400 protesters demand employment equity at sit-in for GEO contract negotiations
Hundreds of protesters crowded the Fleming Administration Building on Tuesday afternoon, chanting, “UM works because we do,” as part of a sit-in organized by the Graduate Employees’ Organization. GEO — the labor union representing about 2,000 graduate-student employees at the University of Michigan — stated its proposals to make graduate employment more equitable at the University have not been taken seriously during the contract-negotiation process.
About 400 people, most of them graduate students, filtered in and out of the building and the courtyard surrounding it between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. to show support for GEO. The narrow hallway of the bottom floor of the building was almost entirely crowded by graduate-student instructors and graduate-student staff assistants throughout the day, similar to an earlier “grade-in” held by GEO February in Haven Hall, when representatives first communicated dissatisfaction with the University’s response to their proposals.
GEO and the University Human Resources department have been negotiating a new three-year contract for graduate-student employees since last September, as the current contract expires at the end of April. GEO brings proposals crafted by the graduate-student community to bargaining sessions that typically occur once a week.
Chief among the proposals that GEO members emphasize, which include pay raises, expanded health-care benefits and protection for international students, is the establishment of unionized positions for graduate-student staff assistants doing diversity work on behalf of the University’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion plan. Rackham student Rachel Miller said the human-resources department has refused to discuss the issue during the bargaining process, arguing it is not a mandatory subject for the contract, but DEI administrators then informed GEO the proposal was under the purview of contract negotiators.
“They also won’t talk about it with us anywhere else because they say we’re talking about bargaining, so we’re getting stonewalled all over the place,” Miller said.
School of Information student Vidhya Aravind currently works part time on the University Library’s implementation team for the DEI initiative and said such positions are demanding and require expertise, justifying compensation on par with other graduate positions.
“I think it’s important to recognize that diversity labor is labor,” she said.” It takes a lot of effort, a lot of time, a lot of energy and a lot of expertise.”
Aravind went on to compare her work on the library team to her experience volunteering with the School of Information’s DEI unit, which she described as a mess.
"Some DEI units have that expertise, some DEI units have demonstrated that they don’t,” Aravind said. “Some units are taking in student input and have these GSSA positions already, which is amazing, but we want that across the spectrum of the academic DEI plan, because we think it’s important that marginalized students have better platforms for input than they currently do. We understand that marginalized students have the expertise the University needs for DEI to succeed, and marginalized students have needs which the University is equipped to cover.”
On other issues, GEO members still feel that the University has not agreed to do enough to help.
Referring to a Detroit News op-ed written by the presidents of several Michigan universities, including University President Mark Schlissel on the subject of international students and faculty, which asserted support for international students and faculty, Miller said GEO is calling for “actual protections (for international students), not just language.” A proposal by GEO to create work-hour caps on GSIs in support of students on visas with work quotas was met by hesitation and concern from faculty members on the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs earlier this month.
In an interview last week, Schlissel said he could not comment on negotiations, but pushed GSIs to reframe their work week as a critical portion of their learning experiences in academia.
“The union perceives it as work for pay, but it’s actually more of a training,” he said.
In regard to salary rates, GEO President John Ware, a Rackham student, explained the raise offered by the University did not keep up with Ann Arbor’s cost of living.
“The cost of living is up more than 6 percent this year over last year in Ann Arbor, and we’ve been offered a 2.5-percent raise,” he said.
University spokeswoman Kim Broekhuizen wrote in an email statement that the current proposal on the table offers wage increases every year, in addition to increased leave time for parental accommodation and bereavement, as well as additional protections for international graduate-student instructors to comply with work restrictions required to maintain their visa status.
“We appreciate the Graduate Employee Organization’s commitment to not disrupting activities in these buildings during this planned activity,” she wrote. “Talks continue and we are hopeful about having a new contract in place soon.”
Toward the end of the sit-in, demonstrators congregated in the entrance of the Administration Building, taking turns to share their reasons for being there — including needs for greater child-care subsidies, health-care subsidies and higher wages. After each speaker, the crowd cheered and clapped, while employees in the building squeezed past to get to the elevator or a nearby office.
“I’m here even though I’m leaving soon because I care about future generations of (graduate) students on this campus, and because I did a lot of work in DEI, never being compensated or recognized for it, which derailed my own progress and success,” said a Rackham student who asked to stay anonymous. “But I think that future generation should have it better than I had.”