When the Lecturers’ Employee Organization walked out for a day last winter, few people questioned the validity of the lecturers’ grievances. It seemed genuinely unfair that the University was treating instructors with doctoral degrees as temporary workers — choosing to provide neither job security nor just compensation. When the Graduate Employees’ Organization held a one-day strike last Thursday, however, graduate student instructors didn’t even unite behind their union. Considering the impracticality of GEO’s demands, it comes as no surprise that a good number of undergraduates, professors and even graduate students went as far as to denounce the strike for what it was: frivolous. GEO members, who already get a great deal from the University, need to stop demanding more and accept a contract.
Though they may carry signs offering to “teach for food,” GEO members are not exploited workers suffering from unfair compensation. GSIs at the University are already some of the best rewarded in the country, effectively “earning” more than $40,000 a year in tax-exempt tuition waivers ($25,000 per year), stipends ($14,000 per year) and benefits. When LEO launched its walkout last year, it was attempting to secure a baseline salary of $41,000 for its members — who already have earned doctorates and teach for a living. It’s hard to rationally argue GEO members are exploited or unfairly paid if the average GSI — who works less than 20 hours a week, eight months a year — is compensated just slightly less than an entry-level lecturer. Furthermore, while GEO may argue that one cannot live off a tuition waver, the $14,000 yearly stipend ought to easily cover the cost of living in Ann Arbor for the vast majority of GSIs.
Even when it comes to the rate of wage increases — which GEO has denounced as too slow — union members fare just as well, if not better, than the faculty of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. In 1996, the University decided to give GSIs the same annual pay increase given to LSA faculty, and later revised the policy to guarantee GEO members at least a 2.5-percent annual pay increase in the event that LSA faculty increases fell below that rate. While the University has indicated it wants GSIs to accept a 2-percent minimum their first year, it has made clear that all other GSIs are guaranteed 2.5 percent. Not satisfied with a better deal than the professional educators holding LSA faculty appointments, however, GEO is now demanding a “living wage,” which would amount to a 20-percent increase over the next three years — even though no other employees receive such large increases.
Despite a contractual guarantee that ensures all graduate employees working more than 10 hours a week receive health care coverage, GEO has decided to demand that all graduate employees — even those who work less than 10 hours a week — receive health care at University expense. While the University has rejected this request for financial reasons, the fundamental problem with this demand is that a GSI working four hours a week simply doesn’t deserve University-sponsored health care coverage. This becomes even more apparent when looking at the LEO contract, which essentially stipulates that a lecturer must work average about 20 hours a week during the fall and winter semesters to qualify for benefits. If a lecturer, who has made teaching his profession, needs to work at least 20 hours a week for benefits, what right does a graduate student not even working 10 have to that same package?
GEO, unable to see beyond its own “needs” and recognize the fiscal constraints facing the University, remains adamant about its costly concerns and is promising to strike indefinitely if the University does not negotiate in good faith to meet them. This threat, more than any single GEO demand, has rubbed the campus community the wrong way. At a time when tuition is skyrocketing, state funding is falling and operating costs are trending upward, many find it ridiculous that GEO seems unwilling to simply accept an already-comfortable contract. Observers can quickly see that GEO’s self-interest — a desire for more money and benefits — has placed the University in a position where it will have to accept unreasonable demands simply to avoid a devastating strike. If GEO wants support from the University community, it would be wise to drop rhetoric about an indefinite strike and sign the best contract it can negotiate by week’s end.
Before last Thursday’s walkout, GEO members posted flyers proclaiming, “The University is not a corporation.” The flyers are correct: The University is not a corporation. Rather, it is a public institution with no profits and little control over its revenue stream that is losing millions of dollars in funding each year. GEO needs to tone down its excessive demands and sign a responsible contract.
Momin can be reached at email@example.com.