With right-to-work legislation that severely limits the ability of unions in Michigan to organize within workplaces coming into effect on March 28, members of the Graduate Employees’ Organization decided to walk away from negotiations with the University after claiming the University’s bargaining team wouldn’t budge on its proposed salary cuts. Instead, the union will take its chances bargaining next year when members have the option not to pay dues under the law.
GEO, which represents graduate student instructors and graduate student staff assistants at the three University campuses, and the University had been negotiating every day this week in the hopes of agreeing upon an additional three-year contract to circumvent the effects of right-to-work until 2017. GEO’s current contract expires in March 2014.
Rackham student Emily Howard, GEO spokesperson, said the deal being offered by the University didn’t meet its requirements.
“GEO members have — from the beginning of this process — been making decisions about what our bottom line is,” Howard said. “We had set bottom lines in terms of salary, in terms of our childcare agreement, and we have always said if these bottom lines are crossed we will walk away.”
University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald the University made no decision to leave the bargaining table.
“My understanding is it was GEO’s decision,” Fitzgerald said. “They have a current contract in place.”
GEO president Katie Frank said in a statement that GEO’s bargaining team was willing to make compromises.
“In the words of their bargaining team, we made a ‘herculean effort’ to move toward their proposals,” Frank said. “We were willing to make huge sacrifices to protect our contract in a state attacking collective bargaining rights.”
Howard said the University’s proposal to add another “fraction” to the designations of GSIs and GSSAs’ pay was irreconcilable. Because GSIs and GSSAs don’t necessarily work full time, their salaries are determined by a range of “fractions” of full time they work.
Howard said that the University wanted to make a new fraction in between two existing groups, which would have severely reduced the wages of many GSIs and GSSAs.
“(It) would have resulted in a 20-percent pay cut for many of our members,” she said.
Negotiations came to a standstill when the University came back to the bargaining table on Thursday refusing to consider GEO’s proposal, Howard said.
“We were in bargaining with them for 16 hours (on Wednesday),” she said. “The University’s team had given (GEO) proposals and said, ‘OK, we’ll look at your proposals, we’ll see what movement there can be.’ And today they said, ‘There is no movement. We will not move on anything.’”
Thursday night, GEO held a general membership meeting in which members decided not to go back to the negotiation table, Howard said.
“I think GEO made the decision that people power is greater than financial power,” she said. “That financial power is important, we took that into consideration at every stop of this process.”
While right to work could mean a significant financial loss for GEO when its contract expires, Howard noted the story of a particular member who couldn’t afford to take a pay cut.
“(With the) salary he was making now, his family was looking into food stamps,” she said. “They’re on the line. We thought that we cannot sacrifice that much.”
Howard continued, saying the possibility of members opting not to pay dues did not intimidate GEO.
“Ultimately in a right-to-work state, if you are well organized, right to work does not matter,” she said, adding that accepting the deal the University was proposing “would simply degrade our membership.”
Howard even recalled when GEO fought to be recognized as employees from 1976-81 by the University, existing five years without a contract.
In an interview on Wednesday, Howard said GEO hoped to reach a deal by Friday as GEO members must wait at least two weeks before they can vote on a proposed contract. This was a tight deadline, as the right-to-work legislation takes effect two weeks from Friday.
The legislation passed by the state of Michigan in a marathon final session at the end of 2012 allows employees represented by unions to opt out of paying union dues. All GSIs and GSSAs pay 1.48 percent of their semesterly salary to receive the benefits derived from GEO’s bargaining, according to GEO’s website. To be a full member of the union, they must pay 1.68 percent of their salary.
On Wednesday, Howard had said bargaining has been going “pretty well,” with eight of the current contract’s 27 articles opened up for negotiation.
Still, Howard said she was not certain how many non-full members of GEO knew that bargaining was taking place. She did, however, say that GEO is aware of the subset of GSIs and GSSAs who don’t support the union.
“We always take them into consideration,” Howard said. “I can speak for myself and a lot of the other GEO membership when I say that we really do respect our Republican members, our conservative members. The thing about it is that we actually haven’t heard anything from anybody.”
Howard also noted that the bargaining is open to general members, not just full members.
Rackham student Mike Palazzolo, a GSI and general member of GEO, said union leadership didn’t seem concerned with non-full members of the union.
“I doubt (non-full members knew),” Palazzo said. “I e-mailed some of my friends — they had no idea.”
In an interview earlier on Thursday, Fitzgerald acknowledged that the University’s Board of Regents had met in an informal meeting last Friday, but declined to comment on whether the discussion was about labor negotiations.
Corrections appended: A previous version of this article attributed information from Rackham student Emily Howard incorrectly and misstated the end of the proposed contract extension.