From the Daily: We stand with our GSIs and GSSAs

Sunday, April 9, 2017 - 3:02pm

The Graduate Employees’ Organization, the labor union that represents graduate student instructors and graduate student staff assistants at the University of Michigan, is in the process of negotiating a new contract for union members. GEO hopes the new contract will address issues of the rising cost of living in Ann Arbor, health care and diversity labor under the University’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion plan. The climate surrounding the negotiations has become more heated in recent weeks, with the union holding a number of protests, including a 400-person sit-in at the Fleming Administration Building. The Michigan Daily Editorial Board calls upon the University to support a contract that acknowledges the changes in cost of living and other benefit needs graduate students face since their last contract negotiation, and we implore the University to pay graduate students for diversity labor under their new contract. 

As of now, the University’s proposals for GSI and GSSA salaries and benefits do not appear to respect the value of their labor. Graduate students play a particularly tangible role in undergraduate education, often serving as a valuable link between a student’s desire to learn and achieving mastery in a subject by teaching small discussion sections that complement large lecture courses. GSIs alleviate much of the burden of grading and additional instructional hours that would otherwise fall on the backs of faculty. In addition to doing this labor, graduate students have coursework of their own to attend to, making it hard for them to find time to supplement their income through other jobs.

While the relationship between graduate students and the University is complex given their dual status as students and employees, our GSIs deserve better than an administration that refuses to recognize the need for substantial changes to accommodate rising costs of living. In exchange for their invaluable labor, part of what the members of GEO wish to gain is a raise of 17.5 percent over three years to accommodate the increasing cost of living in Ann Arbor, a request to which, as of March 15, the University responded with an offer of substantially less over the next three years. 

GEO is also seeking changes to graduate worker health benefits that cap the amount spent on copays for mental health services, which many graduate students seek out. Additionally, they urge the University to expand paid parental leave to be inclusive of all parents, not just birth parents, allowing graduate students to assist their newly grown families when they need it most. While reasonable negotiations are to be expected, we are seriously concerned that the University has not budged on its proposal for a meager increase in wages and other benefits.

Most troubling is the University’s outright refusal to negotiate on the issue of unionized diversity labor by graduate students. Payment for diversity work has been a major issue for many campus movements. The students the University constantly seeks out for input and labor on diversity issues are often the very students most disenfranchised by the current campus climate they’ve been tasked to help repair. Recent events have shown that addressing barriers to equity on campus isn’t easy for anyone. Asking graduate students whose time and wallets are already extraordinarily strained to spend time on diversity efforts without pay and unionization flies in the face of the principles the University claims went into the DEI plans. If the University is serious about implementing its DEI plan, it must pay for unionized diversity labor.

GSIs and GSSAs are integral to our campus’s continued functioning, yet the University’s attitude toward the current contract negotiations with the GEO have not recognized the serious struggles they face under the current contract. This bargaining period could have been a test for the University to put the principles of this year’s DEI plans into action. We’re not confident the University has passed.