The Graduate Employees’ Organization, engaged in contentious contract negotiations with the University, voted overwhelmingly last night to temporarily extend its contract with the University for two weeks after the end of spring break.

The original contract was set to expire March 1.

If the union and the University can’t come to an agreement by the new deadline, union leaders say they will meet with their members again and decide whether to strike.

“If we don’t have another contract by March 17 and the bargaining team feels like we’re not making progress, that talks aren’t going anywhere, then we will talk about job actions with the membership,” said Colleen Woods, a history GSI and the lead negotiator for GEO. “We will talk about work stoppages.”

Negotiations between GEO and the University have stalled.

The union seeks pay raises and expanded health care coverage in its new contract. Last month, the University rejected all of the union’s initial proposals, saying health care coverage couldn’t be discussed until negotiations over wages were settled.

GEO negotiates new contracts with the University on behalf of its members every three years.

In 2005, the union threatened to strike, and even staged a one-day walkout, but a new contract was reached about a week before the scheduled strike date.

During last night’s meeting on the fourth floor of the Rackham Building, the union also discussed creating a “strike platform” with its members.

“It doesn’t mean that were going to go out on strike,” Woods said. “Basically, it’s a way for the membership to signal their priorities to the bargaining team and to each other.”

Woods said the main issues on the GEO’s strike platform are wage increases, child care subsidies and extended health care to all employees.

None of the more than ten items proposed to be on “strike platform” were voted off the list last night.

“Our union members are standing strong and saying that they want everything that’s on there and that it’s not unreasonable to push for it,” said Helen Ho, GEO president and a communications studies GSI.

The union agreed to extend the labor contract on the recommendation of its bargaining team, which has been meeting with University representatives weekly in six-hour negotiation sessions since December 2007.

“We did want to continue talking with the University.” Woods said. We made concessions last week and we’re hoping that they’ll make concessions this week.”

Earlier yesterday, GEO members gathered in the lobby of Haven Hall for a “grade-in” – a sit-in style demonstration – during which GSIs graded papers, met with students and talked with passersby about the stalled contract negotiations.

Wearing bright red and orange t-shirts that read “GEO Contract Campaign 2008,” more than 100 GSIs showed up over the course of the three-hour period.

Organizers had expected only about half the turnout.

“It’s really great to see so many GEO members here supporting each other,” Ho said at the grade-in. “And if anything, that’s going to be a signal to the administration that our union is as strong as it ever was.”

According to several GSIs in attendance, the event was meant to increase solidarity within the union and make the plight of GSIs more visible.

“This kind of visibility makes undergrads and faculty aware of what we do and how important we are,” said Nafisa Essop Sheik, a history GSI.

But with the GEO’s current contract set to expire next month, the ongoing labor dispute was not far from the minds of many in attendance.

“(The negotiations are) slow and we’re still quite far apart on a number of our proposals,” Ho said. “We’re really trying to push for things to start moving a little bit quicker.”

– Eshwar Thirunavukkarasu contributed to this report.

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