emergency fund for international graduate student workers (something already available at Harvard) would mean that international graduate students wouldn’t have to worry about covering unexpected visa costs or purchasing an expensive plane ticket home in case of a family emergency. Breaking down barriers to accessing transgender health care would reduce the financial and emotional costs that trans graduate students have to bear if they are to avail themselves of this lifesaving care. And a centralized, common application would make GSI positions and their accompanying tuition waivers — a crucial lifeline that can make increasingly expensive Master’s degrees possible for those who aren’t independently wealthy — more accessible. If the University wants people from marginalized social positions to be part of this community, it needs to make graduate school work for everyone.

Getting serious about equity also means addressing the way the University currently undervalues “feminized labor” — care work that is traditionally (though not exclusively) done by women. Activists and scholars have long argued that such work is underpaid, if it is compensated at all. Indeed, a big part of the struggle is getting those in power to even acknowledge that this kind of labor is work, and therefore worthy of compensation. Our platform addresses this issue in two important ways. 

First, we’re demanding a minimum wage of $20 per hour for the mandatory, unpaid, field placement internships that Master of Social Work students must do as part of their degrees. Social workers as a whole are already underpaid and overworked, and according to Aerie Davey, a former U-M MSW student, “it sends a message that the work we do is not valuable, which is a lie. And I would also say … it’s misogynistic, as well, in this predominantly woman-dominated field.” Unlike in the woman-dominated School of Social Work, mandatory internships in the Ross School of Business  and the Ford School of Public Policy are typically compensated. 

The second way our platform addresses the University’s undervaluing of “feminized labor” is through our childcare demands. Right now, the childcare subsidy eligibility requirements exclude any care that is not done by a licensed childcare provider. The work of childcare does not stop being work if it is done by a family member, a neighbor or a nanny. All childcare labor is work and deserves to be compensated as such. That’s why we’re calling for the University to remove the licensed care requirement, as it did during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even the loftiest speech about equity counts for nothing if the University refuses to compensate care workers.

Our platform would also make campus more inclusive by addressing the widespread harassment, discrimination and abuse that disproportionately targets the most marginalized people at the University. High-profile cases of harassment and assault are only the most prominent indicators of the University’s culture of harassment. Our 2021 membership survey found that up to 29% of female graduate students had been sexually harassed at the University, and at least one in four grad students of color had experienced racism, with even higher rates among disabled, Black, LGBTQIA+ and economically disadvantaged graduate students. We propose a no-questions-asked transitional funding program that would provide at least one semester of funding so that graduate students could escape abusive advisor (and other) relationships. This would build on a similar but limited program already established by LSA. 

For too many, police are also a source of harassment, discrimination and abuse. Our membership survey showed that over a quarter of students had negative interactions with DPSS, with higher rates among Black graduates. The vast majority of DPSS activity is not in response to violence but rather to situations that do not require armed police officers. There is an urgent need for a non-police, unarmed alternative to police to address public safety needs — and the community-based Coalition for Re-envisioning Our Safety has been doing just that for over a year; CROS received endorsements from GEO and more than 40 other organizations. CROS’ evidence-based public safety program would serve all of Washtenaw County, including the Ann Arbor campus, so we’re calling on the University to pay its fair share to support this innovative and exciting new initiative.

Taken together, these proposals would make graduate school significantly more inclusive and equitable by the beginning of the 2023-24 academic year. As graduate workers, we recognize that our struggles are interconnected and that we must fight for a campus and community in which people from all backgrounds can not only survive but thrive. The common-sense reforms in our platform would support the greater diversity on campus that is so urgently needed. 

In setting out the University’s new workplace values, President Ono said, “words are not enough — our behaviors matter.” We couldn’t agree more and hope that his administration will stay true to its commitments to DEI and work with us to make these proposals a reality. 

The Graduate Employees Organization at the University of Michigan can be reached at UMGEO@geo3550.org.