Since 1974, the Graduate Employees Organization’s priority has been to improve undergraduate education and the quality of life for all graduate students on this campus. But, judging by some letters and columns in the Daily, some students think GEO “unreasonable” in its demands. Why? Is it unreasonable for a worker to demand that she not be harassed or discriminated against? Is it unreasonable for a worker to demand that her wages and benefits allow her to provide for her family? Recall that many people once condemned labor unions as being “unreasonable” to strike for 8-hour working days, weekends and work safety protections. Remember that Martin Luther King, on the day he died, was in Memphis to support striking sanitation workers whose demands many thought “unreasonable.” (I can see the headline now: “My garbage is more important than your children.”)

Few today would want to be remembered as having vilified Dr. King and his comrades as being “unreasonable” agitators who didn’t know when to be grateful for what they already had rather than acting like “whiny little brats” asking for abstract concepts such as equality, freedom and justice. GEO’s fight today is hardly on the scale of the struggles to which I’ve alluded, but our non-violent work stoppage and the issues for which we fight are inspired by those who went before us. GEO is crucially important because it gives power to those who do the bulk of undergraduate teaching at the University and because GEO has always fought for the entire University community and not just its members. So why do many students cross a GEO picket line without a second’s thought and resent the courage of their teachers to fight for a better life for all members of this community?

For five months GEO insisted that the University require departments to provide a minimum of five hours of training for new GSIs. For four months the University refused, until our pressure got them to agree to a minimum commitment of four hours of training. (Why the University held out on the extra hour remains a mystery to me.) Our efforts will improve undergraduate education at the University and underscore why GEO is important for students. Consider our other victories: Higher childcare subsidies, protection against harassment and discrimination in testing, training and employment, transparent posting of positions and a hiring monitor for affirmative action and better conditions for low fraction members. That’s an impressive list of achievements, confirming GEO’s position as the flagship graduate employee union in the country.

The University wants you to believe that the costs of our victory will cause a tuition increase. Reject such lies. On the last day of negotiations, the difference between the University’s offer and GEO’s demands was about $800,000 per year. To put this in perspective, consider that the University just spent a million dollars adding a solarium to the President’s house, or that the annual salary of the eight University bargainers approaches $700,000. Clearly the fight had little to do with money and much to do with the University’s warped priorities. GEO’s priorities, on the other hand, are reflected in our decision to accept a lower wage increase in exchange for higher childcare subsidies.

Issues of social justice are difficult to fight for because being an activist is hard. It is far easier to ignore the injustices that exist, and to go on with one’s own life. It is just as easy and far more despicable, to use the suffering of one group against a union of low-income workers fighting to improve their lives. But many do just this when they complain about “greedy GSIs” picketing even as waitresses, staff and others get by without childcare. Consider the reasoning: Because management doesn’t compensate its other employees adequately, GSIs shouldn’t have better pay or benefits either. Why not the opposite? Through GEO, unorganized labor on this campus gains a voice with management.

A perfect example is childcare. The lack of affordable childcare in Ann Arbor hurts all those affiliated with the University, from undergraduate and graduate parents to faculty, staff and service employees. Of all these groups, only one has the power to force the University to make a financial commitment to improving the situation. As that organization, GEO has a responsibility, and we willingly accept it. The $450,000 we made the University commit to the creation of new affordable childcare slots in Ann Arbor will benefit everyone who lives in this community, not just our members, a fact that many of our detractors conveniently ignore. Similarly, past GEO gains such as free health care and full tuition waivers are now enjoyed by many graduate students, including the fellowship recipients who wrote anti-GEO letters and the GSIs who scabbed on March 11.

As disappointing as the attacks of some students have been, we recognize the support of student groups like Students Organizing for Labor and Economic Equality and Students of Color of Rackham, and we hope others will join us. GEO is at the forefront of a social justice revolution where issues of race, citizenship and gender share equal space within a labor union whose membership is united in its promise to leave no member behind. Together we can move mountains and we intend to use our solidarity to fight the fights worth fighting, strengthened by our conviction that we fight on the side of justice and that history shall prove us right.

Nooruddin is a member of GEO’s negotiating team and a graduate student instructor in Political Science.

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