Resounding chants of “No contract — no work, no peace” could be heard all over central campus yesterday as members of the Graduate Employees’ Organization staged a one-day walkout in protest of the University and its alleged lack of cooperation in negotiations.
Graduate student instructors were joined by students, members of other unions and various faculty and staff in picket lines in front of University buildings and construction sites. Placards that proclaimed “I (heart) my GSI,” “Honor thy GSI” and “Will teach for food” were prominently displayed and caught the attention of those who were unaware of the issues.
A rally of about 100 GEO members, along with many supporters from the Lecturers’ Employee Organization and the student body, was held on the steps of the Michigan Union to conclude the walkout. Passers-by stopped to listen, while passing drivers honked to show their support.
Andre Wilson, lead negotiator for GEO, said the union had made significant concessions in the last week and that he had seen none from the University. He also said that, with a possible open-ended strike starting April 4 remaining an option, GEO would need all the support it could muster.
“Over the next week, we need you to start thinking about April 4. We are going to need your help,” Wilson said to GEO members.
LEO President Bonnie Halloran offered her union’s support in a show of solidarity. Various LEO members also cancelled classes and marched alongside GEO in its picket line. It was a scene similar to last year, when GEO members stood in solidarity with striking lecturers.
“LEO and GEO stand together, shoulder to shoulder,” Halloran said. She added that the lecturers’ union, which was formed two years ago, had learned a great deal over the years from the older GEO and would continue to support the group because they all desire respect, living wages and benefits.
Jeremy Phillips, a University janitor, voiced his support for the union and its demands when he spoke at the rally. He and other electricians were unaware of GEO’s planned walkout and its demands until early yesterday, he said.
“I looked at the information and said, ‘I make more (money) than (GSIs), and that’s not right,’ ” Phillips said. He added that, because GSIs educate so many of the students on campus, they should be making a living wage for their work.
GEO President Dave Dobbie said the union appreciated the solidarity that individual skilled workers, such as construction laborers and electricians, showed by not crossing picket lines.
“An individual choosing to sacrifice a day’s pay in solidarity helps us out a lot,” Dobbie said. “(Delaying construction work) will make a huge difference in how seriously the University takes us.”
University facilities and operations spokeswoman Diane Brown said groups of GEO members had situated themselves at the construction sites for the Biomedical Science Research Building, as well as at the Cardiovascular Center site, before workers arrived and that some construction workers chose to honor the picket lines.
“We had some reduced construction work occurring,” Brown said. “We will still expect that buildings will be completed as scheduled.”
University spokeswoman Julie Peterson said the walkout affected a number of the University’s academic units, but that the impact was scattered. “LSA felt the greatest impact, but even (in LSA) some departments felt it more than others,” she said.
The walkout also brought support from graduate students who are not currently employees and are not directly affected by GEO’s negotiations.
“There is a lot of support from graduate students who haven’t ever taught a class,” said Kate Graber, a doctoral candidate who plans to teach as an anthropology GSI next year. She added that she has not been involved with GEO very long but feels strongly about the issues that will affect her when she becomes a GSI.
Other GSIs said they felt strongly about certain issues because they affected them personally. Jessica Robbins, an anthropology GSI, said same-sex benefits were important to her because of her sister, who is gay.
“I want for her to be able to have the same benefits and rights as me,” Robbins said.
Both Robbins and Graber said they appreciated all the support that non-GEO members were showing. While picketing, they had come across a plant operations worker at a construction site who brought the picketers donuts and then left work for the day in a show of solidarity.
Negotiations are scheduled for 1 p.m. today. Extended negotiation sessions were scheduled earlier this week in an attempt to avoid the walkout. GEO has indicated that it will consider a possible open-ended strike if the University does not bargain in good faith by offering counter-proposals. In last week’s mail-in ballot vote, GEO members also authorized a strike on April 4 if progress is not made. If a strike is deemed necessary, a final vote by members, where the University’s last offer will be assessed, will occur before April 4.
“(The) best thing to do is to focus on tomorrow and hope it’s an effective discussion,” Peterson said.