On March 29th, GEO members at the University of Michigan went on strike. We came to this decision in the context of a cost of living squeeze being felt all across the country. Our members have seen the gap between our salaries and the cost of living triple in the last three years. Grad workers are struggling to make rent and afford other necessities.
For that reason, we’re fighting for a living wage of $38k per year, a minimum wage for Masters’ of Social Work students’ mandatory 900 hour unpaid internships (P4P), and additional supports for those who need them – including parents, international students, and disabled workers. We’re also striking in the context of national reckonings on issues of dignity and safety in the workplace, specifically issues of policing, harassment, and transgender rights. The University of Michigan is not immune to these problems, with innumerable high profile instances of harassment over the past few years and a public safety approach that remains embedded in the carceral state.
In response, grad workers have demanded that the University fund an unarmed non-police emergency response, expand LSA’s transitional funding program for workers experiencing harassment, and remove barriers preventing workers from accessing gender-affirming care. Our proposals work toward a vision of a University of Michigan where anyone can thrive as a grad student – regardless of their social identity and economic class.
The beginning of our strike began after months of bargaining, teach-ins, informational pickets, meetings with Regents, and powerful demonstrations that did not result in progress at the table. On many issues, the Administration flatly rejected our proposals (e.g. emergency fund for international workers, removing discriminatory eligibility requirements from the childcare subsidy). On others (e.g. a living wage, harassment protections) they made low-ball offers that failed to match the severity of the problem. And on critical issues, like the unarmed response program and payments for Masters of Social Work placements, the Administration refused altogether to even discuss grad workers’ proposals.
Under Michigan labor law, parties are only required to bargain over issues related to wages, hours, and working conditions. Even though these two issues relate to workplace safety (unarmed response) and wages (Payments for Placements), the Administration claimed they are not mandatory subjects of bargaining and shut down attempts by grad workers to work through these problems at the table.
The Administration’s refusal to bargain over these issues came after months spent bargaining – at the Administration’s behest – over non-mandatory ground rules. GEO members have the right to choose how we represent ourselves. And we chose to represent ourselves in the bargaining room. The Administration’s unreasonable intransigence on these permissive issues stalled negotiations for months. While GEO finally won union member representation in the bargaining room (capped at 75 in person and unlimited via Zoom) in January, this came only after the union accepted paying the University for renting the meeting rooms. We hardly think it reasonable for the University to force its graduate workers to pay just to negotiate a fair contract. Nonetheless, this experience shows graduate workers’ commitment to workplace democracy, with over a thousand GEO members attending bargaining at least once and hundreds attending multiple times.
At the end of March, as grad workers were on the verge of our strike authorization vote, the Rackham Graduate School rushed out a plan to transition some PhDs to 12-months of funding. This plan, which was implemented beginning in May, gets many of us close to a living wage, and demonstrates clearly what we’ve been saying all along: we deserve a living wage and the University has enough money to make it a reality. However, GEO members knew that many of us were left out of the plan–between a third to half of our bargaining unit–and were willing to fight for a living wage for all.
In an attempt to break our strike, the Administration filed an injunction against us in early April, which we beat in the courts. The University withheld the April pay of striking workers and even detained their own graduate workers at the end of the month. In May, the University systematically pressured tenured faculty, tenure-track faculty, and lecturers to scab striking graduate workers’ labor and falsified thousands of grades–causing the Higher Learning Commission to undertake a review of the institution’s accreditation.
After months of requests that they do so, on August 2, the Regents of the University of Michigan included assurance of the continuation of the Rackham 12-month Funding Model in a comprehensive offer to graduate workers. Additionally, the offer includes 20% raises for graduate workers on the Ann Arbor campus, expanded access to childcare subsidies, and meaningful movement towards the creation of a transitional funding program for graduate workers in unhealthy working relationships. The offer demonstrates that the pressure of our campaign is working and cannot be ignored.
While the offer is a big step in the right direction, it also leaves many of us behind. Masters students, PhDs beyond their funding packages, workers on the Dearborn and Flint campuses, and non-Rackham PhDs – who, together, represent between a third to half of our bargaining unit – are all excluded from the Rackham 12-month funding model. Likewise, the offer does not include pay parity across the Ann Arbor, Flint, and Dearborn campuses, and includes only limited movement on provisions for transgender healthcare, disability accommodations, and COVID-19 protections. On August 3, we voted at a general membership meeting to engage in a robust week of discussion and democratic deliberations about the written offer.
Since our strike began in March, the support from the community has been overwhelming. In just the first week of our strike, we received letters of support from faculty, the International UAW, the Detroit Federation of Teachers, the Huron Valley Area Labor Federation, and a super majority of Ann Arbor City Council Members. Our strike fund has raised nearly $400k since. In April, when the University docked the pay of its graduate workers, $322k was distributed from this fund as direct aid to graduate workers most in need. Support among undergraduate students has also been overwhelming, with huge majorities supporting Central Student Government referenda on a living wage for graduate workers and the funding of an unarmed response program on campus, the latter of which also has broad support within Ann Arbor residents. Many grad workers reported seeing their own students and former students with them on the picket lines during the winter semester.
Though the Administration presumes to speak on behalf of the university, we know that the workers and students who truly constitute this institution are with us. Grad workers are feeling more confident than ever that our community has our backs and that our demands are reasonable and just.