Every three years, graduate workers negotiate with the University of Michigan over the terms of our employment contract. This contract determines our living and working conditions, pay, benefits, protections, and more. Winning a fair contract is an essential first step toward guaranteeing affordability and dignity for all grad workers.
Our most recent contract campaign began in the fall of 2021, and culminated in a historic tentative agreement reached at the end of August, 2023. Thousands of graduate workers participated in the multi-year, democratic process of building our platform and organizing ourselves to win it. Members identified the most pressing issues we faced in the workplace, then we formed working groups to translate that information into contract planks, creating our original platform.
In early fall of 2022, more than 2,400 grads signed a petition, laying out some of the problems we faced and committing to fight for a university where all graduate students can thrive:
“We, the graduate students at the University of Michigan, work hard, often for very long hours, to provide students with a high-quality educational experience, to produce cutting-edge research, and lend our expertise to organizations of all types. Despite the value that we bring to U-M, many of us are facing issues with underpay, overwork, and/or mistreatment within our departments. Many of us cannot make ends meet on our regular salaries, especially when considering the costs that arise in our day-to-day lives, such as medical costs, childcare, and travel to name a few. All graduate students, regardless of immigration status, disability status, department, program, or family size, deserve a living wage and a workplace free of harassment and discrimination that prioritizes their general wellbeing.”
In keeping with our democratic values it was vital that bargaining sessions be open to membership. Our power at the bargaining table stems directly from our numbers and ability to take collective action: a handful of grad workers at a table asking for a living wage is unlikely to succeed, but all of us demanding one together are unstoppable. However, when we began bargaining in November UM Academic HR refused to allow GEO members into the room.
Instead of allowing UM to set the terms of our negotiations, we pushed back, fighting for bargaining rules that reflected our member driven decision making process. After two months, we won open bargaining. Thousands of graduate workers have attended these bargaining sessions, seeing for ourselves what’s said at the table and weighing in on key decisions in caucus.
We began negotiating the substantive elements of our contract in January 2023. Our bargaining team, a group of graduate student volunteers, consistently arrived at the table with detailed proposals, backed by exhaustive research. To get a sense of just what these negotiations looked like on a day to day basis, check out our negotiation bulletin and article tracker, both of which were updated by grads throughout the bargaining process.
Although we reached several tentative agreements in the late winter and early spring, AHR refused to make reasonable movement on the bulk of the contract. As the March 1st deadline to reach a tentative agreement approached, grads were left with few options. More than one thousand workers signed a pledge to strike and on March 29, with UM still refusing to bring serious counter offers to the table, 94.6% of voting members authorized a strike, walking off the job several days later.
Instead of negotiating in good faith in order to reach a settlement, the University tried to bring an injunction to force us back to work. UM’s attempt to get out of negotiation by abusing the legal system to force us back to work failed: workers were unfazed, and several days later the court upheld our right to strike. Over the next six weeks, members voted five times to reauthorize our strike in response to UM’s continued lack of movement at the table, even in the face of University intimidation and withheld pay. During this time, thousands of graduate workers and allies showed up to picket across campus. As we neared the end of the term without a settlement, grad instructors withheld or disrupted roughly 15,000 final grades.
Negotiations continued into the summer, and we reached several more tentative agreements between May and July. During this time, the Higher Learning Commission began an investigation into UM’s compliance with their accreditation standards based on the fake grades entered in many courses taught by striking workers.
In late July, HR and the Board of Regents attempted to make a backroom deal by using AFT-MI leadership to pass us an ‘exploding’ offer (an offer contingent on our acceptance in a very short timeline). Throughout our campaign, we had refused to engage in such backroom negotiations, instead basing our assessments of whether to continue campaigning on our unity and collective power. In keeping with these principles, we held a general membership meeting the next week, where members voted to engage in a week of democratic discussion about the offer, producing a comprehensive counter proposal that more fully met our needs. We continued to negotiate and picket after the purported expiration of AHR’s offer, ultimately winning more than what was communicated to us in that expired offer.