With no agreement reached on their contract and a two-day strike likely for next week, about 300 graduate student instructors demonstrated yesterday on the Diag and at Regents’ Plaza, demanding that the University agree to their union’s contract proposals.
The Graduate Employees’ Organization’s demands focused on salary increases and expanded health care and child care for GSIs at the University – two points on which GEO and the University’s bargaining team have failed to agree since negotiations began on Dec. 6.
GEO vice president Kiara Vigil, an American Culture GSI, said the group hoped to convince University officials to settle with GEO before the union takes action.
If the bargaining team can’t settle on a contract by Monday, GSIs plan to stage a two-day walkout on Tuesday and Wednesday, Vigil said. During that time, GSIs would stop their usual work and form picket lines outside University buildings. They would discourage students, faculty members and staff from entering those buildings as a show of support for GSIs.
“We feel what we’re asking is fair, but it is a little more than what we’ve asked for in the past,” Vigil said. “That’s why we are willing to walk out and withhold our labor for two days, and effectively shut down the University. But no one wants to get to that point. We are still bargaining.”
A majority of the protesters, many of whom were GSIs, wielded picket signs reading, “Our working conditions are your learning conditions” and “We can’t survive on ramen alone.”
Demonstrators also excitedly slogans like, “We want justice, we want contracts, we want it now!” as the chants slowly grew throughout the Diag. As the demonstration progressed, crowds of onlookers gathered around the protesters.
GEO President Helen Ho, a Communication Studies GSI, said the demonstration showed the union’s need to take action outside bargaining sessions to convince the University to increase GSI salaries.
“The administrations have come to the table three times a week with nothing to propose to us, so we are really hoping that this demonstration show solidarity and strength,” Ho said. “We are hoping that the visibility of this action will be enough to signal to the University that we have people who care and people who are vocal about it, and that we have students who are not afraid of political action.”
Earlier in the week, Jeff Frumkin, the University’s senior director of academic human resources, said the University was still hopeful it could reach an agreement with GEO to prevent a strike.
“We hope everyone can go to class, both the students and the instructors,” he said. Nobody likes the idea of that instruction being interfered with. It’s unfair to undergraduates.”
A half hour into the demonstration, hundreds of protesters began marching from the Diag toward Regents’ Plaza. Halting traffic and chanting along the way, they ended in front of the Fleming Administration Building, where a meeting of the University Board of Regents was underway.
Though the current contract negotiations don’t directly impact her, LSA freshman Angela Verkade marched to express support for her GSIs.
“I really love all the work and teaching that they do,” she said. “I think the rally will be effective. They have a point and they are definitely making a lot of noise about it.”
Once the demonstrators arrived at the Regents’ Plaza, several members of GEO spoke to the crowd, as did David Hecker, president of the Michigan division of the American Federation of Teachers.
“A rally like this shows to President Coleman and the Board of Regents that graduate student instructors are serious about getting a new fair contract, and they are going to do what it takes to get that contract,” Hecker said. “A rally of this size shows the commitment of graduate student instructors to fight for what they deserve.”
About 100 demonstrators from GEO entered the Michigan Union from the plaza, filling the building’s hallways and Amer’s Café with chants. The GSIs then filed into Wolverine Room A, where yesterday’s bargaining session between GEO and the University’s negotiating team took place.
During that session, the University’s negotiating team bumped its previous proposal of a 3-percent increase in the contract’s first year to 3.9 percent, according to Patrick O’Mahen, a GEO spokesman and Political Science GSI.
Although GEO and the University’s bargaining team agreed to 3-percent salary increases in the second and third year of their new contract, GEO has asked for a 9-percent increase in the first year.