The Struggle for Certification, 1970-1974

“Teaching Fellows” (as they were then called) first began to organize in 1970, when the University Teaching Fellows’ Union (TFU) collected enough signatures to warrant an election by the Michigan Employment Relations Commission (MERC). In the same year, Political Science TFs walked out on their discussion sections to protest departmental cuts to TF allocations. In 1971, however, MERC denied the petition and ruled that TFs alone did not constitute an appropriate collective bargaining unit. While MERC did not offer an opinion on the student/employee distinction, it agreed with the University administration’s argument that even if TFs were employees, they should be part of a unit that included Research and Staff Assistants; no election was conducted. Faced with the prospect of a lengthy court battle, the TFs temporarily abandoned their organizing efforts.

A number of administrative decisions in the summer of 1973 sparked a second organizing drive. In the wake of a student strike to protest a 24% tuition increase and an organized meeting of 500 TFs, Teaching Fellows formed the Organization of Teaching Fellows (OTF) to protest the increase. Other concerns included the loss of TFs’ in-state tuition status, new residency requirements, and the lack of a pay increase. OTF, loosely associated with the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), attempted to begin negotiations with president Robben Fleming, but were rebuffed; the Administration would not bargain unless OTF were officially recognized by MERC. Discussions of a possible strike were well underway when the Administration discovered a $3.75 million budget overflow and announced plans to grant a sizable pay increase for Teaching Fellows. TFs subsequently failed to authorize a strike, but continued their organizing efforts. They joined Research and Staff Assistants to form the Graduate Employees Organization (GEO), and demanded recognition as the sole bargaining agent for all Graduate Student Assistants (by this time, the Administration was referring to TFs as “Teaching Assistants”). This time the Administration agreed to an immediate MERC certification election. GEO was officially certified on April 15, 1974 after an overwhelming vote of 807 in favor, 424 against.

Strike for a Contract, 1974-1975

Negotiations for a first contract began in June 1974 and proceeded slowly; in January 1975 the Administration and GEO went into mediation. When this process failed to yield results, GEO offered to go to binding arbitration. The Administration declined. With all avenues of negotiation exhausted, the Union membership voted to strike (689 in favor, 193 against) at the beginning of the cold month of February 1975. Hundreds of GEO members began picketing University buildings early on the morning of February 11, the start of what was to become a month-long strike. More than 50% of undergraduates boycotted classes and joined picket lines in the early days of the strike. Michigan’s Teamster locals recognized the strike and instructed their members not to drive trucks through picket lines. While agreements on non-discrimination and affirmative action were finalized in the first week of the strike, the important issues of economics, agency shop, and the right to grieve the size of appointment fractions for Winter term 1974 took longer. After a hearing before a MERC-appointed fact-finder and an extra day of intensive picketing to ensure no reprisals for strike activity, the GEO membership overwhelmingly ratified the proposed contract with a vote of 622 in favor, 12 against. The strike ended. The contract was signed and took effect on March 14, 1975.

The Loss of the Research Assistants, 1976-1981

After much thought and debate the Union membership voted to affiliate with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and preparations for bargaining a second contract commenced. Negotiations began in March 1976, but GEO suffered from internal problems. A combination of organizational weakness, poor communication, and internal disagreements inhibited the Union’s ability to present a unified mobilized front. A strike vote, initiated when other avenues of negotiation were exhausted, failed. The membership voted to return to the table and basically agree to the Administration’s proposed contract. This concession would have severely set back both employment security for Research Assistants and affirmative action. However, when GEO’s negotiators returned to the table, willing to make concessions, the Administration refused to sign its own contract. They demanded that GEO drop two pending grievances brought up under the previous contract. As this would have undermined the contractual right to due process, GEO instead filed an unfair labor practice complaint with MERC. In turn, the Administration’s attorney contended that the Administration could not commit an unfair labor practice because GSAs were not really employees and thus were not covered by the rules of collective bargaining. These positions led the Administration and the Union into a long round of court battles. MERC administrative law judge Shlomo Sperka initially ruled in favor of GEO in August 1977, affirming the right of student employees to bargain collectively. While the decision forced the Administration to recognize Teaching and Staff Assistants as employees, it excluded Research Assistants from the bargaining unit on the grounds that their work was “directly related to educational goals”; they were students, not workers. A long series of appeals ensued, ending in November 1981. After losing their last appeal, the Administration finally signed the 1976 contract on November 23, 1981.

