GEO hosts town hall discussing housing market and climate change in Ann Arbor

Wednesday, February 19, 2020 - 9:53pm

 Emily Gauld, GEO President and Rackham student, speaks in the Climate and Housing Justice Town Hall at Rackham Auditorium Wednesday evening.

Emily Gauld, GEO President and Rackham student, speaks in the Climate and Housing Justice Town Hall at Rackham Auditorium Wednesday evening. Buy this photo
Hannah Yoo/Daily

The Graduate Employees’ Organization held a town hall on affordable housing and climate change in Rackham Graduate School to an auditorium full of students and GEO members Wednesday evening. 

Rackham student Emily Gauld started the town hall with a quick history of GEO. She also highlighted the hardworking qualities of GEO’s bargaining team.

“We are currently bargaining twice a week,” Gauld said. “The bargaining team is in the room for four hours at a time, so that’s eight hours a week, in the room with HR, on top of all of the extra work outside of that.” 

Sumeet Patwardhan, bargaining committee co-chair of GEO, told the Daily that many of their larger efforts around climate and housing have been dismissed despite their right to bargain.

“They labeled many of the proposals, but not all of them as permissive issues,” Patwardhan said. “Which means that they deemed these issues outside of the contract and so because of that, they think they don’t have to bargain over them.”

As a way to convince GEO to drop their demands, the University of Michigan is refusing to discuss further negotiations for salary and benefits, Patwardhan said. Patwardhan called the tactic “bad-faith bargaining” and said the University’s decision will not distract GEO from issues affecting the community as a whole. 

“We can’t even organize around (these issues) and that’s not the kind of thing that should be permitted as a tactic at the bargaining table,”  Patwardhan told The Daily. “I also think our commitment to kind of keeping these issues in the minds of the broader community is a commitment to our members democratically generating our platform and telling us that climate and housing issues matter to them.”

In a press release regarding GEO bargaining last semester, Sascha Matish, associate vice provost for academic affairs and senior director of Academic Human Resources, said the University values graduate students and is working towards a fair agreement.

“We recognize the importance of graduate student instructors and graduate student staff assistants to the academic mission of the university and to the academic success of our students,” said Sascha Matish, associate vice provost for academic affairs and senior director of Academic Human Resources. “We are committed to bargaining in good faith with GEO to reach a fair agreement that serves the interest of all parties.”

Gauld discussed a variety of topics GEO was fighting for outside of affordable housing and climate change, including better wages and healthcare for people in the LGBTQ+ community. 

“So among the more common asks on our platform this year are reports asking for a raise that attempt to give graduate employees enough to close the gap between the outrageous cost of living in Ann Arbor,” Gauld said. “We’re trying to improve the benefits for trans healthcare and disability accommodations.” 

Next, the town hall transitioned to the topic of affordable housing. Over the last few decades, the University has grown exponentially, adding thousands of students and faculty. GEO member Joel Batterman said the University had not adjusted to this growth. 

“Over the past several decades, the University has continued to grow,” Batterman said. “Tens of thousands of more students and employees … yet the University has built a total of a thousand new beds on campus in the past thirty years.” 

Batterman critiqued the money spent on parking units and said one of GEO’s demands is to have this money spent on housing instead. 

“One of our main demands is for the University to compensate for the increases in enrollment by building 5,000 new on-campus housing units in the next five years,” Batterman said. “We spend millions to house cars, I don’t know why they can’t do the same for people.” 

GEO Solidarity Chair Amir Fleischmann said the housing crisis is not only a student body problem but a problem for Ann Arbor residents. 

“We need a union that covers all of Ann Arbor, not just students,” Fleischmann said. “If it just covers students, we won’t be as affected in building power across the community. More importantly, if it just covers students, it won’t be helping those most affected by the housing crisis." 

After the Washtenaw Office of Commission and Economic Development report found the poor state of affordable housing in Washtenaw County, Ann Arbor Housing set out a plan in 2015 to create 2,787 new affordable housing units by 2035, but they are behind on this plan. 

GEO member Noah Weaverdyck went over the plan to address climate change on campus. This would include a plan to transition towards carbon neutrality, including no further construction or investment in fossil fuel infrastructure. 

Valle spoke about food justice efforts, which included an affordable grocery store on campus and space for a community garden. He also discussed better water quality at all three U-M campuses as one of GEO’s objectives. 

“We also represent graduate students on all three campuses,” Valle said. “We want to ensure that water quality on each of those campuses and all of the drinking fountains are tested for lead.”

Once all of the proposals were presented, the room had time to discuss how the housing in Ann Arbor had affected them. The problems varied, but the overall sense of urgency was commonplace. 

LSA junior Solomon Medintz is a member of the University's Climate Action Movement organization. He came to the town hall tonight to stand with friends in GEO. 

“We think it’s important to support GEO in their bargaining efforts because GSIs and GSSAs are supporting us through all of the work that they’re doing,” Medintz said. “And also because they’re bargaining for all of us, they’re bargaining for the common good which means that they’re not just bargaining for their own grievances. They probably would get higher wages if they weren’t bargaining for issues that affect all of us.” 

Medintz said he also felt a sense of urgency to act now along with GEO members. 

“I think there’s a lot of urgency around the bargaining,” Medintz said. “The University doesn’t want to do what GEO’s asking for. That means students and undergrads have to put pressure on the University to make sure that they’re actually listening to GEO.”

Reporter Alyssa McMurtry can be reached at amcmurt@umich.edu

This article has been updated with several corrections. The GEO president's name is Emily Gauld, not Emily Sheetz. The quotes about food justice efforts were wrongly attributed to Patwardhan and is now correctly attributed to Valle. The quotes about University growth were wrongly attributed to Valle and are now attributed to Joel Batterman. Patwardhan's quotes about "bad-faith bargaining" have been clarified to note he is referring specifically to climate and housing issues.