It has become a triennial tradition at the University. Every three years since 1993, the Graduate Employees’ Organization has staged a walkout when its contract with the University expires. And if there’s one thing this university takes seriously, it’s tradition. So as of last night, GEO was planning to go on a two-day strike this morning. It will be picketing outside of University buildings. Students, faculty and employees should honor those picket lines. Those lines will be there because of the University’s ongoing failure to develop a broad solution that adequately compensates all of its employees – for longer than one contract length.
While yesterday’s marathon negotiations yielded some movement, this year’s biggest sticking point between the University and GEO – salary increases – was left unresolved. Although GEO has dropped its original demand of a 9 percent salary increase each year for the next three years, it is now demanding that the University increase graduate student instructors’ salaries by 9 percent next year and 3 percent for two consecutive years following. The University has maintained that a 9 percent increase is too much, countering with a 3.9 percent increase next year and 3 percent increases the following two years.
GEO didn’t pull these figures out of thin air. The 9 percent increase GEO is demanding would raise the median full-time GSI salary by $781 – enough to align a single GSI’s salary with the cost of living in Ann Arbor, as calculated by the University’s Office of Financial Aid.
It’s unfortunate that the negotiations have gotten to this point. GSIs are walking out, some professors are canceling classes and students are faced with a tough choice about whether to cross picket lines. But the GSIs’ demands must be addressed.
Undergraduates might scoff at the idea that GSIs need raises, especially when they already receive tuition waivers and an annual stipend. But a future degree doesn’t put food on the table now. Even at a time when the state is defaulting on its commitment to adequately fund higher education, the University has an obligation to make sure that its employees receive fair compensation. GSIs are a key part of education here, and they must be treated as such.
Instead of recognizing this, the University has held firm, refusing to give in to GEO’s demands without a fight. Many students and faculty are indifferent to GEO’s concerns or voice the misguided opinion that fair compensation for GEO will raise tuition. Further, with other unions watching, the University is pushing GEO to the brink because it doesn’t want to look like it is caving under GEO’s pressure – even though the walkout could have residual and expensive effects across campus, including at construction sites.
The University is missing the point. This game of brinkmanship played each contract year only ensures that there will be more walkouts in the future. The University continues to foster employee grievances and large wage discrepancies between professors, lecturers and GSIs. Instead of being proactive and solving these problems before contracts expire, the University waits until these issues bubble over. Then it takes care of just a few of them. The rest of the problems are held over until the next contract expires, which is exactly what happened this year. And so the cycle continues.
If the University wants to end this irresponsible tradition of GEO walkouts, it must be more receptive to the needs of its employees in order to create long-term solutions rather than quick fixes. In the meantime, students can do their part too. Skip class not just because you can; use your absence to advocate change that’s well past due.