Graduate students win at University of Michigan

The sounds of building construction at the University of Michigan were replaced March 25 by the jubilant chants of over 600 picketers demanding a fair contract between the university and the Graduate Employees Organization.

Despite the cold and gusty wind, graduate and undergraduate students, lecturers and construction workers demonstrated the power of solidarity when the university settled later that night, conceding most of GEO’s demands.

After months of negotiations, GEO members overwhelmingly voted for a two-day walkout to pressure the stonewalling administration. They established relationships with labor unions and undergraduates well in advance. These efforts paid off when two major construction sites were shut down as workers refused to cross the picket line, many instead joining the other picketers. As GEO Vice-President Kiara Vigil observed, this kind of action “really costs the university something . . . and because they knew we were planning to do it again, for a second day, they pushed to get things resolved quickly.” Because of the university’s unprecedented eagerness to settle, the second day of the strike was called off.

This is the first time the University of Michigan has agreed to meet during the two-day walkouts that have accompanied many recent contract negotiations, and the impressive unity and financial costs led the institution to compromise on some of the stickiest issues. These included the 9 percent increase in compensation GEO requested and its demand for greater access to mental health care. The administration ultimately agreed to an 8 percent increase, and to allow more visits to mental healthcare professionals.

Other victories include tuition waivers and health insurance for graduate labor of less than 20 hours a week, setting up parental leave and raising child care subsidies. Addressing the needs of disabled workers remains the only area where there was no significant progress, which is not surprising given the university’s difficulty in complying with state mandates regarding disabled access across the campus, and especially at the stadium.

That GEO members stood together on issues that only impact a small number of graduate students was especially impressive. As Graduate Student Instructor Justyna Pas said, “For me, the most important thing is child care. Even though I’m not a parent, I see how they struggle, and it means a lot to me that my union would fight for that.”

Overall, the GEO’s success is historic, and shows the importance of strong organizing and unity to achieve progress. The picketers, faculty who cancelled classes, students who refused to cross picket lines and the GEO’s great planning combined to be a powerful force. This solidarity was demonstrated in many ways, including an afternoon rally when, unexpectedly, a banner unfurled from the top of Mason Hall reading, “Undergrads for GEO.” Vigil said that for many, support from students was “a highlight for them, and a moment when they knew we were going to be successful.”