University of Michigan graduate workers protest during commencement weekend

By: - April 29, 2023 4:22 am

Graduate student workers strike for better pay and benefits from University of Michigan on Washtenaw Ave, April 28, 2023 | Laina G. Stebbins

Updated, 8:12 a.m., 4/29/23, 8:06 a.m. 5/2/23

It has been six months since bargaining began between the University of Michigan and its unionized graduate student workers. And still, on a Friday afternoon in April, workers are picketing on the street in freezing rain — days before their contract expires.

Negotiations with the university are “frustrating” and “exhausting,” said Georgia Oppenheim, a 24-year-old PhD student from Connecticut. She shivered as she stood, flanked by fellow U of M graduate workers, on an Ann Arbor sidewalk while cars passed by on Washtenaw Avenue.

“We come with these really thoughtful proposals … and we don’t see [the university] engaging in it at all,” Oppenheim said, adding that “last week, the lead negotiator for HR said that the university didn’t care about negotiating over trans rights.”

The University of Michigan Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO) AFT Local 3550 — which represents nearly 2,300 Graduate Student Instructors and Graduate Student Staff Assistants at the university — has been seeking a living wage, better services and more supports since bargaining talks started in October.

Christa Ventreso, Georgia Oppenheim, Katarina Keating and Ziggy Gottlieb, all graduate student workers, strike for better pay and benefits from University of Michigan, April 28, 2023 | Laina G. Stebbins

Their contract expires on Wednesday. Amir Fleischmann, GEO’s contract committee chair, said the end of the contract does not matter as much as the spring term ending.

“The administration is under tremendous pressure to get their grades in and keep the bureaucracy moving,” Fleischmann said. “But hundreds of graduate workers and numerous faculty allies have committed to withholding grades until we get a fair contract.”

As the current semester ends, bargaining and striking will continue if a deal is not reached, but will likely take on another shape as another set of grad student instructors come in for the summer term.

“I think there definitely is a sense of, if we give up now, the university will learn that they just have to wait until the semester runs out and then they get what they want,” said Christa Ventreso, 28, another PhD student from Connecticut. “So there’s definitely a lot of momentum on the union side to keep going and keep trying for what we want and what we know we need.”

“We’re going to bargain until we get a contract,” Oppenheim said.

“We’re not going to fold,” chimed in Katarina Keating, a 25-year-old PhD student from Vermont.

The graduate workers said that their picketing has been informed by lessons from others, including strikes at Temple University and the University of California — and like those, the GEO-UM strike will have implications for other grad school strikes across the country.

“If the university stops us now, then other universities can do the same to other grad workers,” Oppenheim said.

“It’s been sounding like UM wants to be one of the first, if not the first university to break a grad strike without meeting substantive demands,” said Ventreso. “And that’s a really bad precedent. So we want to avoid that.”

GEO’s striking workers are asking for $38,500 per year, protections from sexual harassment and discrimination, better mental health care, gender affirming care and additional supports for parents, international student workers and those with disabilities.

On Friday, striking workers also discovered that the university was withholding their pay for the entire month of April. Workers who were on paid medical leave during the strike also found their pay docked.

A statement from GEO characterized the move as “the latest in a series of underhanded strikebreaking tactics that Management has used to try to circumvent the bargaining process and impose an unfair contract on some of its lowest paid workers.”

Construction site for UM’s Central Campus Recreation Building in Ann Arbor, where graduate student workers picketed for better pay and benefits from the university, April 28, 2023 | Laina G. Stebbins

What’s frustrating is I feel like we’re not asking for too much. We’re just asking for a living wage. We’re just asking to get paid enough to live in Ann Arbor,” said Oppenheim.

The university is “taking graduate students who are in vulnerable positions, who don’t really have savings, and putting them in a situation where they face eviction, they face financial insecurity. And the strike fund has a lot of money, but it’s still not enough for everyone.”

Graduate student workers are only paid for 20 hours per week by the university, and are not allowed to take on other jobs.

The university reiterated in a statement this week that the strike “violates state law and the union’s current contract with the university which contains a clear ‘no-strike clause’ in Article III.” A state administrative law judge agreed in an April 17 decision.

GEO is appealing a recent ruling from an administrative law judge that ordered the end of their strike.

More picketing is planned for this weekend, during a time when students and families from all over the country and beyond are pouring into Ann Arbor for U of M’s 2023 commencement ceremonies.

Correction: This story initially had the wrong date for the contract’s expiration.

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Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins is a former Michigan Advance reporter. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service.

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