Tensions rise as bargaining stalls on new contract for U of M graduate instructors 

University says it won’t pay striking workers 

By: - April 24, 2023 6:40 am

University of Michigan graduate workers picket on North Quad, April 18, 2023 | Laina G. Stebbins

Updated, 10:42 a.m., 4/24/23

Negotiations have hit an impasse between the University of Michigan and the union representing graduate student instructors, as tensions escalated last week into a confrontation requiring police intervention.

The strike by the Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO) AFT Local 3550 began March 29, with economic issues the main point of contention.

The union, which is an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), represents approximately 2,300 Graduate Student Instructors (GSIs) and Graduate Student Staff Assistants (GSSAs) at U of M.

On Friday, the university said because GEO had made “little or no substantive movement” since bargaining began last November, the discussions had gone as far as they could.

U of M grad workers continue to strike while appealing ruling

“When, or if, GEO presents substantive counterproposals that indicate its willingness to engage productively, rather than its practice of repeatedly presenting its same proposals or adding additional conditions, the university will respond accordingly,” said U of M spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald.

Friday’s bargaining session ended two hours early, and while a meeting is scheduled for Monday, it is unclear if anything substantive will occur.

The GEO has been seeking a 60% wage increase in the first year of a new contract, with additional increases tied to inflation in the second and third years. University officials say a proposal put forward Friday by the union merely restructured the plan, but still resulted in a 60% increase.

Multiple counter-offers from the university, including an 11.5% pay increase over the next three years, have been rejected by the GEO.

The union, however, contends it put forward a “substantially restructured compensation proposal” and insists their bargaining team has been working around the clock to reach a deal.

“We’ve bent over backwards to work with the university, address their stated concerns, and bargain in good faith in the interest of reaching an agreement,” stated a union tweet. “How management responds to this latest proposal is up to them. But we’re committed to finding common ground while meeting the needs of our members. This university has more than enough resources to pay our grads a living wage, make our healthcare accessible, and ensure that our workplaces are safe. We look forward to the University’s response.”

Meanwhile, the backdrop to the negotiations reached a heated pitch on Thursday afternoon when a confrontation between graduate instructors and University of Michigan President Santa Ono resulted in two individuals being detained for disorderly conduct, according to Deputy Chief Melissa Overton of the university’s Division of Public Safety and Security.

Overton said after being identified, the two individuals were released, although an investigation remains open. She provided no further details.

Differing versions of the incident have been offered by the union and university officials.

University of Michigan graduate workers picket on North Quad, April 18, 2023 | Laina G. Stebbins

The university’s Democratic-controlled Board of Regents, in a statement, said that “unruly GEO protesters came dangerously close to violence” when they “stormed a local Ann Arbor restaurant where U of M President Santa J. Ono was meeting with students for dinner.”

The regents said that after protesters banged on restaurant windows, two of them were temporarily detained after they blocked and pounded on a U of M Police vehicle in which Ono was a passenger. 

“This type of threatening behavior is wholly unacceptable,” the regents said in their statement. “We call on GEO leaders to stop actively disrupting the education of their fellow students, cease harassing our president and come to the bargaining table ready to recommit themselves to the critically important collective bargaining process.”

The union, however, characterized the incident as one graduate worker being “violently shoved onto the ground,” while two others “were detained, then released after striking workers and bystanders surrounded police and demanded the picketers’ release.”

They said the incident began when graduate workers heard that Ono was dining at a restaurant in downtown Ann Arbor and went there hoping to have a conversation with him. The union statement says when three workers entered the restaurant to speak with the president directly, his bodyguard “slammed the door to the private dining room in their faces,” and that when they met Ono outside the restaurant, he “hid in his car and attempted to drive away.”

The union says when graduate workers stepped in front of the vehicle with hands held up, Ono’s driver accelerated, pushing them into an intersection, prompting campus police to respond, despite being blocks away from the campus.

“The administration would rather take us to court and detain us than address the urgent cost-of-living crisis that graduate workers face at the University of Michigan,” said Kathleen Brown, a graduate worker who was detained by campus police.

Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO) AFT Local 3550 pickets at the University of Michigan, March 29, 2023 | courtesy photo

Alejo Stark, a U of M graduate worker, noted that the incident “illustrates the role that campus cops play in protecting the powerful and the wealthy, not the workers.”

Thursday’s incident also prompted Ono, who plays the cello, to cancel a Saturday appearance with the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra’s season finale on campus.

One issue potentially ratcheting up the conflict is the university’s stance that it will not pay striking GEO members at the end of April, which would be the first pay period since the strike began.

In an email Friday sent to graduate student instructors and graduate student staff assistants, university officials said GEO members must complete a survey attesting whether they are working or not. Those who do not fill out the form will not be paid.

“This represents a severe escalation by the Administration,” said GEO president Jared Eno. “Grad workers are already experiencing a cost of living crisis, and many will now be wondering how they’ll afford their May rent payments. It is shameful that President Ono and Provost [Laurie] McCauley – who both make several times in a single month what grads make in an entire year – would put their workers in this position.”


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Jon King
Jon King

Jon King is the Senior Reporter for the Michigan Advance and has been a journalist for more than 35 years. He is the Past President of the Michigan Associated Press Media Editors Association and has been recognized for excellence numerous times, most recently in 2022 with the Best Investigative Story by the Michigan Association of Broadcasters. He is also an adjunct faculty member at Cleary University. Jon and his family live in Howell.