The University and the Graduate Employees’ Organization left the bargaining table without having reached an agreement over a new contract last Friday. After offering concessions, the University threatened to punish GEO by withholding union dues if the group moves forward with labor strikes. These are just some of the University’s troubling maneuvers in what has been a long and difficult set of negotiations between the University and GEO.
The University was generous in Friday’s offer, ensuring, for instance, that graduate student instructors would not be required to pay health insurance premiums under a new contract. But GEO rejected the contract because it did not guarantee that each employee would be able to request designated beneficiaries for health coverage, or what GEO defines as, “any adult certified by the employee, regardless of relationship, but with some shared life elements, such as a joint banking account.” At first glance, such a claim seems excessive. But in reality, GEO’s demand for designated beneficiaries presents a clever new approach to safeguarding the rights and benefits of same-sex employees and their partners. Proposal 2, the vaguely worded ballot initiative that amended the state constitution to make it illegal to recognize a union other than that of man and woman “for any purpose,” was falsely marketed by its proponents as a nondiscriminatory piece of legislation.
Since its passage on Nov. 2, Proposal 2 has been used by conservative groups such as the Thomas More Law Center to challenge the benefits of partners of same-sex employees. There are two lawsuits currently pending in the Ann Arbor area, one against Eastern Michigan University, another against Ann Arbor Public Schools. The University has insisted that if its benefits offered to partners of same-sex employees were challenged, it would be prepared to go to court. Even so, it would be remiss of GEO to negotiate a four-year contract without taking the precautions it believes are necessary to protect the benefits of its union members — regardless of the outcome of court decisions about the University’s legal ability to offer same-sex benefits to its employees.
In recognizing that the rights and benefits of these citizens are challenged not for monetary and practical reasons, but because there continues to exist in this country an unfettered state of ignorance and intolerance, bigotry and fear toward homosexuals, the University should honor its perceived commitment to equal rights and acquiesce to GEO’s demand for designated beneficiaries.
The University is in a difficult position. While it may be dedicated to equal rights and benefits, it is arguably justified in its concern that offering benefits to designated beneficiaries would create a system inviting abuse that could possibly cost the University millions of dollars. As the University braces itself for further funding cuts from Lansing, the administration is concerned about all spending, and rightfully so.
Still, the University’s decision to strong-hand GEO is unsettling and runs contrary to the ultimate goal of such negotiations. The University must do everything in its power to fill the school with the most competent and dedicated instructors available.
There is no reason why both parties can’t leave the table fully satisfied. When negotiations resume, there should be an emphasis on collaboration and teamwork. The true culprit in the collapse of talks between the University and GEO is Proposal 2 and the environment of mistrust it has created. It is in the common interest of the University and GEO alike to create a contract that reveals a community committed to the instruction of its students, staunch in its defense of employee benefits and unyielding in its demand for equal protection under the law.