With the group’s contract scheduled to expire in March, negotiations between the Graduate Employees Organization and the University have begun in earnest.

Members of the union, which represents about 1,700 graduate student instructors and staff assistants at the University, delivered a presentation about the group’s priorities for a new contract to University human resources officials in a meeting at the Michigan Union yesterday afternoon.

Rackham student Colleen Woods, GEO’s lead negotiator and a history GSI, said the group is focused on compensation, access and equality. She said GEO’s three main goals in the contract negotiations are to receive a living wage, low-cost accessible health care and enhanced child-care and parental support.

According to data provided by GEO, the average GSI working 20 hours per week earns $15,199 over the course of the academic year – about $800 less than the $15,980 it costs for a graduate student without dependents to live in Ann Arbor for the year, according to the University’s financial aid website. The group intends to ask the University to increase wages so they match cost-of-living estimates, Woods said.

GEO made two formal proposals at today’s meeting – one asking for an increase in childcare subsidies and access and the other pushing the University to offer graduate students a leave of absence for the birth of a child.

University spokeswoman Kelly Cunningham declined to comment on the specific proposals, saying they would have an economic impact on the University and must therefore be considered by the University along with the rest of GEO’s 11 planned proposals.

“These are the first two of eleven proposals, so it’s appropriate at this early stage that the University listen to all of the proposals before making any kind of reaction to them,” Cunningham said. “Before we can say ‘yea’ or ‘nay,’ we have to know everything else that they’re going to be asking. We have to put the whole picture together.”

GEO President Helen Ho, a Communication Studies department GSI, said the open meeting was an introduction to the details of the group’s platform for most GEO members and University representatives. All GEO members were invited to the meeting, with some bringing their children to reinforce the importance of increased funding for childcare and parental leave of absence programs, Ho said.

Although GEO and University bargaining team members hammered out the ground rules for negotiations last month, yesterday’s meeting was the first official negotiation session between the University and the union.

The University’s bargaining team is led by Ronald Dick, the University’s associate director for academic human resources.

GEO’s current contract with the University, which expires on March 1, 2008, was signed in April 2005 after a period of strained relations between the group and the University. After University negotiators balked at offering the wages and health care benefits demanded by GEO that March, union members staged a one-day walkout, forming picket lines outside University buildings to discourage students and faculty from attending classes.

Representatives from both sides of the table said this year’s negotiations have been civil so far. Cunningham called the negotiations “thoughtful and respectful,” while GEO leaders characterized them as “cordial” and “smooth.”

“Our relationship right now is excellent,” Woods said. “It’s in both our interests, I think, that things continue to go this smoothly. We want to get this contract settled as much as they do.”

Selected elements of the GEO platform

-Wage increases and annual raises
-No insurance premiums or increase in co-pays for GradCare health insurance program
-Enhanced coverage for mental health care under GradCare
-Access to healthcare benefits during the summer
-Elimination of the “ten-term rule,” which limits many graduate students to receiving financial aid for ten terms
-The creation of a parental leave-of-absence program
-Increased child-care subsidies
-A “designated beneficiary” program covering either same-sex or different-sex partners
-Equal per-hour compensation for graduate students working different appointment fractions

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