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Over the course of five bargaining sessions and more than 40 hours of scheduled negotiations, graduate students in the Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO) at the University of Michigan have given Academic Human Resources (AHR) over 50 proposals for changes to our contract. These proposals deal with fundamental issues of affordability and dignity in our workplace, including a living wage for all graduate workers. In the two months since we initially presented our platform to AHR, however, they have not responded with a single substantive counter-offer or proposal of their own. On Jan. 6, in the first session since the Winter Break, AHR refused to bargain with us unless we agreed to closed negotiations, keeping most graduate students out of negotiating sessions; when GEO members reaffirmed our commitment to open and transparent negotiations, AHR walked away from the table. 

GEO feels that, over the past two months, AHR has continually avoided substantive issues, instead fixating on procedural details, such as the size of the bargaining room, restricting the number of attendees over zoom and limiting GEO’s ability to bring in witnesses from outside of the bargaining unit. Graduate students are fed up. The problems we’re facing, and the solutions we’re proposing, are too important to be negotiated in tiny rooms, behind closed doors and out of sight of the very people whose working and living conditions are at stake. Hundreds of graduate students have been coming to bargaining sessions, balancing our onerous teaching and research responsibilities with our desire to see our contract negotiated. AHR’s primary responsibility is to negotiate employment contracts — and their team gets paid many times more than the typical graduate student instructor, whose $24,000 salary is roughly $14,000 less than a living wage in Ann Arbor. They are not doing their jobs. It’s time for AHR to come to the table.

Graduate students at the University are facing real problems surrounding affordability and dignity in the workplace. Our members have put forward a set of demands that would follow through on the University’s public commitment to inclusivity: a living wage; a transitional funding program for graduate students who are trapped in abusive situations; reducing barriers keeping transgender workers from accessing their health care; a better childcare subsidy for parents; funding for a community-based, non-violent emergency response program; a minimum wage for Master’s of Social Work students in mandatory (unpaid) internships; and an emergency fund for international grad workers — to name only a few. These represent solutions to serious problems that are deeply felt among University graduate students. That’s why hundreds of us took part in developing our bargaining platform. That’s why over 2,400 graduate workers signed our petition calling for affordability and dignity. That’s why 400 of us showed up to our first day of bargaining. And that’s why GEO members have been steadfast in our commitment to open and transparent bargaining.

AHR claims that bargaining sessions open to more than a handful of those with a stake in the negotiations are counterproductive to reaching an agreement. Graduate workers must ultimately ratify any agreement reached at the bargaining table; involving workers from the very beginning can only speed that process up. During caucuses — where the two sides go into separate rooms to strategize internally — graduate workers have engaged in substantive discussions that are directly informed by members’ lived experiences, producing better decisions. Any concerns that AHR may have had about attendees disrupting the negotiations have been addressed by the attention, thoughtfulness and discipline that graduate workers have demonstrated in the bargaining room. 

When graduate students attend bargaining sessions, they agree to sit silently while negotiations are ongoing, only speaking if and when they are called upon to do so. In the four sessions with AHR, negotiations have gone incredibly well. GEO has not seen any disruptions during bargaining, and AHR has included no mention of disruption from GEO members in public updates released after each bargaining session. This is what a democratic union and a democratic bargaining process look like: members observing and participating as we collectively determine our contract. GEO is committed to the principle of workplace democracy; in its actions so far, AHR has shown that it is not. 

AHR’s resistance is all the more confusing because unions at the University have often used open bargaining to come to successful collective agreements. In their recent negotiations, the librarians, archivists and curators organized under the Lecturers’ Employees Organization – Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums (LEO-GLAM) had all sessions open to every LEO-GLAM member. These negotiations led to the ratification of their first-ever contract. During their negotiations last year, LEO itself had an average of over 80 members in each bargaining session and had several sessions that were open to the public. These negotiations led to historic raises for lecturers on the U-M Flint and Dearborn campuses. GEO’s very first contract negotiations were open to the general public, and our last two contract negotiations were open to any member who wanted to attend. As far as the University is concerned, open bargaining is business as usual.

Yet, instead of returning to the table and negotiating with members in the room as they have in the past, AHR has taken the highly unusual step of bringing in a state-appointed mediator to try to impose closed bargaining on our members. Mediators are typically brought in at the very end of negotiations, when parties have negotiated the issues to a standstill. Given that AHR has not seriously engaged with a single one of our substantive proposals, there is simply nothing to be mediated. We feel it’s time AHR stopped focussing on keeping members out of the room and started treating our issues with the seriousness they deserve.

When University President Santa Ono took office this fall, we were hopeful that we had turned a corner in the University’s approach to organized labor on campus. In his remarks upon being appointed president, Ono said that “my job as president will be to make this great university ever greater, even stronger, more engaged and more inclusive.” If that is the case, he should be proud of GEO and the work we’ve been doing. Graduate students at the University are more engaged than ever, and have provided thoughtful, evidence-based proposals for how to make graduate school at the University truly inclusive. We ask only that AHR come to the table to talk about them.

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