University of Michigan graduate workers picket on North Quad, April 18, 2023 | Laina G. Stebbins
Following weekend commencement ceremonies during which striking University of Michigan graduate student workers continued to protest, contract talks, with the assistance of a state mediator, are scheduled to resume this week.
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.
While previous reports indicated the contract expired on Monday, an update provided by the university last week indicates that it officially expires on Wednesday.
Regardless, protests continued Monday with a May Day rally led by GEO President Jared Eno.
“[University] President Santa Ono could change all of this today if he just wanted to,” said Eno. “The university, as I said, has over $17 billion [its endowment], a giant mountain of cash sitting on campus that’s growing every year.”
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 they have put forward multiple counter-offers, including an 11.5% pay increase over the next three years, but all have been rejected by the GEO.
“The university’s position on the GEO negotiations is one of encouraging GEO to actually bargain over compensation and other matters,” U of M spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald told the Michigan Advance. “GEO’s proposal of a 60% pay increase — in year one of a new three-year contract — has not changed since the opening of contract talks last November. The university has twice improved its compensation proposal.”
Fitzgerald said it was also worth noting that the employees represented by the union work part-time for the university during eight months of the year.
“On an hourly basis, they currently make $35 an hour, nearly double the living wage hourly rate for the Ann Arbor area,” he said. “They also get a tuition waiver and health care coverage at no cost.”
The union, however, maintains that the gap between the cost of living and their member’s salaries have nearly tripled over the past three years, to almost $14,500 in 2022.
“With 80% of graduate workers rent-burdened, consuming as much as 30% of their salary, graduate workers are struggling to meet their needs on the current stipend,” states their website. “Without a living wage, as well as additional support for the extra costs parents, international workers, and disabled workers bear, graduate school at U-M is inaccessible to anyone who isn’t independently wealthy.”
For Eno, it goes even further, with a university administration he says positions itself as being progressive, yet acts in ways he believes are inherently anti-labor.
“So many other presidents and CEOs talk a good game about caring about people, about caring about students and workers,” he said at Monday’s rally. “But when workers stand up for themselves and what they deserve, these presidents and these CEOs suddenly change their tune or they hide and call in the cops as President Ono did on grad workers a few weeks ago. That’s right, these workers were just trying to talk to the president about how he had withheld pay for them for being on strike, and he called the cops on them, and two grad workers were detained. These bosses; they hide, they lie, they intimidate and retaliate because they are afraid and they should be.”
However, Fitzgerald points to an action by the Board of Regents in 2020 to approve the “card check” approach to union recognition, forgoing the need for a state-supervised election.
“Many would characterize that as making it easier for university employees to organize for collective bargaining,” he said.
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