Student Organizing

At the University of Michigan, the graduate students have a strong union. Known officially as Local 3550 of the American Federation of Teachers, the 21-year-old Graduate Employees Organization (GEO) is the second oldest graduate student union in the country. GEO is the official bargaining unit for the Graduate Student Instructors (GSIs) and Graduate Student Staff Assistants (GSSAs). The GSIs make up the majority of the union, and any graduate student who teaches falls into this category. Over 40 percent of the undergraduate classroom hours at the University of Michigan are taught by graduate students. However, on April 8-9, 1996, most of those classes were not taught, because the members of GEO staged a two-day work stoppage.Instead of teaching, nearly 1,000 GEO members, friends, and undergraduates walked the picket lines around a dozen university buildings. Many supportive faculty members canceled class, and the campus was generally deserted, as undergraduates honored the picket lines by staying home. The walkout was a direct result of the breakdown in negotiations between GEO and the University administration that had been ongoing since the previous October. GEO members had been working on continuous two week contract extensions since the previous one had expired on February 1. In April, both sides agreed to mediation. This called for a bold strategy on the part of the union. Three years earlier, during the previous contract negotiations, mediation resulted in a near total victory for the Administration, as the state mediator sided with the University and leaned on GEO to settle quickly. It was clear that all the organizing and union-building were almost meaningless against the combined power of the University and the State of Michigan. Determined not to repeat past mistakes, GEO members voted to hold the work stoppage as a show of strength before mediation started.GEO had brought 37 proposals to the bargaining table in October. They ranged from changes in the grievance procedure, to hiring procedure clarification, to a new title (Teaching Assistant was the old one). The Administration's position was essentially "no change" to the contract. Over the course of many months of bargaining sessions, numerous rallies, protests, and job actions, three key issues remained unresolved: wages, International GSI training, and Affirmative Action. It was these issues that went to mediation.GEO members wanted a living wage. According to the estimates of the University Office of Financial Aid, GSIs on average earned 30 percent less than the cost of living in Ann Arbor, Michigan. GEO proposed a wage increase of 30 percent spread over 3 years. They argued that anyone who provided the essential service of teaching at the University should not have to seek additional employment. The Administration's counter-proposal would link GSI salary increases with those of faculty. GEO understood that this was a dangerous and unacceptable proposal. The faculty often received wage increases less than the rate of inflation. Additionally, and more importantly, equating GSI raises with those of another unit, which doesn't even bargain for them, would be to surrender the union. Once the wage proposal was written into the contract, it would be difficult to remove, and GEO would remain powerless on the issue of wages. Furthermore, this proposal failed to address the living wage concerns of GEO.Another crucial issue involved the International Graduate Student Instructor (IGSI) three week summer training. IGSIs were 25 percent of the bargaining unit, thus this was a great direct concern for many. All graduate students in the College of Literature, Science and Art from non-English speaking countries were required to attend this full-time training, yet were not compensated in any way. Additionally, according to federal law, they were barred from seeking other employment while students. GEO took the position that during this period, IGSIs should be compensated with prevailing GSI wages, health care, and housing. Additionally, since IGSIs at that point had no official input into the substance of the training, GEO asked for the creation of a joint UM-GEO committee that would investigate problems with the training. The Administration agreed to the joint committee but argued against the training compensation, claiming that since IGSIs were in training at that point, they were not real employees, and were therefore not in the bargaining unit. Thus GEO could not bargain for them, and the issue couldn't even be discussed. GEO asserted that IGSIs were employees during training, pointing in support to the documents that the University files with the government claiming employee status upon arrival. Therefore, the IGSIs were part of the bargaining unit, and entitled to union representation. The week before mediation, the Administration offered a $400 training fellowship, which was not nearly enough compensation and didn't settle the employee question.The third important issue to the union was the lack of an Affirmative Action policy for GSIs. A significant body of anecdotal evidence had accumulated over the years, describing systematic discrimination in the selection and hiring of GSIs of color and female GSIs. This was brought to the attention of the