The University learned three years ago
that its graduate student instructors were willing to fight for
their children.

Jordan Schrader

Although their union said in 2001 that only about 10 percent of
GSIs had kids, it nonetheless made child care the centerpiece of
its contract negotiations that year. And when the union, the
Graduate Employees Organization, found itself up against a
University administration unwilling to give GSIs the child care
they demanded, it decided to show that it wasn’t kidding
around.

The graduate students went on strike, stopping classes for a
day. Within a week, the University had given them a contract that
included an additional half-million dollars for child care.

That contract will expire early next year. Less than a month
from now, in between grading your midterms, GEO members will meet
to draw up a platform for negotiations.

It’s possible there will be no insurmountable differences
over the contract this year. GEO seems pleased with how it has been
treated, and GEO President David Dobbie is optimistic about the
next deal. “Overall, we feel it was a great contract that we
bargained,” Dobbie said. The union may spend much of the
bargaining sessions trying to preserve what it has, worried that
the University will increase GSIs’ health care costs as it
tried to do last year.

But the welfare of parents and children will remain at the back
of their minds because of an issue that — while it may not be
resolved through negotiations — is sure to influence how GSIs
feel about the University at this crucial time.

More than 200 undergraduates, displaced from their residence
halls by this year’s unexpectedly massive influx of freshmen,
have found their new home in a place once meant for graduate
students and their families. Their appearance in Family Housing,
located in the Northwood apartments on North Campus, has angered
graduate students accustomed to their own community.

“We were guaranteed a certain environment in Family
Housing,” said Heather Albee-Scott, who lives in Northwood IV
with her husband, a graduate student. “Our leases have been
violated.”

Albee-Scott contends that the University allowed graduate
students to sign their leases during spring term while not telling
them about the undergraduates who would invade in fall.

“The University, it seems, held out as long as it
could” while admitting more and more families, she said.
“They had us sign our leases under false terms.”

But University Housing spokesman Alan Levy says residents were
notified as soon as a decision was made to put undergraduates in
Northwood. No plans had yet been made for the move when residents
began renewing their leases, he said.

“Some people want to view this as bad faith on our
part,” Levy said. “The University had a situation that
it simply had to deal with.”

“It is not the way we would have chosen to make changes in
the composition of the community, and it’s not the way we
have done it in the past,” he said.

However forthright the University really was, this problem is
not going away anytime soon. Indeed, administrators have been
planning for some time to mix undergrads and families, though not
this soon. With renovations set to shut down Mosher-Jordan and
Stockwell halls for a year each, starting in 2006, the University
will need a place to catch the student overflow, and it’s
eyeing Northwood.

Levy said the Northwood IV and V townhouses, with 800 families,
will continue to be used exclusively for student families. But the
other three buildings have become fair game, and some portion of
them will be thrown open to younger students.

“What we are evaluating is how much of the rest, of
Northwood I, II and III, are still available for Family
Housing,” he said.

Of course, it’s unlikely that Northwood space will be on
the table during the upcoming contract negotiations with GEO. But
the squeeze of families by the University, necessary or not, will
be on the minds of those in the negotiating room. They will likely
be looking for assurances that graduate students will have a place
to raise their children while studying and teaching. They will once
again be looking out for the parents among them.

Such concerns led GSIs to strike before. So I won’t be
surprised if classes are canceled again this winter.

And with its limited housing space and sliced budget, I’d
be surprised if the University caves in as easily as it did last
time.

 

Schrader can be reached at
“mailto:jtschrad@umich.edu”>jtschrad@umich.edu.

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