In a culmination of almost five months of contentious negotiations, the University and the Graduate Employees’ Organization tentatively agreed last night to a new three-year contract for the University’s graduate student instructors.
As a result, GEO – the union that represents about 1,700 GSIs at the University – called off the second day of their planned two-day walkout. GSIs were set to picket University buildings today.
The University and GEO returned to the table yesterday at about 2:30 p.m. They completed the deal just before midnight.
“The parties got together and they just stayed working at it until they completed the process,” said Jeff Frumkin, the University’s senior director of Academic Human Resources. “I’m very relieved that it’s over and I’m very happy that the University and GEO reached a really good contract that’s mutually beneficial to all of us.”
History GSI Colleen Woods, the lead negotiator for GEO, said she was ecstatic that the negotiations, which started in November, are finally finished.
“This is a major, major victory for our union,” she said. “It is a historic contract.”
The union has yet to ratify a final agreement, but negotiators will present the tentative deal to GEO members on Monday.
Frumkin said the threat of another day of work stoppage helped push the University to return to the negotiating table.
“Of course it was important that we go back to normal operations tomorrow,” he said. “But that’s always important.”
The proposed compromises that the University brought to the table today led GEO to call off today’s strike, Woods said.
Woods said GEO’s negotiating team understood the University’s desire to avoid another disruption of classes.
“After they walked away from the table (Monday night), it was clear that they wanted to prevent a second day of this walkout,” she said. “We thought that this was the best deal that we could get and we didn’t want management to walk away from the table again.”
Both parties agreed that the openness of the discussions and their eagerness to reach a settlement helped get the contract finalized.
“The administration moved a lot closer to our wage proposal and some other outstanding issues that we had and we made some concessions as well,” Woods said.
Last night’s deal didn’t come from the resolution of one single sticking point, Frumkin said. Instead, he said, the resolution came from the two sides agreeing on a comprehensive package deal.
“I think it was a combination of being able to have candid conversations that got us to a point of understanding with respect to the salary and benefits issues,” Frumkin said. “And that’s what happens in bargaining, when you really get down to finalizing the deal it’s a matter of mutual understanding and a little give and take.”
One of the key parts of the tentative deal is a salary increase of 6.2 percent in the first year of the new contract for GSIs followed by increases of 3.5 percent in the second and third years of the contract.
In earlier negotiating sessions, GEO had proposed a nine percent increase. The University countered that by proposing a three percent increase.
Still, Woods referred to the salary increases laid out in the final agreement as “historic.”
Frumkin said that despite the fact the University increased its offer significantly from its previous proposal, it was happy with the final numbers.
Another big part the deal agreed to last night was expanded health care coverage for GSIs.
The tentative contract allows for any GSI to get health care, regardless of the number of hours they’re appointed for.
“All GSIs will have health care,” Woods said. “We have asked for full healthcare for a long time now and to have all three of those gains plus a full.”
Included in that health care coverage is a clause that would either raise the cap on mental health care visits for GSIs from 25 to 30 per year or set up a fund of $30,000 that GSIs can draw from if they exceed the 25-visit cap. The two sides have yet to work out the specifics of that part of the agreement.
“The University was very, very resistant to increasing access to mental health care,” Woods said. “It was the last thing that negotiations came down to essentially tonight.”
Woods said she was proud of the policies the negotiating team was able to win for low-fraction GSIs – those that work less than 20 hours each week. Low-fraction GSIs will now be paid on a scale that gives them an hourly wage equal to that of those who work at higher-fraction appointments.
Also, all GSIs who work for 7.5 hours or more each week will receive a full tuition waiver.
Woods said that after a difficult day for her union’s members, she is satisfied with the deal.
“I’m happy for our members,” she said, “This has been a five month process, so I think we’re happy to have a contract.”