Grad worker union accuses U of M of ‘fabricating’ grades, school says claims are ‘false’

By: - May 18, 2023 11:31 am

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

The University of Michigan has filed a formal petition with the Michigan Employment Relations Commission to appoint a “fact finder” in the ongoing strike by graduate workers.

The university, which filed the petition Wednesday morning, earlier indicated it would move in that direction if there was not substantial progress toward a resolution with the union by Tuesday.

The fact-finding process involves an impartial state-appointed examiner reviewing the pertinent issues between opposing parties in a labor dispute and making a non-binding recommendation on how best to reach a resolution. However, the process can take several months to complete.

“One of our guiding principles since the very beginning of negotiations has been that the continuity of instruction and support for all of our students is at the core of our mission as a university,” Sascha Matish, associate vice provost and senior director for academic human resources, said in a prepared statement issued Monday. “We need to ensure that this collective bargaining process continues to move forward, and the fact-finding process is the correct next step.”

In response to the filing, Amir Fleischmann, chair of the contract committee at the Graduate Employees Organization (GEO), told the Michigan Advance that the filing does not alter the underlying issues in the dispute.

Striking U of M grad workers remain defiant as contract talks continue 

“We feel that fact finding is premature at this juncture, as both parties are still making movement at the table,” he said. “Nevertheless, we are confident that fact finding will only serve to vindicate our position. These are the facts: the university has an annual budget surplus of well over $400 million. It can easily afford to pay us a living wage. Our demands are reasonable, modest, and in line with what graduate workers at other universities receive. Our members are unfazed and ready to fight on.”

The strike by the 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 and graduate student staff assistants at U of M.

The union’s demand for a 60% pay raise in the first year of a three-year contract has remained constant since negotiations began last November. Under that proposal, GEO members, who currently earn approximately $35 per hour, would earn about $55 per hour next year. 

U of M officials said the GEO bargaining team used the bargaining session that had been set Tuesday to caucus and did not reach out with counter offers on any contract issues.

“The university provided GEO with an 80-page package proposal and threatened to move to fact finding if we did not provide them with what they considered to be an adequate response within one business day,” said Evelyn Smith, the GEO’s lead negotiator. “This is not bargaining in good faith.”

She said GEO instead spent Tuesday considering the outstanding proposals with its members and evaluating potential areas of agreement.

“We are a democratic union, and member involvement in each step of this process is important to us,” said Smith. “It would be a waste of time to pass something across the table that was rushed and did not reflect an offer our members would accept.”

On Friday, the university presented the union what it called a “comprehensive proposal package in response to all outstanding issues.” Included in the proposal was a pay increase of 12.5% over the next three years for GEO members on the Ann Arbor campus — 5% in the first year, 4% in the second year and 3.5% in the final year. GEO members on the Dearborn and Flint campuses would receive a total increase of 6.75% over the same period.

“Grads are extremely disappointed that HR is still offering us a so-called raise below the rate of inflation,” said Fleischmann. “The reason that 95% of us voted to strike and many hundreds of us were willing to miss our April paychecks is because the affordability crisis is so severe that we have no other option.”

Meanwhile, the union is accusing U of M of entering “fabricated” grades for the students of striking graduate workers. 

“In departments such as English and Romance Languages — where graduate student instructors are typically the instructors of record (i.e., sole instructor) for their course — the registrar is pressuring non-instructional staff to submit straight As for students whose grades are being withheld as part of the ongoing graduate worker strike,” the union stated in a press release. 

The union said the administration’s actions are a direct violation of a March 25 commitment to “ensure that [students] receive accurate grades for [their] coursework … that reflect [their] work throughout the semester.” 

“It appears that the administration would rather abandon academic integrity than treat its workers with respect,” said Jared Eno, president for GEO. “The move to fabricate grades for hundreds of students is only the administration’s latest attempt to cover up the fiasco that has led to a six-week strike.”

Further, the University of Michigan Faculty Senate has referred to the decision to have anyone other than the instructors of record submit grades as “a violation of professional ethics” and “an infringement on faculty freedom.”

The university disputes the characterization of the process being offered by the union.

“The claim that the registrar is pressuring non-instructional staff to submit straight As is false,” Kim Broekhuizen, the university’s director of public affairs told the Advance. “The truth is that deans at each of our schools and colleges have been tasked with working with department chairs and faculty to ensure any missing grades are entered as soon as possible. The methods for resolving grades depend on individual circumstances of each class.”

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

Broekhuizen said that schools and colleges are also taking steps in individual cases, whenever possible, to ensure students’ future education and plans are not compromised.

“Every effort is being made to ensure that grades are as accurate as possible utilizing the evidence that is available,” she said. “Students should not — and will not — be penalized for their [graduate student instructors’] failures to complete their contractual obligations.”

In an email to faculty late Wednesday, U of M Provost Laurie McCauley noted that more than 95% of grades for the winter term have already been submitted, and that of the classes with grades still outstanding, a majority are independent study and study-abroad courses that customarily arrive later than usual. 

However, she also addressed the concerns that had been raised about the methods some departments are using to resolve missing grades. 

“We are looking into those concerns and asking leaders across our units to do all they can to ensure that grades are as accurate as possible and meet our standard of academic integrity,” she said. “I want to be clear that there has been no blanket mandate regarding how schools, colleges, or departments resolve this issue. On the contrary, I have asked deans to work with department chairs and faculty to ensure all students receive grades as soon as possible. Schools and colleges are also taking steps in individual cases, whenever possible, to ensure our students’ future education and plans are not compromised.”

The union is also planning to take its case to the university’s Board of Regents, with plans to hold a press conference Thursday afternoon outside the regents’ 4 p.m. meeting at the U of M Dearborn campus.

Following the press conference, workers will hold a picket and attend the meeting, where they say they’ll protest the grading issue and what they call, “the administration’s broader mishandling of the contract negotiations.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Jon King
Jon King

Jon King 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 2021 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, where he also serves on the Board of Directors for the Livingston Diversity Council.