Everybody’s heard the story of the
boy who cried wolf: Boy works in fields with sheep, gets bored,
likes to cause trouble, cries “Wolf! Wolf!” just to see
the townsfolk come running, laughs and laughs as they scowl and
return to their work. Day after day, it’s the same thing
— sheep, yawn, “Wolf!,” townsfolk, laugh —
until the day the wolf actually shows up, at which point the sheep
scatter and no one comes to the boy’s aid because he’s
ruined his credibility.

Janna Hutz

The take-home lesson? Don’t lie. More importantly,
don’t ask for help unless you really need it, because if you
do, a whole lot of people who might have rushed to your side
won’t likely believe you’re in trouble when you finally
are. You’re not really supposed to feel sorry for the boy
— he deserved what he got — but you are supposed to
walk away with an acute sense of how not to waste other
people’s time and the consequences you will face if you
do.

Now: Forgive me for simplifying a bit, but when I heard
rumblings a couple weeks ago that the Graduate Employees
Organization might go on strike for the second time in less than
two years, I reacted just like a jaded towns-(person? Is there a
singular form of folk??) — I didn’t care. I
didn’t want to hear about it.

See, the last time GEO went on strike, I was young and
uninformed. “Oh,” I thought. “Is the University
mistreating the graduate student instructors?” I did some
independent research and found the answer to be a resounding
“No.” I found that the University grants full tuition
waivers and living stipends large enough that GSIs can live
comfortably even in the outrageously overpriced realm of Ann Arbor
apartments. “Oh,” I said. “So what are they upset
about?”

Enter the “wolf:” They wanted the University to pay
for their children to go to daycare or some such place while they
taught classes and studied. To my ears, that sounded suspiciously
like, “I understand that YOU are paying ME to get this
graduate degree at this incredibly prestigious university, but I
will not be happy until you also pay for somebody to take care of
my children whilst I am working toward said degree. No, I will
whine about workers’ rights, applying everything I learned in
my fancy undergraduate education (because there’s no way I
got to be a GSI here unless I went somewhere really impressive
before this), all the concepts for which most real workers —
hard laborers — have concepts but no words. I will chant and
carry signs and act all downtrodden so the liberal kids will feel
sorry for me and then you’ll HAVE to do what I
say.”

Ahem. Sorry. A little carried away there. Where was I? Oh,
yes:

The 2002 strike taught me that many if not most GEO members
don’t appreciate how privileged they are. They don’t
understand that teaching two or three college courses in exchange
for a free graduate education is not, by any stretch of the
imagination, like working in a factory or even in a public high
school. They are not downtrodden, not put upon, not abused.

So what happened this time? What was the catch, the grave
injustice that had some in GEO threatening to withhold student
grades? The University was planning to increase the cost of GSI
healthcare benefits from zero to $12 a month. Twelve dollars. For
guaranteed care at the University Hospital — one of the best
in the country.

Read that again. Pause, if you’d like, to yell and wring
your hands and throw things at the wall. I did.

The trouble is, GEO might have been right this time. If the
University was indeed prepared to violate its contract, then GEO
was entirely correct to raise a ruckus about it. As long as there
is a contract the University might violate, there is a need for a
vigilant group of people to make sure that doesn’t happen. No
matter how laughably minor its immediate consequences, a breach of
contract is a serious offense. Nobody wants to work for an employer
who doesn’t keep her word.

But I suspect the University’s got a crack team of legal
interpreters at its disposal, and it seems very unlikely to me that
they’d risk strikes and lawsuits (not to mention all the bad
press) over a piddly $12 per GSI per month.

It’s hard — so hard — to care about $12 a
month. Even I could afford that without any trouble, and
that’s saying a lot, believe me. Even if GEO had a point this
time — even if the University was in the legal wrong —
I am inclined not to care about their plight (ha — plight!
— now they’ve got me doing it) in the same way I
didn’t care about the boy who cried wolf. If what GEO got
this time around was a lack of student support, then it deserved
what it got.

Henretty can be reached at
“mailto:ahenrett@umich.edu”>ahenrett@umich.edu.

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