Michigan grad students win gains

Despite threats of retribution and tense negotiations that included a one-day walkout, graduate student instructors (GSI) at the University of Michigan claimed a major victory when their membership ratified a three-year contract with the university on April 3.

The union (GEO-AFT) demanded pay raises comparable to other faculty, freezing GSI contributions to health insurance and capping co-pays, expanded health care coverage, and an increase for the child care subsidy for members with kids. Non-economic demands included protections from discrimination against gay, lesbian and transgendered people and protections for immigrant members.

Until March the university simply failed to move on any issues. By mid-March, it offered a final package that did not address any of GSI’s demands. In fact, the university administration added a no-strike clause and the threat of sanctions against GSI members who walked out in support of any campus union. Sanctions included losing pay and benefits or being fired.

The university also wanted to move the contract expiration date from February to April so that they could drag negotiations into the summer when most of the union membership was away from campus.

The union described the “final offer” as unresponsive. The members of the bargaining team for the union “were surprised and deeply disappointed by the proposal’s lack of response to the issues raised by the union,” said an official statement.

GEO President Dave Dobbie said, “It looks like they’ve just been wasting our time at the table if this is their idea of an acceptable offer.”

After reading the university’s demands, the union overwhelmingly voted to hold a one-day walkout on March 24. In this walkout they were supported by members of other faculty unions, staff workers, and non-campus workers such as construction workers who refused to cross picket lines. One week later, the union received a new offer that included major improvements on key wage and benefit items.

The contract was ratified by the membership on April 3 by a large majority.