Mich. graduate students win contract

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – After four months of intense negotiation and a good-faith contract extension voted on by the union membership, members of the Graduate Employees Organization (GEO) voted by a wide margin to hold a one-day walkout in protest of the failure of University of Michigan administration to move on proposals made by the students. The GEO (American Federation of Teachers/MRP & SRP Local 3550 AFL-CIO) represents 1,600 graduate student instructors (GSI’s) at the university.

On March 11, several hundred students marched in a show of solidarity at two different demonstrations at the University of Michigan. Informational pickets were established at strategic locations throughout the campus.

The first march sought to deliver the message to other students, GSI’s, faculty and the administration that the union stood firm on its demand for a greater subsidy for child care as an employee benefit in the contract. Approximately 10 percent of the GSI’s at the University of Michigan are parents or are expecting. Many of these are single parents.

One union official said, “I am tired of the university treating the issue as a financial aid issue rather than as an employee benefit issue.”

Graduate student employees who qualify as low-income can receive a financial aid stipend to help pay for child care expenses. In Ann Arbor, full-time daycare facilities can cost as much as $800 a month. Some GSI’s make as little as $600 a month, and the financial aid subsidy rarely makes up the difference.

Another union activist said, “The university needs to take responsibility [for the child care issue].”

Other activists agreed that the university is responsible for providing livable wages and conditions for its employees.

A number of undergraduate students supported the GSI’s, saying that the quality of their own educations depends a lot on whether or not GSI’s are happy workers; 54 percent of instructor contact for undergraduate students at the University of Michigan is with GSI’s.

In the evening, another large, boisterous demonstration was held at the building where negotiations had been taking place.

Rep. David Bonior (D-Mich.) showed his support for the walkout in a letter to the graduate student union. Bonior cited the university’s “obligation to treat you with dignity and respect.”

After intense negotiations, attended by GSI’s with their children to demonstrate the difficulties of not being able to afford full-time child care, union negotiators and the university administration finalized a contract March 16 that was accepted by the membership. Other union demands included equal pay, wage increases and better training for new GSI’s.

Ultimately, the subsidy for child care for low-income graduate students was nearly doubled and the university promised to increase funding for this program by $150,000 over the next three years. Further, graduate student union members will be included in committees that will oversee the development of additional facilities for child care on campus.

This win gives the graduate students at the University of Michigan one of the very few graduate student unions in the country with contractual provisions for child care.