University many times, but nothing adequate was done. GEO decided to handle this problem in the contract, and brought a two-part proposal to the negotiations. They proposed a joint UM-GEO Affirmative Action committee that would research statistical discrimination patterns in departments and suggest remedies. Additionally, they proposed that a full-time paid staff position be created to facilitate the committee work. The Administration eventually agreed to the joint committee, but refused to create a paid staff position. GEO understood that without a serious commitment to the formation of a staff position, this would be another case of a well-meaning committee solving nothing.It was with these issues on the table that the GEO Bargaining Team entered mediation with the Administration and the state mediator on April 10. After an all- day closed session, they announced a tentative agreement. There would be a guaranteed annual 2.5 percent salary raise or the faculty raise, whichever was higher. This agreement had a "sunset clause," which meant that it would be removed from the contract at expiration in three years. The Administration agreed to increase the IGSI training fellowship to $700. However, this was to be an "extra-contractual agreement," a non-binding understanding between the parties. This signified the non-employee status of the IGSIs in the eyes of the Administration. The Affirmative Action staff position was denied. The other previously settled issues remained the same.It seemed in many ways a stunning defeat for the union. The bargaining team claimed, probably correctly, that this was the best agreement that could be reached under the circumstances. They described how, once again, the state mediator (the same one as the last mediation) pressured them to give in. The team voted, not unanimously, to endorse the tentative agreement and send it to the membership for a vote. After similar argument and soul-searching, the GEO Steering Committee also endorsed the new agreement.The membership meeting a week later was boisterous and contentious. Members took turns stating their dismay over the lost issues, especially wages. Also, it seemed clear that the Administration was willing to create powerless committees, but would not make further substantial commitments. Many were upset that despite all the efforts of the past months, including a two-day shutdown, the University still ignored many of their important demands. The University had allies in both the mediator and the Republican-dominated state of Michigan, and more work needed to be done to change the situation there. Despite troubled feelings, the membership voted overwhelmingly to accept the new contract.Though far from perfect, the new contract contained many substantial advances. For the first time, joint committees had been created to address problems in hiring discrimination and IGSI training. The Affirmative Action staff liaison, while not created officially, was a position that GEO could possibly fund on its own. Additional joint committees working on pedagogy and tuition assessment issues were initiated. The IGSI fellowship, while not enough compensation, was a substantial sum. There was the new GSI title, a name chosen by the union to more accurately reflect the work of the members. This replaced the old title that was imposed on GEO by the University 20 years earlier. Other contract improvements included new language stating that the GSI hiring procedures for all departments had to be developed and clearly posted, so that all graduate students would know about the hiring process. Additionally, all GSI supervisors would now be sent a document outlining the relevant parts of the contract. Most members felt that, overall, the new contract was much better than the last, and nearly everyone was glad to put the negotiations behind them. It is important, however, to note that the University has since attempted to renege on its agreement to pay the IGSI fellowship to all training participants. The non-contractual nature of the agreement made this more difficult for GEO to fight.This was the tenth contract that GEO has negotiated with the University of Michigan. The union has now turned its attention to enforcing the new contract, increasing membership, and outreach to other graduate student unions. There are over a dozen officially recognized graduate student unions in the U.S., all of them at public universities. It is clear that this non-traditional segment of the labor movement is growing. More established unions such as the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the Communication Workers of America (CWA), have been working for many years on organizing new GSI unions. Graduate Student Instructors do an increasing percentage of the classroom teaching at large universities. A majority still struggle to be recognized as legitimate employees making a crucial contribution toward the function of their institutions. Often the wages and benefits are inadequate, and most must also pay tuition while they are employed. In this environment, GSIs at schools across the country understand the importance of having the power to negotiate for the conditions of their employment and they look to unionization as the answer.


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