In the winter of 1975, life at the University was forever altered when the Graduate Employees Organization took the historic action of striking. After eight months of relatively fruitless negotiations with the University concerning the group”s first contract, the union”s membership voted 689 to 193 in support of a strike and for the next month Ann Arbor was inundated with picket lines, disrupted classes, arrests and posturing on both sides. The strike was finally ended when the administration and GEO settled upon a contract and the administration agreed that there would be no academic reprieves for those who supported the strike. GEO leadership rejoiced in the news, proclaiming “this is only the beginning.”
Over the past 30 years GEO has constantly fought for the recognition of unique role of graduate students play at the University. As both employees of the University and students their importance is often overlooked. The first attempts to organize a union were in 1970 in response to the decision of several departments to reduce funding allocation to Teaching Fellows as GSIs were then called. Since the early days graduate student unions have continuously been confronted with obstacles, from an unreceptive student body to an administration unwilling to fairly negotiate.
The first effort at unionization was unsuccessful when the Michigan Employment Relations Committee refused to acknowledge the union. MERC ruled that Teaching Fellows in themselves could not be considered an acceptable body for collective bargaining but if Staff Assistants and Research Assistants were included the organization could hold a recognition election. Faced with the likelihood of an extended legal process the budding movement faded.
However, when the University announced a 24 percent increase in tuition coupled with no increases in TF salaries efforts to unionize were given a new impetus. The Organization of Teaching Fellows was created the OTF”s proposals included an end to discriminatory hiring practices at the University, full tuition waivers and official recognition of the group. Eventually OTF expanded to incorporate RAs and SAs in its membership and changed its name to GEO. In 1974 GEO began the arduous process of negotiating its first contract with the University.
Over the next eight months the University refused to negotiate in good faith, arguing that graduate students were not employees despite the fact that they received compensation in return for their labor. In early 1975 GEO offered to enter into binding mediation with the University, a request that was denied outright. GEO proposals would have benefited the education of all University students, such as capping class size at 25 students in most classes and at 20 in classes where discussion was essential.
After the strike concluded and the antagonistic nature of the relationship between GEO and the administration was soothed, the effort to create a second contract began in 1976. The administration quickly demanded that GEO not pursue two grievances from the previous contract. In response, GEO filed an unfair labor practice complaint with MERC. The administration responded by arguing that GEO did not represent employees. After an extended series of trials, in 1980 a judge ruled that GEO did represent employees and the organization thus had collective bargaining power.
Throughout the 1980s GEO continued to staunchly advocate proposals that improved the academic and educational experience of the University.
Mandatory training for graduate instructors and the official recognition of affirmative action in hiring practices were both fruitful developments for GEO and the University as a whole. Despite the obstacle of often dealing with a hostile administration GEO was able to secure necessary wage and benefit increases.
However, in both 1996 and 1999 GEO was forced to resort to walk-outs as desperate measures to capture the attention of the University community and to illustrate their vital role at the University. The University cannot be willing to sacrifice the quality of a significant part of undergraduates” education over the perfectly reasonable demands that GEO has set forth.
The University issued a report on the undergraduate experience last semester. One of the most important part of the undergraduate experience is student-teacher interaction. GSIs teach more than fifty percent of contact hours at the University. They cannot be overlooked.
With the current GEO contract set to expire on the Feb. 15, it is imperative that the University finally recognize that the interests of GEO and the University are not mutually exclusive. If the University desires to continue its reputation of being at the forefront of academia it must be willing to increase compensation and benefits to attract the most dynamic and talented graduate students. The mass unionization of GSIs across the country has proven to be an indicator of the value that graduate students bring to the educational process and of the value that universities should place in them.