by Jon King, Michigan Advance
Members of the Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO) AFT Local 3550 are a step closer to striking following a general membership meeting on Monday in which they voted to initiate the strike authorization process.
The union, which is an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), represents Graduate Student Instructors (GSIs) and Graduate Student Staff Assistants (GSSAs) at the University of Michigan.
Of the approximately 750 members in attendance, only a single person voted against initiating the process. That sets up a three-day strike authorization vote that runs through Thursday, although negotiations will continue through the vote. If approved, GEO officers would then be able to call a strike.
“The overwhelming vote to begin the strike authorization process confirms what grads have been saying for months: the University is not treating these negotiations with the seriousness they deserve,” said GEO President Jared Eno.
According to a press release from AFT Michigan, the vote follows over four months of contract negotiations between graduate workers and U of M administrators.
“The University has rejected practically every one of the graduate workers’ proposals and continues to offer ‘raises’ below the rate of inflation,” stated the release.. “With many grad workers struggling to afford basic necessities, the proposal for a living wage is critical. Graduate students have seen the gap between the cost of living and their salary triple over the last three years, from a gap of over $5,000 in 2020 to a gap of almost $14,500 in 2022.”
The union says university officials have considered neither the cost of living nor how grad workers would make ends meet when determining the compensation rationale for their proposed wage.
Other issues in which the union says the university’s representatives have flatly rejected include transitional funding for survivors of harassment, better and more affordable mental health care, transgender health care, care for chronic conditions, the establishment of an unarmed, non-violent police alternative on campus, and a more accessible and adequate childcare subsidy.
In addition, the GEO says it was forced to file Unfair Labor Practice charges earlier this month against what they called U-M’s “unlawful conduct.”
Bailey Sullivan, a Ph.D candidate in History of Art, said that frustration among graduate students at the lack of progress had reached a boiling point.
“We’ve tried everything – email zaps, informational pickets, attending Regents Meetings, extra bargaining sessions, and a teach-in – striking is the only tool we have left to move the needle,” said Sullivan.
The university responded after publication with a long statement from spokesperson Kim Broekhuizen. It reads, in part:
“A GEO strike would needlessly hurt undergraduate students when we still have many weeks left to negotiate before the union’s current contract expires on May 1. By striking before its contract ends, the union is violating its contractual commitment not to do so. The university has made every effort to keep bargaining moving forward, which includes meeting for additional bargaining sessions and engaging a neutral, state-appointed mediator.
“… If the union chooses to strike, the university will continue to hold classes as scheduled. Our school, college, and department leaders are planning for substitute instructors, alternative assignments, and other means for delivering instruction if it is required.
Additionally, the university will take appropriate lawful actions to enable the continued delivery of our educational mission in the event of a work disruption. Those actions would include asking a court to find a breach of contract and order strikers back to work, stopping the deduction of union dues, filing unfair labor practice charges, and not paying striking GSIs and GSSAs for time they did not work.”
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