There comes a time to stand up and act for what is right. After four frustrating months of negotiation between the University administration and the Graduate Employees’ Organization, that time is now for graduate student instructors and the rest of the University community.
According to the Office of Financial Aid, the median GSI’s salary is $781 less than the cost of attendance for eight months, which does not include paying income tax. That figure is for a single graduate student without dependents. Many GSIs with families are eligible for food stamps. For employees of a wealthy institution like the University, this is appalling. However, when GEO presented its initial wage proposal, the administration’s lead negotiator said that University officials did not see any relevant connection between the cost of attendance and a GSI’s salary.
Nor has the administration moved on many demands relating to our more vulnerable members. GSIs working at low fractions earn less per hour than their higher-fraction counterparts. However, administrators refuse to endorse the idea of equal pay for equal work, a key issue of justice for our membership. The University has rejected our demands to provide for parity coverage of mental health services. Finally, it has failed to ease spousal work requirements that govern access to child care subsidies. Current requirements often eliminate the families of international GSIs from child care support eligibility because the spouses of many international graduate employees cannot legally work in America.
Despite some movement during the last several days, it is clear that the administration still does not take our demands seriously. GEO has strenuously tried compromising with the administration – dropping proposals that would lower fees and provide vision care, as well as reducing our salary demand by several million dollars – yet the administration refuses to move substantively on our reduced requests.
For the 2007-2008 school year, GSI salaries, health care benefits and child care subsidies will cost the University less than $30 million. That is about 2.3 percent of the outlays of the Ann Arbor campus’s $1.3 billion general fund, which does not include the athletic budget or the health system. The total salary increase of unionized graduate employees cost $800,000 last year, in comparison to the $57 million in revenues that the University’s 7.7 percent tuition increase generated. Even if GEO were to accept the absurd and unjust notion that graduate employees should bear the brunt of the state’s failure to invest in higher education, clearly the University would not save that much money on us. Yet in a recent letter to the faculty and staff, LSA Dean Terrance McDonald claimed that our demand for $781 a year would put “insupportable” strains on the University budget.
GEO fights for the general good of the University community. GSIs pay dues to GEO’s parent union, the American Federation of Teachers, which lobbies hard for additional education funding for universities. This lobbying helps improve education and keep tuition down for all students – undergraduate and graduate alike. While the University was spending untold thousands on trying to evade the Americans with Disabilities Act on the Michigan Stadium renovation project, GEO was bargaining hard to make sure that graduate teachers with disabilities had proper accommodations in the classroom. In its struggles for GSIs, GEO has supported its rhetoric for increased diversity by fighting for equality in hiring, benefit availability and on-the-job treatment for all employees.
Our past lobbying for better training and smaller class sizes improves both our working conditions and the learning conditions of all undergraduates. According to the University, we teach 27 percent of the classroom hours at the University. We also provide the bulk of personal contact – in office hours, discussion sections and writing recommendations – between instructors and undergraduates on this campus.
Many undergraduate organizations stand with us and endorse our positions, like Students Organizing for Labor and Economic Equality and the College Democrats. The Michigan Student Assembly and LSA Student Government have overwhelmingly passed resolutions supporting our demands. Numerous on-campus and off-campus labor organizations have offered their support as well.
If there is a walkout tomorrow or any other day, we ask that you not cross picket lines. By supporting our requests for better working conditions, you stand up for the betterment of the entire University community.
Stand with us – because we stand with all of you.
This viewpoint was written by GEO President Helen Ho, Vice President Kiara Vigil, Secretary/Communications Chair Patrick O’Mahen, Treasurer Denise Bailey, Organizing Chairs Matt Desan and Sara Crider, Grievance Chair Lauren Squires and Bargaining Chair Julie Robert. It is supported by the GEO Stewards Council.