After the Graduate Employees’ Organization and the University’s bargaining team failed yesterday to agree on several terms of a new contract for graduate student instructors, GEO members plan to begin a two-day walkout today by picketing outside major University buildings.
The University’s bargaining team walked away from negotiations three hours before they were scheduled to end last night, citing GEO’s refusal to renegotiate its proposal for a 9-percent salary increase for the first year of the contract. GEO represents about 1,700 GSIs who teach at the University.
Colleen Woods, the lead negotiator for GEO and a History GSI, said GEO representatives were prepared to negotiate through at least midnight, but heard from the administration at 8:55 that they were done for the night.
“I have to say that I am shocked and disappointed that the University wasn’t willing to continue to bargain with us tonight,” she said.
Woods also said the sides “were making significant progress towards each other today and it seemed like the University was interested in preventing (the walkout) from happening and we were ready to put the brakes on.”
Jeff Frumkin, the University’s senior director of Academic Human Resources, said that GEO’s refusal to budge on the initial 9-percent salary increase is “the major stumbling block” in the negotiations.
“The difficulty the University had in responding to their last set of proposals is that it still included the 9-percent, and therefore we didn’t feel that we had any other place to move at this point this evening,” Frumkin said.
GEO representatives said that despite the differences on the topic of salary, they were willing to bargain until midnight and avoid a walkout.
“I have to say that I am disappointed that the administration is not more invested in preventing this work stoppage,” Woods said. “We were getting close, and I think we were almost there, and really, they walked away from the table from us.”
GEO has now decided to go forward with the much-discussed two-day walkout that will last through tomorrow night.
Participating GSIs won’t complete any of the labor that they usually do for the University, which includes leading discussion sections, grading student work, responding to students’ e-mails and holding office hours.
They will instead be on picket lines outside of the major buildings on Central Campus and at least one building on North Campus, Woods said.
Although all picket lines will be fully assembled on campus by 9 a.m., picket lines at some campus construction sites will be underway as early as 5 a.m.
Woods said 660 GSIs have already signed up for picket shifts.
GEO officials are asking undergraduates and faculty to support the union by not crossing the picket line to enter campus buildings or attend class today or tomorrow.
“We are simply asking them to support the GSIs and to support our working conditions here and to not cross the picket line,” Woods said. “We teach a good portion of the courses and the classes here at the University and we hope that the undergraduates and the faculty will recognize the work we do for the University.”
Helen Ho, GEO president and a communications studies GSI, said students crossing the picket line will not be harassed.
“Our picket is not meant to be a confrontational thing at all,” Ho said in an interview after negotiations ended last night.
Frumkin said University administrators don’t think a walkout will garner positive results.
“We still absolutely believe that there’s nothing productive that will come from a disruption of teaching tomorrow and/or Wednesday,” he said. “There’s no need for it – the parties were making good progress.”
He said it was “unfortunate” a deal couldn’t be reached last night, but that “there comes a point where you just say, ‘let’s look at it with clear eyes tomorrow.’ “
Ho said she agrees that both parties will be hurt by a work stoppage but GEO felt it had no other option at this point in the negotiations.
“We share the same interest in trying not to disrupt the University’s business as much as possible and to have classes as regularly scheduled as possible,” Ho said.
Frumkin and Woods both said their respective negotiating teams are willing to bargain during the walkout.
“As long as the University wants to come back to the table we’re ready to come back to the table,” Woods said.
They could meet at non-campus buildings so GEO’s negotiating team wouldn’t have to cross the picket line to talk.
“We’ve made ourselves available to meet with the union tomorrow, but I don’t know if that’s going to happen,” Frumkin said. “It’s really up to them.”
The two sides reached some agreements yesterday on issues including wage parity for “low-fraction GSIs” – those who work less than 20 hours a week. The University has also agreed to boost its health care coverage for low-fraction GSIs as well. The union, meanwhile, dropped demands yesterday on some issues like summer bridge pay, eliminating the ten-term rule and benefits for GSIs who work spring term.
The two sides agreed that this was good progress, but it’s unclear at this point how many of those concessions will stick, because most were proposed as part of block deals meant to settle an agreement before a work stoppage took place.
“That’s all very significant movement, but we still, as I said, have a real difference in salary, we have a real difference with respect to one of the benefit issues having to do with the number of mental health visits, and we have a real issue of difference with respect to the amount of money that is paid to people who have less than a .25 appointment with respect to their tuition waiver,” Frumkin said.
Bonnie Halloran, president of the Lecturers’ Employee Organization, which represents non tenure-track faculty at the University, said officials in her union haven’t told their members to participate in the walkout.
“We have a no-strike platform in our contracts,” she said.
She said that LEO supports the efforts of GEO, though.
“The University ought to be paying their employees what it costs to live in Ann Arbor,” Halloran said.
To encourage its members to continue teaching their classes without crossing the picket lines, LEO rented two different locations close to campus where teachers can hold their classes. Some University professors said they’ll hold their classes in neutral locations like the Michigan Union.
GEO is a member of the American Federation of Teachers, an international union representing teachers, which is affiliated with the AFL-CIO labor union.
Mark Gaffney, president of Michigan’s AFL-CIO, said that while there are multiple AFL-CIO member unions on campus, it’s unlikely those workers would participate in the walkout or refuse to cross a picket line.
Since 1987, GEO has held similar one- or two-day walkouts during each of its previous contract negotiations, which take place every three years.
“The fact that we have to walk out to get a contract seems like a likely possibility at the beginning of the cycle because that’s what history says,” Woods said. “I think every time we hope that the University will settle with us in good faith at the negotiating table, but this time that didn’t happen.”
Frumkin said that history cannot be used as a barometer to predict how these negotiations will play out.
“Each set of contract negotiations is different – there’s no way to predict what it will take and how much time it will take and what processes it will take,” Frumkin said.
During their negotiations in 2005, GEO held a one-day walkout and then went immediately back to the table to settle differences over childcare and anti-discrimination language in the contract. The organization also had strong disagreements on salary increases and health care coverage – the same issues that have stalled current talks.
The group reached a new contract with the University seven days after the walkout.
– Daily News Editor Andy Kroll contributed to this report.
What picketing GSIs won’t be doing today and tomorrow:
As part of the GEO walk-out taking place today, many GSIs participating in the strike will be canceling any classes, discussion and review sessions or any lab sections they teach.
Many GSIs are also refusing to answer students’s e-mails, hold office hours or correspond with students on the course website CTools.