On Thursday afternoon, I tried to explain to some of my roommates why they shouldn’t cross the picket lines that graduate student instructors had formed outside University buildings.

Ken Srdjak

The reasons to stay away from class that day seemed so obvious to me that I had trouble even articulating them: Crossing a picket line is something that is just not done. I think I began learning that lesson around the time my mother was pushing me in a stroller along a teachers’ union picket line.

I tried to explain to my friends that respecting a picket line means respecting the unions that created the middle class and stood up to corporate America on behalf of the common man. I told them that if they saw unions as corrupt rackets, meddling in the free market and exploiting their benevolent employers, it was only because the people who run this country have promoted that image.

And then my opponents pulled out their trump card.

All well and good, my roommates said, but GSIs are still a bunch of whiny slackers who have their entire education paid for and still complain about not making enough in salary and benefits.

It’s hard to defend against that kind of argument. The Graduate Employees’ Organization just doesn’t have a platform that’s easy to rally behind.

While some students take out enormous loans and work a full-time job to make ends meet while attending graduate school, a typical GSI has he full tuition bill paid and also earns about $20 an hour. He receives health and dental benefits for himself and his dependents, along with a stipend to cover some day care costs.

The people who awkwardly lead our discussion sections and write illegible comments on our papers are not the proletariat. And when they make a big ruckus every three years at contract time about their plight, threatening to bring the University to a halt if they don’t get their way, it can alienate some undergraduates who question their dubious complaints.

So I’d like to focus on the positive aspects of GEO, and some reasons to support the union — even if you question its scare tactics and its claims of being oppressed. Here are three things to consider about GSIs:

“Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”

Apologies for quoting Jesus in defense of GEO. But the union has consistently looked out for the least of its members. It has made the most marginal groups, which would be easiest to cast aside, the centerpiece of its campaigns.

The union stood behind parents in 2002, persuading the administration to nearly double child care subsidies and investigate the availability of child care on campus.

This year, it is looking out for its transgender members. GEO has already persuaded the University to add anti-discrimination clauses concerning “gender identity.” And while I’m skeptical about GEO’s demand for health care benefits that cover sex-change operations, it does reflect a deep concern by the union for the rights of the minority.

A win-win situation for couples

Another GEO demand that may end up being too impractical and expensive to gain any traction is the “designated beneficiary.” But if the administration does agree to some version of this plan, it could have positive repercussions beyond the University. It could go a long way toward making a compromise in the culture wars.

GEO understandably doubts that same-sex benefits will survive the legal fight over the meaning of Proposal 2, which banned gay unions in Michigan. So the GSIs want to expand benefits. Under the GEO plan, one adult chooses another adult to share his benefits. That’s it. No requirement that the two people be married or meet any qualifications as partners.

Advocates of gay rights can cheer this plan because it puts same-sex and opposite-sex relationships on the same level. And conservatives will note that the plan removes their biggest complaint about same-sex benefits: that they give “special treatment” to gay couples, discriminating against unmarried heterosexual partners. If this innovative solution spreads, it could end all rational objections to same-sex benefits.

A culture of respect

In its 30-year history, GEO has forced the University to take GSIs seriously and consider what would happen if these instructors, the foundation of undergraduate education, stopped working. More importantly, decades of GEO action have created a campus culture of fairness that is now bearing fruit, prompting other groups to unionize and demand redress of their own grievances. Some of those grievances are much more significant than GEO’s.

Until inspiration from GEO led them to unionize, lecturers had no idea year to year whether they would be working. The University could drop them at a whim. Last year these instructors won greater job security and increased wages. Now the clerical workers at the University, fearing the axe of budget cuts, are trying to unionize.

As long as GEO’s demands maintain a modicum of common sense, the group also fosters a culture of respect for unions among the undergraduates who watch it battle the University. Which is why I wish these GSIs were more cautious. They are helping to mold the opinions of undergraduates about workers’ rights. It would be too bad if they went on strike based on exaggerated complaints and ended up souring impressionable young students on the whole labor movement.

Schrader can be reached at jtschrad@umich.edu.

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