Contract Gains, 1983-1993

GEO made significant headway in contracts signed in 1983 and 1985, convincing the Administration to discuss tuition and salary as part of the same package and to require departments to offer TA training. GEO gained formal recognition of Affirmative Action, extended the period of eligibility for dental coverage, and won significant raises in both salary and tuition waivers. In 1986, bargaining was more difficult; after relatively cordial negotiations for the previous contract, the Administration team stalled, delayed, and dragged their feet for months in an effort to wear the Union down (these tactics seemed to be the result of a turnover in the Administration, the hiring of James Duderstadt, who was the former Provost and Vice-President for Academic Affairs, and his new economic priorities). After mediation with a State-appointed mediator–and rallies outside of the Fleming Building–the Union and the Administration reached an agreement. A short few months after that contract was settled, GEO was back at the table trying to hammer out a contract for 1987-89. Negotiations were greatly complicated by the new tax bill passed by Congress, which lowered tax rates for high-income brackets but compensated with a great increase in taxes for students receiving tuition waivers. GEO estimated that if there were no change in salary, most TAs stood to lose between $800 and $1500 per year. The Administration offered little: a 3% or 4% raise, and no change in the tuition waiver. The Union was also interested in establishing paid TA training and limiting class size.

As the negotiations ground on into 1987, both sides made some concessions, but the Administration’s best offers still left TAs facing deep cuts in pay. Membership involvement increased through several mass actions, including informational pickets and a large rally on April 1. These events seemed to have some effect on the Administration, as their bargaining offers improved immediately after each action, but its position at the beginning of April was still unacceptable. MERC scheduled mediation between the Administration and the Union for April 8. A strike vote authorized the steering committee to call a strike the day after, if necessary. Faced with this prospect in mediation, Administration negotiators gave in almost immediately, offering a 22% increase in tuition waiver, the largest increase in spending on TAs in its history. Unfortunately, because of the large tax increase, this resulted only in a slight increase in net income for TAs.

Mixed results marked the negotiations for the 1989-91 contract. The Administration surprised GEO by refusing to discuss job security or class size limits but offering a large salary increase. The bargaining team was uncertain about what to do; many TAs had indicated that job security was an important issue, but attendance at Union meetings and rallies had been low. The Union settled for a 9% salary increase and improvements in dental benefits. Negotiations lasted a mere six weeks.

Negotiations for the 1991-93 contract were again prolonged and difficult. The Administration was reluctant to make any significant changes and bargaining lasted for eight months. The membership was significantly interested and mobilized, voting for and participating in work stoppages on April 4 and from April 17-19, 1991, the first job actions since the 1975 strike. Most significantly, GEO won partial tuition waivers for TAs with low employment assignments.

The Fight for Health Care, 1993

Bargaining for the 1993-1996 contract took, once again, several months and was notable for a stern intransigence on the part of the Administration. GEO proposed a healthy salary increase of 15.7% as the center of a campaign for a livable wage for TA’s. (At the time, the average TA took home $729/month while the University Office of Financial Aid calculated graduate student living expenses at $829/month; GEO’s proposal would have closed that $110 gap exactly.) GEO also made proposals for Domestic Partner health coverage, pay for TA training, childcare funding, and class size. The Administration responded by pleading poverty and offering a below-inflation salary increase and a new, but significantly weaker benefits package.

For some time, many graduate students had been turning down prestigious fellowships (which came with little or no health insurance), and choosing, instead, to teach under a union contract that guaranteed good benefits. In an attempt to improve the health benefits of fellowships, the Administration developed a new benefit plan, “GradCare.” However, the Administration wanted to pay for GradCare by eliminating TAs’ other benefits options and forcing them all onto GradCare, which would have also substantially increased out-of-pocket medical costs for TAs. Not only would GradCare have provided worse coverage, but it would have also had serious political implications. By switching TAs from the benefit package they share with faculty to a package “designed for students,” the Administration would have endangered the distinction between the employment of graduate students as teachers and their status as students. This distinction is crucial for the legal recognition and continued existence of the Union. Membership mobilization against this effective cut in benefits was robust and adamant. GEO held rallies, informational pickets and “GEO Pharmacies” (with the tag-line “The Union is in”) to build support. An 87% “yes” vote authorized the Steering Committee to call a strike if necessary. Membership support for other issues was less strong, however, and the Union settled for a salary increase and a ceiling on an $80 registration fee. GEO now had a three-year contract, with a 3% raise in each year.

GEO’s organizing efforts then centered on moving GEO from a “service model” union–in which the membership saw the Union as something that works for them when they have problems and in which they play no great part–to an “organizing model,” in which the membership plays a consistently active role in determining the Union’s direction and priorities. A shift to a three-year contract, after decades of signing two-year contracts, gave GEO the time to build a more cohesive and active membership. In that interim period, GEO addressed the quality of TA training and worked to fight discrimination, both by attempting to increase the number of TAs of Color and by addressing various forms of racism that TAs of Color faced in the classroom.

