On the eve of the Graduate Employees’ Organization contract expiring, the union will vote on extending its contract with the University to allow for more negotiating time on unsettled matters. Three years after its last battle, the organization is again sparring with the University over the rights and benefits of graduate student instructors as stipulated in its union contract.
Since November, the two sides have held negotiations ranging from expanded health care coverage to increased wages. Tonight GEO’s bargaining team plans to recommend continuing negotiations by having the union vote to extend its current contract to sometime in late February, GEO president Dave Dobbie said.
This will allow GEO and the University additional time to negotiate on matters ranging from salary to healthcare, but will not give them more than a month to do so.
“We don’t want to hold up the (negotiating) process, but we also don’t want to give the University endless amounts of time,” he said of extending the date.
In 2002, the last time the three-year contract expired, GEO staged a walkout after negotiations with the University failed and GSIs operated for one day without a contract.
Last November Dobbie said that GEO has not ruled out a strike or a walkout in the future, but said it would have to be voted on by members.
In past years, GEO has held a one-day walkout, but never this early in the bargaining process, University spokeswoman Julie Peterson said.
“A walkout is never desirable because it interrupts our teaching activities,” Peterson said. “We’re always hopeful GEO will not feel the need to do that.”
So far, the union has yet to make any choices about which issues to push more than others. That is part of the decision-making process that will take place in the next month, Wilson said.
“It’s not so much about letting one (issue) go for another,” Wilson said. “It’s about finding gains everywhere and reducing barriers for everybody — not leaving some groups behind.”
“In recent bargaining sessions, we’ve been making good progress,” Peterson said. “The University is feeling good about the discussions. We hope we can reach an agreement that will balance the needs of GSIs and still stay within the University’s budget.”
GEO’s has a number of issues it will bring up to the University before a contract is agreed upon:
n Because GEO believes the cost of living in Ann Arbor increases faster than wages, one proposal aims to ensure pay for GSIs keeps pace with inflation. GEO wants automatic cost-of-living increases to achieve a living wage by the time the contract expires.
n Another demand is to protect transgender members of the union. A lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender taskforce recommended that the University change its bylaws to shield transgender individuals from discrimination, but GEO members said the University has not taken any action to change them. GEO members also demanded anti-discrimination language in its new contract. In the wake of the passage of Proposal 2 — an amendment to the state constitution that defines marriage and similar unions between a man and a woman — GEO wants to guarantee benefits to GSIs with same-sex domestic partners. The union had planned to bargain for this extra security before Proposal 2 passed, but the success of the gay-marriage ban has made the issue more relevant to GEO.
n The issue of health care is also central to GEO’s agenda because many GSIs want clear language in the contract that states medical care coverage cannot be changed within the next three years of the approval of the contract. GEO members said that during the last three-year cycle, the University slashed coverage and increased costs.
n Mental health coverage will also be brought up because patients are only allowed a limited number of visits to a mental health physician under the plan, GEO members said. There is also no coverage for long-term therapy or chronic problems. For example, diabetes treatment is covered, but not depression. GEO also wants long-term coverage for prescription medication. But GEO members said the University argued its proposed health care plan meets GSIs’ needs.
“Some people were pretty offended that the administration thinks they know what (GSIs) need,” said Andre Wilson, GEO’s lead negotiator. “If you need medical treatment, you need medical treatment.”
n GEO is also seeking equality for international GSIs. Many international students are currently required to go through weeks of extra training to be able to teach. A test of proficiency in English should be the only different requirement between U.S. and non-U.S. GSIs, according to GEO.
n In addition to these proposals, GEO is seeking better child-care benefits, the right to honor picket lines, standardized hiring practices across academic departments and a guarantee that all of the gains the union wins during negotiations are put into practice.
Despite the numerous matters on the negotiating table, GEO members conceded that there has been some progress on the medical front. On Jan. 21, the University began providing dental coverage to first-year GSIs — a benefit provided for only second-year and more senior GEO members previously. The University also gave union members the option to buy in to more comprehensive dental coverage.