After four years of lobbying the University to provide more resources to graduate student employees with disabilities, Renée Echols’s hard work may finally be paying off.
Echols, the lead negotiator of the University’s Graduate Employees’ Organization and a Department of English Language and Literature graduate student instructor who is also blind, has been advocating for disabled University employees since she started teaching at the University in 2007. During a bargaining session on Friday, GEO and the University administration’s bargaining team signed a tentative proposal that would expand disabled GSI’s access to special accommodations.
Originally set to expire on March 1, GEO’s current contract will now expire on March 18 since University officials postponed the date. Once the contract expires, a new contract will be up for a vote of approval by the University’s Board of Regents.
More rights for GSIs with disabilities is just one of many changes that have been suggested for the new contract during the 26 bargaining sessions that have taken place since December. Once implemented, the signed proposal will be the first article in any University union’s contract to outline the rights of GSIs with disabilities.
While many issues facing reform under the new contract — like salaries and benefits related to child care — have existing articles under GEO’s current contract, the tentative agreement signed Friday will be a brand new addition to the contract.
Echols said in her research of other universities’ employee unions, she hasn’t found another collective bargaining agreement that allows GSIs to request special accommodations.
“This is pretty groundbreaking because no other union has taken this on as something to change employer policy and employer structure,” Echols said. “In terms of this collective bargaining agreement, it’s really unique.”
GEO President Robert Gillezeau, a GSI in the Department of Economics and a graduate student research assistant for the Center for Afroamerican and African Studies agreed with Patrick O’Mahen, former communications chair of GEO and a former Michigan Daily columnist, who called the signing of the proposal “historic.”
The main resource set up for GSIs with disabilities will be a process in which instructors can request accommodations for their disabilities, according to Echols. This will be done through a similar process for students with disabilities who go through the Office of Services for Students with Disabilities.
Echols said GEO has been working on the proposal since last summer and has been negotiating the finalized proposal with University administrators since December.
“We hope that the University will use that for all kinds of employees,” Echols said.
Mathieu Desan, a GSI in the Department of Sociology, said the administration has been flexible in evaluating all issues under negotiation except the inclusion of graduate student research assistants under GEO’s collective bargaining rights.
GEO has been advocating to allow GSRAs in the union since it bargains on their behalf. But University officials still follow a 1981 Michigan Employment Relations Commission regulation that states GSRAs are foremost students,and not employees.
Despite this, Desan said he thinks the administration has been “really receptive” to their proposal.
Federico Pous, a GSI in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, and Jennifer Bowles, a graduate student fellow, brought their 4-year-old daughter Iris to the bargaining session Friday. They are expecting their second child soon.
Pous and Bowles are advocating for the elimination of a stipulation under the current GEO contract that requires a 20-hour work week for both partners in order for them to have access to child care resources. Pous said negotiations with the administration have been difficult as many of his propositions during previous bargaining sessions have been shot down.
International GSIs are often denied access to child care because the University has a policy that limits the number of work hours for foreigners, Bowles said, adding that she hopes GEO’s next contract will change the requirement.
Desan said while he isn’t a parent, he sees the struggles his friends with children go through and thinks it is important GSIs are given more support when it comes to child care.
“I’d like to see the University move on our child care proposal in particular,” Desan said.
The collective bargaining agreement will be negotiated between GEO and the administration’s bargaining team in two meetings this week. Gillezeau said he anticipates the union and administrators will reach a consensus at the meetings and that the agreement will then proceed to the University’s Board of Regents for approval.