Organizing for Strength, 1994-1996

Academic year 1994-1995 saw the most effective pre-contract organizing drive since the 1975 strike. GEO used an interview-like organizing tool to garner the thoughts, opinions, and desires of several hundred members. In February, approximately 130 members met to discuss what issues should be incorporated into the bargaining platform–areas of discussion were Wages & Workload; Hiring Process, Job Security & Classification; TAs of Color; Academic Excellence; and Benefits, Waivers & Fees. The resulting bargaining platform was ratified by a March membership meeting with more than 250 members in attendance.

In the 1996 contract, members wanted not just better pay, but other changes such as fair treatment for International GSIs and same-sex domestic partners, opportunities for students of color to teach, and more control over training and hiring. Because of the Union’s organizing strength, GEO was able to make progress on these issues at the bargaining table. But it was only when the Union threatened to carry out a two-day walkout that the Administration agreed to offer compensation for International GSI summer training. Members talked to faculty and convinced many of them to cancel their classes. They also spoke with undergraduates and convinced many of them not to attend classes. Most importantly, however, members talked to each other about how important the issues were to them and why we needed to stand together and demonstrate to the Administration and the University community that the treatment of any of our members is an issue for all of our members.

Fighting and Winning, 2000-2012

At the turn of the twenty-first century, GEO had a more than decade run of activism and consistent contract gains that continued into the early 2000s. In 2002 a one-day walkout secured GEO members a childcare subsidy. In 2006, GEO members won some of the first Trans Inclusive Health benefits in the country. In 2008 GEO members, dissatisfied with the fact that their stipends were far below the cost of living in Ann Arbor, began one of their most ambitious contract campaigns in years. Large rallies and an effective grade-in kept pressure on the University. Ultimately, GEO members had one of their largest job actions in years, calling for a two-day walkout. The first day saw large crowds and some of the University construction sites were shut down when workers refused to cross the GEO picket line. The walkout was so effective that UM ultimately agreed to a 13.2% increase in wages over 3 years for its GSIs, healthcare for all fractions, and domestic partner coverage. In the 2011 contract year, GEO won a GSI specific disability accommodations office so that instructors did not have to utilize informal channels to get the access they needed. Given the recession, the Union decided to push for only modest increases in compensation and did not have a major walkout.

Losses in the Michigan Legislature, 2012-2017

In 2011, GEO began a campaign to unionize Graduate Student Research Assistants (GSRAs) on campus. A large number of graduate students in laboratories across the campus signed union cards. The Union was able to get the UM Board of Regents to formally declare that it considered its GSRAs to be employees, in clear contrast to the 1981 ruling that said they were not. In response to this, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a conservative think tank, urged the new, more right-wing Michigan legislature to push a law making it illegal for GSRAs to be part of a union. The law passed and GSRAs lost their right to unionize in the state of Michigan, ending GEO’s campaign to add GSRAs to the bargaining unit.

In December of 2012, the legislature also passed a “Right to Work” law during a lame duck session. The purpose of the new law is to require unions to represent people who pay no dues, thus depriving unions of vital financial resources and weakening them over time. In response to the “Right to Work” law, GEO engaged in a short but intense contract battle with the Administration in the Winter semester of 2013. The University saw this as an opportunity to take away job security language in the GEO contract, as well as decrease GSI pay. In response, GEO members walked away from the bargaining table, content to bargain in 2014 and possibly strike. The University withdrew the worst of its proposals, and GEO accepted a new four-year agreement which protected it from “Right to Work” until its expiration on May 1, 2017.

Organizing around Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, 2016-2017

GEO entered its 2016-17 contract campaign year with several goals: to strengthen the University of Michigan’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Initiatives through the bargaining process; to gain new contractual rights for our members; and to prepare for the transition into “Right to Work.” To achieve these goals, GEO began to organize massive member participation. Months of negotiations went by without movement from the Administration on any of the proposals. In particular, the University ignored GEO’s proposal to create DEI GSSA positions with full union pay and benefits. At the end of the term, after little movement from the University, GEO members organized for a work stoppage with an overwhelming “Yes” on a two-day walkout ballot. Volunteers signed up hundreds of members for picket shifts in preparation for the walkout. Eventually, the pressure from the impending walkout was enough to bring the Administration back to the bargaining table and offer GEO six DEI GSSA positions, 3.35% annual raises, a $700 yearly cap on mental health co-pays, two additional weeks of paid parental leave, and an hours cap for International GSIs with visa restrictions. The membership voted to ratify the new contract on April 14, 2017.

Organizing in Right to Work, 2017-present

GEO is operating under Right to Work laws, which allows GSIs and GSSAs to receive the benefits and protections of the contract without contributing to their union representation. Nevertheless, the Union is committed to pushing for a more equitable university for graduate students and the wider campus community. We are using this new environment as an opportunity to redouble our organizing efforts and focus on building our collective power for the fights ahead.