The University of Michigan | Susan J. Demas
Faced with steep cost of living increases, including burdensome rents, unionized graduate student workers at the University of Michigan voted Thursday night to authorize a strike should union leaders determine it’s necessary in an effort to secure increased wages in their new contract.
Ninety-five percent of the Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO) AFT Local 3500 members backed a work stoppage, with union leaders saying in a press release that the move comes after “four months of being stonewalled at the bargaining table by the University of Michigan.” The vote allows GEO’s leadership to call a strike if contract negotiations fully break down. Graduate workers and U of M administration are continuing their negotiations Friday.
The union, which is an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), represents graduate student instructors and graduate student staff assistants at the University of Michigan.
“Grad workers voted to strike in large numbers because we know a better university is possible,” GEO President Jared Eno said in a prepared statement. “U-M has the resources to pay its workers a living wage, to protect marginalized workers — like parents, international grads, and transgender workers — and guarantee our well-being and safety.”
University of Michigan Santa Ono and Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Laurie McCauley wrote in a message to the school community Friday morning that they are “disappointed” by the strike authorization vote.
“A strike would needlessly hurt undergraduate students and violate the union’s own contractual commitment not to do so,” Ono and McCauley wrote.
The administrators said if GEO members strike, they will be “in breach of their current labor contract, which remains in effect through May 1.”
Should union leaders decide to strike, Ono and McCauley said the university will continue to hold classes as scheduled.
“There would likely be visible activism on the campus, and we respect the right of any group to peacefully advocate for their positions,” the administrators wrote.
Union leaders said the push for increased wages comes as graduate students have seen the gap between the cost of living and their salary nearly tripled over the past three years, to almost $14,500, in 2022. About 80% of graduate workers are rent burdened, with many paying as much as 30% or more of their salaries on rent. Simply put, graduate students are struggling to meet basic needs on their current stipend, union leaders said.
“I’ve spoken to countless grad workers who are skipping meals and rationing medication just to get by,” said GEO Contract Chair Amir Fleischmann. “The administration should be embarrassed that it’s put so many of its workers and students in this situation.”
In addition to increased pay, workers said the university has failed to make progress on a number of other contract issues, including transitional funding for survivors of harassment, more affordable mental healthcare, a more accessible child care subsidy, and funding for an “unarmed, non-violent police alternative on campus.”
Of the grad students’ contract requests, Ono and McCauley said “some of these issues are important for our campus and merit further discussion with diverse perspectives and other community groups.
“In other areas, the union has been unwilling to deviate at all from their original proposals,” the administrators wrote and cited the police alternative as an example. Funding for such an initiative is “outside the scope of the union’s contract and would be inappropriate for one bargaining unit to decide for our entire community,” Ono and McCauley said.
After four months of negotiations, graduate students said they feel cornered into striking.
“This is not a step that grad workers take lightly, but the university has for months totally failed to adequately address the serious problems grads are facing,” GEO Vice President, Ember McCoy said. “Our members are fed up and ready to fight.”
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