After several failed attempts at bargaining with administration representatives, the Graduate Employees’ Organization voted to support a walkout from classes today. GEO members and supporters plan to form a picket line to convince the University to cede to GEO’s demands. Although the negotiating parties have agreed on nondiscrimination language protecting “gender identity or expression” and certain health care plan concerns, there are important issues that remain unresolved. Hoping that a one-day disruption of normal operations will make the University more likely to agree with its demands, GEO is encouraging the community to stay out of University buildings during today’s walkout. University faculty and students should stand in solidarity with GEO and not cross the picket lines across campus.
GEO is planning the walkout because it has been struggling with the University to negotiate through issues such as health care, beneficiaries and wages. Concerned about budget constraints, the University has not been responsive to GEO’s pleas for higher salaries to cover increased costs of living. Currently, graduate employees earn $14,000 a year, which is a far cry from the $22,000 needed to cover costs of living in Ann Arbor. GEO requested that the University pay its graduate employees $18,000 a year, but the University has instead countered with a meager 2 to 2.25 percent yearly salary increase. GEO argues that given inflation, this rate of wage increase actually amounts to a decrease.
Furthermore, the University has rejected GEO’s proposal to add a “designated beneficiary” for each employee. A designated beneficiary would in effect be a spouse, who receives health care coverage and a range of benefits conferred to married couples and same-sex domestic partners. While a designated beneficiary policy seems easy to abuse, it is a necessary safeguard to ensure the University can continue to provide same-sex partnership benefits for its graduate employees in the event that the University is found legally unable to do so. Although the University has repeatedly expressed its commitment to providing these benefits, the decision to do so may no longer rest in its hands. By allowing GSIs to designate a beneficiary, the University would ensure the survival of same-sex benefits.
Several students have expressed concern with the educational costs of a walkout. This walkout does not necessarily mean that education must cease today. Faculty should make themselves available off-campus during normal class hours and should offer additional office hours in coming days. More importantly, for students concerned about academics, supporting this strike should actually improve the academic reputation of the University. Just as corporations use benefits packages and increased salaries to lure the top workers, the University could attract talented graduate students by providing an exceptional compensation package.
Students and faculty should recognize that they have the ability to play an important role in furthering GEO’s goals. By honoring GEO picket lines and supporting a worthwhile strike, the community can ensure not merely the welfare of a select group of instructors, but rather the entire University as a whole.